Fearful of being fed to the tigers in the forest next door, the inhabitants of Pakistani's jihadi menagerie have started to turn on the zoo-keeper.
For the past week, top jihadi leaders have staged an unprecedented hunger-strike to protest against what they see as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's decision to abandon the 'holy war' in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). At least eighteen top commanders, including the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah, the Lashkar-e-Taiba's (LeT) Mohammad Zaki-ur-Rahman, al-Umar's Mushtaq Zargar, and the Jaish-e-Mohammad's (JeM) Abdul Rehman, say they will continue their protests until General Musharraf changes course.
In an exclusive interview to The Hindu, the Muzaffarabad-based HM spokesperson Mohammad Kalimullah said the United Jihad Council (UJC) had written to Pakistan's President a fortnight ago, expressing concern about his diminishing support for the jihad in J&K. When Musharraf did not respond, Kalimullah said, the UJC had been compelled to initiate public protests against what he characterised as a "war in which one hundred thousand Kashmiris have sacrificed their lives."
Do the protests herald an end to Pakistani support for the jihad in J&K? Not quite. Indian signals intelligence officials say there has been no reduction in military communications traffic between terrorists and their control stations in Pakistan. Individual terror cells - witness the recent bombings in Varanasi or the spate of shootouts in J&K - remain active. Although newspapers have reported that the UJC protests have been arrested, their infrastructure remains in place.
What, then, is going on?
It has long been evident that the once-happy marriage between General Musharraf and his allies in jihadi organisations was souring. Lashkar chairman Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, for one, has been increasingly critical of the Pakistani President. In a recent article in Ghazwa, LeT's weekly publication, Saeed wrote: "After 9/11, Pakistan made a foreign policy U-turn to accommodate American interests. It was said that backing US would help solve the problem in Kashmir and protect our nuclear programme. But none of this has materialised."
Instead, Saeed argued in a recent sermon at the al-Qudsia mosque in Lahore, strong international pressures had built up for "the termination of the jihad in Kashmir." "Conspiracies," he asserted, "are being hatched against Pakistan's atomic programme." "President Abdul Kalam, who helped make India a nuclear power, sits across to discuss matters with Bush," the Jamaat ud-Dawa leader noted, "while the father of Pakistan's atomic programme, Abdul Qadir Khan is rotting in a jail cell."
To Saeed, the recent visit of President George Bush to Pakistan, during which the United States reiterated calls for an end to jihad in J&K, demonstrated the failure of General Musharraf's policies. "But we are happy," Saeed said, "for the situation is now more conducive for jihad." An editorial on the Jamaat-ud-Dawa website advises, "It is better our rulers give up their anti-jihad policies and re-orient the foreign policy of Pakistan according to tenets of Islam (sic)."
None of this polemic is new. At the Jamaat-ud-Dawa's annual Takmeel-e-Pakistan [Fulfilment of the Idea of Pakistan] convention, which was held at Lahore in August 2005, Saeed articulated many of the same ideas. He called for mandatory recruitment of all Pakistani men to the jihad and the conquest of parts of India, and held the United States of America responsible not just for the creation of Bangladesh but a still-unfinished conspiracy which would use India and Israel to "ruin Pakistan."
Signs that the Jamaat-ud-Dawa was attempting to integrate itself with the spectrum of anti-Musharraf forces in Pakistan were evident at the convention. It was addressed, for example, by Zaeem Qadri, a functionary responsible for the public relations work of former President Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League in Punjab. Maulana Saifuddin Saif, the secretary-general of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, also addressed the convention. No representatives of the Pakistani state, by contrast, were on hand.
Also significant was the fact that a representative of the Pakistan-based leadership of All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) was on hand - the political face of the UJC leaders with whom the Lashkar has now allied. APHC representative Abdullah Malik delivered an incendiary address, asserting that the jihad in J&K would continue "until the destruction of India." "Pakistan ka matlab kya? La illaha il-Allah [the meaning of Pakistan is that that there is no god but Allah] still resounds under the guns in Kashmir," he said.
Jihadi groups aren't the only ones to be angry. Ever since at least 2002 a wide spectrum of politicians in Pakistan have found it expedient to charge General Musharraf with selling out in J&K. Figures as diverse as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Alliance for Restoration of Democracy leader Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, the Jamaat-e-Islami's Qazi Husain Ahmad and the Jamaat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI) chief Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman have at one point or the other made the assertion - even while saying quite the opposite to other audiences.
