In cultural hub, mixed feelings about army effort

By Pamela Constable

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Washington Post

 

LAHORE, PAKISTAN — Police Superintendent Mobashir Ullah was en route to a graduation ceremony Thursday when word reached him that armed men had stormed a training academy under his command. Just seven months before, terrorists had seized the same compound near this provincial capital, taking 800 recruits hostage before being overpowered.

 

“This time they came straight from the main road, firing and trying to climb the walls. Our police acted fast and kept shooting until they finally killed themselves,” Ullah said. “The survival of our country is at stake now, and we have to fight it out. When a man has been trained and mentally prepared to blow himself up, nothing on Earth will stop him.”

The brazen daylight assault, quickly followed by two other deadly attacks on security facilities in Lahore that day, sent a fresh wave of panic through the city, known for its willow-lined canals, kite festivals and sandstone monuments to 19th-century British rule. Elementary schools have been shut down; parks and shopping centers are empty.

Yet public and official reaction here has been very different from the gung-ho support most Pakistanis are giving their national army as it embarks on a crucial campaign to oust Taliban forces from South Waziristan, the embattled tribal region near the Afghan border that has served as the extremist group’s sanctuary for years.

Here in Punjab province, political reality is more complex. The region is home to the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, and an influential religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami. It is also the base for several militant Islamist groups, such as Lashkar-i-Taiba, that are now officially banned but were once sponsored by the state to fight India and other foes.

As a result, officials here tend to shy away from harsh condemnations. Instead, their explanations for the growing wave of terrorism are a mix of anti-government rhetoric and insinuations that outside forces, especially India and the United States, are conspiring to weaken Muslim-ruled Pakistan, in part by forcing it into armed conflict with local militants.

“Pakistan continues to fall into the U.S.-laid trap of using the military option alone,” warned a lead editorial this week in the Nation, a newspaper based in Lahore. By jumping onto the U.S. bandwagon in a “misdirected war on terror,” it said, the government only generated more violence. American pressure to use military force against militants in Punjab, the editors added, points to “a larger hidden anti-Pakistan agenda” and is a “recipe for civil war.”

Nationally, public opinion has turned decisively against the tribe-based Pakistani Taliban forces in the northwest. After a series of negotiations failed to rein in the Taliban, the army won praise for driving the group out of the Swat Valley in the summer. Military officials hope to repeat that success in the larger, more intimidating Waziristan region, where they have been fighting for the past week.

After the spurt of terrorism across Pakistan this month, experts called it a clear indication of the growing alliance between northwestern Taliban forces and various banned extremist groups in the heartland. Yet Punjab officials rejected that assessment, saying that the attackers were serving unnamed “foreign masters.”

Not surprisingly, public opinion here is just as confused and contradictory. Residents of Lahore, unnerved by the unaccustomed violence, frustrated by ubiquitous police roadblocks and fearful for their children’s safety, are looking to old wars, new allies and long-dead causes for explanations.

Some people blame the Reagan years, when the United States built up local Islamist groups to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and later abandoned the region. Others blame the Obama administration and Congress, conflating concerns about the ongoing war in next-door Afghanistan with current U.S. plans to shower $7.5 billion in economic — not military — aid on Pakistan.

“These are all militants that America left us,” Mohammed Ahmad, 43, a travel agent, said bitterly. “Islam is a peaceful and respectable religion. These Taliban have no religion, no education. They just brainwash young boys to fight. Maybe they fought jihad against the Russians, but what they are doing now is not jihad at all. It isn’t even Islamic.”

Opinions are also mixed among religious groups in the Lahore area, largely depending on their sect or leadership. Some express sympathy for the Taliban-style campaign to impose strict Islamic law but stop short of publicly condoning the group’s violent methods. Others have been victimized by the extremists and regard them with suspicion.

“The terrorists are enjoying making people nervous,” said Raghib Naeemi, the director of a moderate Islamic seminary whose father, its founder, was assassinated in June. “The war we are fighting now is between terror and Islam,” he said. “These groups were banned, and now they are joining together against the state. We can try and negotiate with them, but in the end they must be punished or killed.”

The peculiar political situation in Punjab has further muddied the waters. It is the stronghold of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N and a bitter rival of President Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party. The tougher Zardari sounds on Islamist extremism these days, the more Sharif’s party deems him an American puppet, hoping eventually to force him from power.

Analysts said that despite Zardari’s growing public focus on the terrorist threat, and the army’s latest thrust into Taliban territory, many Pakistanis remain hesitant to criticize anything Islamic, ready to blame outsiders for their problems and bewildered by the official shift from patronizing to persecuting domestic Islamist militias.

“At the top levels, I think everyone gets it now, but below that there is a whole range of attitudes towards the militants within Pakistani society,” said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political analyst in Lahore. “Nobody likes the Taliban, but they don’t much like the Americans or their government either, and they aren’t convinced that using force is the right thing to do. What prevails is mass confusion.”

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