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Local Militant Groups Pose Threat in Pakistan

November 22, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Margaret Warner reports from Pakistan on the threat posed by local radical groups, the Aamy's role in the response, and reactions from Pakistanis.
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MARGARET WARNER: It is the new front line in Pakistan’s battle against terrorism. The bucolic Swat Valley, just 90 miles from the capital Islamabad, was until eight months ago a popular tourist haven, but now it’s a war zone, where President Pervez Musharraf has launched a stepped-up military campaign to confront a major threat from Islamic radicals.

The militants have made major inroads, taking over villages that mount little or no resistance, kidnapping and beheading Pakistani soldiers, and promoting an extreme form of Islamic rule right on the Pakistani president’s doorstep.

Retired General Talat Masood, a leading analyst, says they’ve made inroads of a political nature, too.

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD (Ret.), Pakistan Army: The Muslims there have been radicalized by certain clerics who have been allowed a free hand for several years to propagate their myopic and obscurantist propaganda through the mosques.

MARGARET WARNER: Masood says local extremists, augmented by Islamic fighters from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, exploit the public’s dissatisfaction with the local authorities, appointed by Islamabad.

Musharraf and the United States were already concerned about militancy on the march in Pakistan’s western tribal areas, places like North and South Waziristan on the Afghan border, where U.S. intelligence says al-Qaida and Taliban have found safe haven.

But the Swat Valley is considered a settled area, much closer to Pakistan’s heavily populated heartland and the capital, Islamabad. Musharraf and his military commanders know the radicals’ gains in Swat represent a serious escalation of the extremist threat to Pakistan itself.

After months of ineffectual fighting and losses by auxiliary troops, including some taken hostage after surrendering without a fight, Musharraf last week announced the army would take charge, bolstered by 15,000 new troops. On Tuesday, the military commander of the operation said it would take them just four weeks to liberate the valley from the grip of the militants.

MAJ. GEN. ARSHAD WAHEED, Pakistan Armed Forces: The militants know that the army means business, the government means business, so I think everybody realizes and understands that the operations are going to take the situation to its logical conclusion. So there’s no going back now.

MARGARET WARNER: Analysts like Talat Masood say that may be wishful thinking.

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD: Well, it is like saying that, you know, the Iraqi maneuver was very successful in 21 days. These are not normal wars. You have to go much beyond that in order to truly eliminate that. And for that, you need, again, the process to win them back and to integrate them with the rest of the society and make them normal citizens.

Militants in Swat Valley

MARGARET WARNER: Local authority in the Swat Valley, where many police simply flee their stations as militants approach, seems a long way from a successful campaign to win hearts and minds. Some local residents fleeing the fighting express no optimism about the valley's future.

LOCAL RESIDENT (through translator): There's no solution to this problem. Earlier there used to be police and security, but now they are not here, so there is no solution.

MARGARET WARNER: And Amina Janjua, a middle-class woman in Rawalpindi, a frequent visitor to the Swat Valley in years past, says people she knows there believe the militants are on their side.

AMINA JANJUA, Local Resident: What they want is to maybe to save the people from the government's mistreatment, injustice and the crimes they have been illegally doing against the people of Pakistan. They are like saviors for the people of Pakistan, and there are people who are welcoming them.

MARGARET WARNER: The fight against terrorism is a struggle, too, because the Pakistani army, trained to fight neighbor and rival India, seems ill-equipped to wage war against militants on Pakistani soil.

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD: It's very difficult for them to use force against their own people; that is one major factor. The other factor is that the Pakistan army has never been trained, truly speaking, for fighting insurgencies and asymmetrical warfare. It's very difficult to fight and different from fighting a conventional or an industrial war, to which they are very well- trained.

Backlash against military action

MARGARET WARNER: Further undermining the military's morale is that the population is itself ambivalent about waging war against fellow Pakistanis. Polls show that terrorist suicide bombings in major cities has turned Pakistanis firmly against such tactics, and the public wholeheartedly supported Musharraf's taking on militants last summer at the Red Mosque.

But there is a backlash, too, particularly when it comes to military action inside Pakistani territory, says Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times newspaper in Lahore.

NAJAM SETHI, Editor, The Daily Times: You have actually people in the media who are saying, "There's no excuse in this country. Why are we killing our own people? Why are Muslims fighting Muslims?" And there's a conspiracy theory that says that everything is being done at the behest of the Americans.

Now, of course, we got into the war on terror at the behest of President Bush. But at the end of the day, it's now become our own war, because our own people are being killed, and radical Islam is now a direct threat to civil society here. But the people of this country are not yet ready to buy this argument.

