Monday, Jan 17, 2022

The Maulana's Intriguing Visit

Circles close to the present ruling coalition in New Delhi, which were then in opposition, strongly criticized the Rao Government for allowing the patron of the banned terrorist outfit HUA to visit India in 1995. What accounts for the warm reception

The Maulana's Intriguing Visit
| AP
The Maulana's Intriguing Visit

The high-profile visit of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the controversial leader of the Jamiat-ul-ulema Islam (JUI) of Pakistan, to India and the attention accorded to him in governmental and non-governmental circles in New Delhi is being viewed by many India-watchers in the US with a mix of bewilderment and concern.

Fazlur Rahman is a fundamentalist with a difference, known for his proximity to Mrs.Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPPP). Despite his fundamentalist orientation, he supported her right to become the Prime Minister and opposed the campaign of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) in the 1990s against a woman heading the Government of an Islamic country.

Benazir rewarded him by making him the Chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee and allegedly asked the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to place a large amount from its secret service fund at his disposalduring his travels abroad. He loves foreign travels and the good things of life and during her second tenure as the Prime Minister, he spent more time abroad than in Pakistan.

Creating the Taliban

In 1993-94, Pakistan’s cotton crop was practically destroyed by insects for two years in succession and many textile mills were threatened with closure. Asif Zirdari, her husband, through a business crony in Hong Kong, entered into a contract with Turkmenistan for emergency supplies of cotton. The responsibility for transporting them to Pakistan by road via Afghanistan was given to a Hong Kong-based Pakistani businessman. His cotton convoys were attacked and the cotton looted by armed followers of Gulbuddin Heckmatyar of the Hizb-e-Islami (HEI) and Ismail Khan, the pro-Teheran warlord of Herat.

Zirdari then asked Maj. Gen.(retd) Naseerullah Babbar, Benazir’s Interior Minister, to organize a special force to escort the cotton convoys through Afghanistan. Naseerullah, with the help of Pervez Musharraf, organized the Taliban by rallying round many of the dregs of the Afghan war of the 1980s against the Soviet troops under the leadership of Mulla Mohammad Omar, the Amir of the Taliban.

They were helped in this by Maulana Fazlur Rahman and his protégé, Mufi Shamzai of the Binori madrasa of Karachi. This is how, the Taliban came into existence in 1994. The role played by Fazlur Rahman in helping Benazir and her husband in creating the Taliban led to serious differences between him and Qazi Hussain Ahmed of the JEI, who was a strong supporter of Gulbuddin. Another person who was a strong critic of the Maulana’s soft corner for Benazir and Zirdari was Lt. Gen.Hamid Gul, who was the DG of the ISI during her first tenure as the Prime Minister.

The Harkat-ul-Ansar Connection

The US started viewing the Maulana with suspicion in 1995 due to the proximity of the Harkat-ul-Ansar (HUA), then headed by Maulana Fazlur Rahman Khalil, to the Maulana. In March, 1995, Kamran Khan, the well-known investigative journalist, came out with a series of articles under the title "Jihad Worldwide" in the News, the prestigious daily of Pakistan.

In these articles, he exposed not only the role played by the HUA in organizing terrorist operations in India’s Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), southern Philippines, the Arakan area of Myanmar and Chechnya, but also its attempts to carry its jihad to theUS homeland by recruiting and training a group of Afro-American Muslims. It was suspected that the HUA could not have been indulging in such activities without the complicity of Fazlur Rahman.

This was followed by the kidnapping of some Western tourists, including two Americans, one of whom escaped, by the HUA in J&K under the name Al Faran. The Clinton Administration in the US sought Benazir’s help in getting them released. She and Zirdari asked Fazlur Rahman to go to India to persuade the HUA to release them.

At the request of the US Embassy in New Delhi, the Narasimha Rao government, then in power, agreed to let him come. The Rao Government was hoping that he would keep his mission unpublicized, but Fazlur Rahman, who has a weakness for publicity, made it into a high-profile visit. After reaching New Delhi, he demanded that he should be allowed to visit Srinagar to which the Indian intelligence agencies were strongly opposed.

On coming to know of his visit, circles close to the present ruling coalition in New Delhi, which were then in opposition, strongly criticized the Rao Government for allowing the patron of the HUA to visit India. Thereupon, the Rao Government totally cut of all contacts with him and he went back to Pakistan.

In October 1997, the US State Department designated the HUA as a foreign terrorist organization under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Consequently, it is a crime for anyone in the USA to be associated with it and foreigners associated with it are not entitled to US visas. Fazlur Rahman, as the suspected supporter if not the mentor of the HUA, is covered by this ban. After the ban, the HUA ostensibly split into two organizations called the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI). The Maulana is viewed by many in Pakistan and the US as the patron of both.

The Osama Angle

After the explosions outside the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzaniya in August,1998, the Clinton Administration exercised considerable pressure on the Nawaz Sharif Government and Lt. Gen.Ziauddin, the then DG of the ISI, to help the US Special Forces in organizing a commando raid into Kandahar to capture Osama bin Laden and take him to the US for trial.

