Extremists gaining ground Pakistan
SWAT, Pakistan – Muslim extremists are expanding their control of northern Pakistan, challenging the U.S.-backed government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and adding to the lands where terrorists allied with Osama bin Laden find refuge.Once restricted to pockets in the mountains along the Afghanistan border, radical mullahs and their followers now wield power in vast areas of northwest Pakistan. They have moved in the past few months beyond the tribal regions and into northern Pakistan cities and the Swat Valley.The increased influence of the Islamic radicals was highlighted this week by intense fighting between local gunmen and government troops. The government said about 180 people have been killed, mostly militants, in violence including bombings, abductions and shootouts.”I can tell you there is money coming from al-Qaida and if al-Qaida did not lead these things we couldn’t fight,” said Abdul Samad, a stocky militant from Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province who serves as a liaison between Taliban groups on both sides of the border. Even during the fighting, radicals have made themselves available to speak with visiting journalists.The growing instability in northwest Pakistan has shaken Musharraf’s authority at a time when he’s also being upstaged by the return of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto – a jubiliant homecoming shattered by a terrorist bombing that killed more than 140 people.Taliban and al-Qaida were pushed back after the U.S. and its Afghan allies toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001. Today, residents say Arabs, Uzbeks and Tajiks have rejoined the ranks of the local radicals, mostly Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan.”The Pakistanis, and by extension the United States, have almost no control of events” in the northern, ethnically Pashtun regions, said Milt Bearden, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan.”I don’t think anyone in Washington really gets it,” he said. “Losing Swat is shocking.”Pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazlullah has set up a virtual mini-state in Swat, a province of 4,000 square miles. He uses an FM radio station to help spread fundamentalist Islam in an area once known to tourists as the “Switzerland of Asia” for its stunning, snow-covered mountains.Militias following Fazlullah’s teachings, identified by their shoulder-length hair and camouflage vests over traditional shalwar kameez clothing, have bombed girls schools and blown up video and CD shops. They drilled holes into the face of a 20-foot- tall stone Buddha, obliterating the features of the 1,300-year-old sculpture.Sher Mohammed, a lawyer in Swat and a human rights activist, said the enforcers – including Afghans and Arabs – “are roaming freely, checking barber shops in the small villages.””They come out at midnight. They are not local people,” he said.Samad, the militant organizer, says he traveled in recent weeks to North Waziristan and recruited scores of militants to reinforce Fazlullah’s followers in Swat Valley.”It’s not just in Swat or in Waziristan or in Bajaur. We are getting stronger everywhere in the area,” he said. Recent suicide bombings are direct evidence of al-Qaida’s influx, he said.Fazlullah, who draws tens of thousands to his rallies, has launched a broad campaign against Western influence. He uses his outlawed FM radio station to preach jihad against America and Musharraf and teach his strict interpretation of Islam.Fazlullah has called for a ban on polio vaccinations because he said it was a ploy by the West to sterilize Muslim babies. He demands women wear the all-encompassing burqa and frowns on barbers who give haircuts in styles deemed un-Islamic.This month, Pakistani authorities sent about 2,500 extra police and troops into Swat district to challenge Fazlullah’s followers. A group of tribal elders and clerics has been holding talks with Fazlullah’s aides about ending the bloodshed.Still, many Pakistanis fear the government has waited too long to confront militant clerics like Fazlullah.”For three years no one did anything. Two years ago you could have arrested Fazlullah with two police constables. Today you need a division,” Mohammed said.A police official, who asked for anonymity fearing reprisals from militants and from his superiors, said sympathizers within the government, police and intelligence service have allowed Fazlullah to gain stature in the region.A confidential memo circulated to Pakistan’s National Security Council in July and made public soon afterward warned that radicals from the border region were exerting wide influence.It spoke of a “nexus” between radical clerics behind the bloody siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, which resulted in more than 100 deaths, and the clerics in northwest Pakistan. Besides Fazlullah, those include Baitullah Mehsud, who allegedly threatened to meet Bhutto’s return to Pakistan with suicide attacks.”When I was following the Red Mosque, one thing was very clear – that they had strong sympathizers within the establishment and within the military,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading independent Pakistani defense analyst. Rizvi said Pakistan’s powerful armed forces remain ambivalent about religious extremists, whom the military supported during the Afghan war with the Soviets in the 1980s.Pakistan’s military has often used extremists as proxies in the violent secessionist battle against India for control of Kashmir, he said.”The government is perturbed because of their activities in Pakistan,” he said, but doesn’t object when they fight Western-backed leaders in Afghanistan or Indian troops in Kashmir.