MARGARET WARNER: Amina Janjua of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, is one of those people, and for a very personal reason. She hasn't seen her husband, Masood, a travel agency owner, since mid-2005 when he disappeared on a trip to nearby Peshawar. She believes he was picked up by military intelligence in a crackdown on extremist sympathizers, but says to this day no charges have ever been filed.

Has he ever been involved in supporting Islamic terrorists?

AMINA JANJUA: No, he's never been supporting any illegal activities or any of the extremist groups.

MARGARET WARNER: Was there anything he was doing that could have given the authorities suspicions that he was involved with terrorists?

AMINA JANJUA: That's still a mystery for us.

The state of emergency

MARGARET WARNER: Janjua, who started a group to assist families of men swept up in the government's campaign against extremists, had high hopes the Supreme Court would order her husband's release, as it did for other terror suspects held in detention without trial. But Musharraf ended that hope when he suspended the sitting Supreme Court and constitution.

In declaring the emergency, Musharraf said that's exactly what he meant to do, clip the wings of a supreme court that was coddling extremists who want to take over Pakistan.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, President of Pakistan (through translator): Extremists have taken the writ of government into their own hands. They're trying to set up a state within a state.

MARGARET WARNER: Still, Amina Janjua doesn't buy Musharraf's argument that he imposed the state of emergency to give him a stronger hand in the fight against extremism.

AMINA JANJUA: I think what Pervez Musharraf has been practicing is extremism himself. This is harsh and very, very brutal use of power, as I say, which one does not expect from the government, you know?

MARGARET WARNER: So far the police, not the army, has been called upon to enforce the state of emergency against relatively modest crowds of protestors, of lawyers, media and human rights activists. Security forces also have blocked off potential flash points, like the capital's Constitution Avenue, to protect the president's house and parliament from demonstrators.

Still, critics contend that the state of emergency, by sparking political protests that require security forces to control, has only complicated the authorities' mission of combating terrorism.

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD: What is happening is that the attention is diverted, and then President Musharraf, of course, is also wearing two hats, so his attention is again divided in trying to suppress the moderate and political forces, at the same time fighting the extremists.

MARGARET WARNER: The debate continues over whether Musharraf's state of emergency will help or hinder the battle against Islamic extremist fighters. But there's another debate taking shape here, as well; whether radical Islam as a political force will be able to take advantage of Pakistan's current disarray.

Until now, political Islam has been largely rejected by the people of Pakistan. The country's religious parties have never won more than 12 percent of the vote. But some political analysts fear that could change if General Musharraf and his civilian rivals fail to find a way out of the country's current political impasse.

NAJAM SETHI: There is only one major movement waiting in the wings, and that is political Islam. People are going to end up saying, "We've tried socialism, we've tried democracy, we've tried the mainstream parties, we've tried everybody. We haven't tried the religious parties. It's time we gave them an opportunity. Maybe they'll restore law and order; maybe they'll get some things done."

I have said that we are five years away from a political religious revival that leads to a majority in parliament, if we don't get our house in order.

MARGARET WARNER: That vision of Pakistan's future, buttressed by the image of the country's religious schools, the madrassas, where more than 1.5 million young Pakistanis learn the Koran by rote, fuels an image of Pakistan today becoming Iran tomorrow. But that's not a vision all analysts share.

LT. GEN. TALAT MASOOD: Iran has got a very monolithic theology, and Pakistan does not have that. And Pakistan, as you know, is by and large very moderate. Pakistan has several sects, and I doubt very much that it would ever be like Iran.

Impact of jailing moderates

MARGARET WARNER: Imran Aslam, president of the recently blacked-out Geo Television network, says Musharraf is making a big mistake using emergency rule to jail the likes of lawyers, judges, journalists and moderate political and human rights activists.

IMRAN ASLAM, President, Geo Television: The media, the civil society, the judiciary: All these people were essentially allies in a constituency that is against any forms of extremism. This was the middle ground. This was where tolerance was being bred, really, and was being nourished, in a sense.

I cannot understand how a person could go to this length in destroying the very constituency that he needs in this very, very difficult battle that we are facing.

MARGARET WARNER: Whatever Musharraf's motives, the country's Islamic parties are already on the march. They've taken to the streets in recent days to demonstrate against the state of emergency. They're demanding President Musharraf's resignation, all part of their continuing quest to give voice to and capitalize on popular discontent with Pakistan's seemingly endless cycle of military and civilian politics as usual.