This pressure was kept up during 1999 too. Nawaz Sharif, fearing an adverse reaction from Musharraf, his Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), was initially hesitant to co-operate. However, after a visit to Washington DC by Ziauddin after the Kargil war, Nawaz agreed to pressurize the Taliban to hand over bin Laden to the US and, if it refused, to co-operate with the US Special Forces in their planned raid.

Ziauddin met the Amir of the Taliban at Kandahar in this connection. While sticking to his refusal to hand over bin Laden to the US, the Amir agreed to consider expelling him to another Islamic country. On coming to know of this, Musharraf, who was not kept in the picture by Nawaz or Ziauddin, sent Mohammad Aziz, then his Chief of the General Staff, along with Fazlur Rahman to Kandahar to tell the Amir that he should not carry out any instructions received from Ziauddin. It was on coming to know of this that Nawaz decided to sack Musharraf and appoint Ziauddin as the COAS, triggering off the coup and his overthrow.

Following the visit of Ziauddin to Kandahar, there were many speculative reports in the Pakistani media that US Special Forces had already arrived in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and were about to raid Kandahar. Fazlur Rahman issued a statement warning the US that if bin Laden was killed or captured, no American national in Pakistan would be safe. A senior US diplomat posted in Islamabad thereupon visited him and reportedly warned him that if any US national in Pakistan came to any harm, it would hold him personally responsible and act against him. Thereafter, he lowered his anti-US rhetoric.

After 9/11, Musharraf sent a delegation of Pakistani mullahs headed by Mufti Shamzai to Kandahar to persuade the Taliban Amir to hand over bin Laden to the US in order to avert a war. The delegation was accompanied by Lt.Gen.Mehmood Ahmed, the then ISI chief.

Before going to Kandahar, the Mullas and the ISI chief had met Fazlur Rahman at Peshawar. They then met the Taliban Amir at Kandahar and came back and reported to Musharraf that the Amir had refused to co-operate. It was said that the USA came to know from one of its sources in the mullahs’ delegation that instead of pressurizing the Amir to hand over bin Laden to the US, the delegation, in the presence of Mehmood Ahmed, congratulated the Amir for resisting US pressure and encouraged him to continue to do so.

It was after this that the US pressured Musharraf to remove Mehmood Ahmed, known to be close to Fazlur Rahman, from his post. He did so on October 7, 2001, and appointed Lt.Gen.Ehsanul Haq, then Corps Commander in Peshawar and a close personal friend of Qazi Hussain Ahmed, as the new DG.

Post-9/11 Realignments

Musharraf’s decision to co-operate with the US against the Taliban led to a re-alignment in Pakistan. The JEI and the JUI forgot their past differences over the role played by Fazlur Rahman in helping the Benazir Government in the creation of the Taliban as a counter to Gulbuddin’s HEI and joined hands in backing the Taliban, the Al Qaeda and the HEI in their joint operations against the US forces in Afghanistan.

Despite the formation of the coalition of six fundamentalist parties called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), of which the JUI and the JEI are the driving force, suspicions continue to mark the relations between the Maulana and the Qazi. Each suspects the other of continuing to maintain clandestine contacts with the military-intelligence establishment. There was also friction over the decision of the Maulana to nominate one of the members of his party as the Chief Minister of the NWFP without consulting the Qazi.

Since 9/11, US suspicions of the Maulana have worsened because of the active role played by the HUM under the name HUM (Al Alami—International) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) in the terrorist strikes against French and American nationals in Karachi and Islamabad. There were reports before the US invasion of Iraq that the HUM had sent its cadres to Saudi Arabia under the cover of haj pilgrims and that they were to infiltrate into Iraq to start a jihad against the US troops. When an injured bin Laden escaped into Pakistan from Afghanistan in the beginning of last year, Mufti Shamzai, the protégé of Fazlur Rahman, gave him shelter in his madrasa in Karachi till last August.

Five Pakistani jihadi organizations are members of bin Laden’s International Islamic Front (IIF) -- the HUM, the HUJI, the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ). Of these, the HUM, the HUJI, the JEM and the LEJ are close to the Maulana. The LET, despite its strong Wahabi orientation, is not. The Maulana’s perceived hobnobbing with India could act as a red rag to the bull and provoke an intensification of the terrorist strikes in Indian territory.

The questions being asked in the US are: Did the Maulana come on his own or at the instance of the Government of India or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? What was the motive? What would be its implications?

It is alleged by many here that the Govt. of India has been making overtures to the Maulana through PPP circles close to Benazir in the hope ofusing his services for persuading the Deobandi leaders of India to react more positively to the proposals made by Kanchi Shankaracharya for a solution to the Ayodhya issue and to pressurize the jihadi organizations close to him to stop their terrorist activities in India.

There is concern that this exercise might prove counter-productive and lead to an aggravation of the ground situation in J&K.

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai chapter. He is currently in the USA.


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