Does all this mean that there is a fundamental reversal in the decades-long relationship between jihadi forces and the Pakistani state? No and yes are both valid answers.
Part of the reason why the UJC's protests have surprised experts is that the discourse on jihadi organisations suffers from a major epistemological error. Pakistan's Islamist armies are often understood, correctly, to have an international agenda. Jihadi wars against India or Afghanistan are, without dispute, a central concern for such organisations. What is often forgotten is that they also have a domestic agenda: harvesting and expending political power in Pakistan itself.
To understand the evolving Islamist posture on J&K, one must engage with the multiple pressures on Pakistani policy-making. Ever since the India-Pakistan near-war of 2001-2002, the United States has been concerned that continued jihadi violence could lead the nuclear-armed adversaries into a calamitous conflict. Links between Pakistani Islamist groups and both the Taliban and al-Qaeda have also added increasing urgency to the United States' calls for the jihadi zoo to be shut down.
United States pressure, though, isn't the only reason for General Musharraf's changing agenda. Beset by multiple internal crises, the Pakistani President must be acutely aware that his position within the armed forces is increasingly fragile. Pakistan's corps commanders, although loyal to their chain of command, have demonstrated the will to remove leaders who threaten their corporate interests. General Yahya Khan, General Ayub Khan and General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq were all 'removed' from office, after all, by palace rebellion.
As things stand, General Musharraf's position is tenuous as never before. On the one hand, his regime is confronted with potentially existence-threatening wars in Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province. On the other, the brief economic resurgence, engineered through the massive infusion of foreign aid, which the Pakistani President succeeded in bringing about, has also begun to diminish. Double-digit inflation has alienated General Musharraf's supporters among the urban middle class, while at once feeding resentment among the growing ranks of the poor.
Heading into the 2007 elections, General Musharraf will have few allies. Jamaat-e-Islami leader Qazi Husain Ahmad has said his party will not participate in an election over which General Musharraf presides. Others in the MMA, too, seem to think capitalising on anti-Musharraf sentiments would offer Islamists greater opportunities for expansion than backing a process which allowed him a central role in Government. Neither former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto nor Nawaz Sharif is likely to back a regime which includes General Musharraf.
In recent months, there have been more than a few signs that jihadi organisations have been sensing that General Musharraf's regime is edging ever-closer to the abyss. Predictably, some in their ranks now seem to think that joining in a larger Islamist shove might just be in the interests of their organisations. Just this month, for example, top Jamaat-ud-Dawa ideologue Abdul Rahman Makki joined in Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal protests against General Musharraf, the first time the organisation has ever done so.
Within J&K, too, the traditional supporters of the Pakistani state have been distancing themselves from General Musharraf. In an acid January 28, 2006, statement, soon after he met with the Hizb's Shah, Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the Tehreek0e-Hurriyat said that the Pakistani President had "no mandate to propose a political solution unacceptable to the people of occupied Jammu and Kashmirâ€¦ It is the Kashmiris who will decide the future of the freedom struggle, not President Musharraf.''
None of this is, of course, surprising. Pakistan's Islamists have long had an instrumentalist relationship with the state apparatus, and served its interests in campaigns as disparate as the war of genocide against Bangladesh nationalists in 1971; the anti-Soviet campaign, the subsequent Taliban takeover and the continuing interventions in Afghanistan; and, of course, the jihad in Kashmir; not to mention the training and support provided to large armies of the Islamist terrorist internationale. At once, however, they have been quick to turn on their establishment allies when it seemed that the effort would yield dividends: the Islamist protests that played a major role in undermining President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's regime are a case in point.
A major triumph on J&K could help General Musharraf beat off disaster. Some in New Delhi believe General Musharraf hopes to share a platform with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh later this year, at which politicians from both sides of the Line of Control will begin discussions on the future of J&K - a kind of grand version of the round-table held in New Delhi in February 2006. Continued violence would, however, make such a dialogue near-impossible.
General Musharraf's tactical interests demand, therefore, that violence significantly diminish. Jihadi organisations, though, have neither the intention nor desire to sacrifice their own existence for his perpetuation. Participation in the dialogue process in which they are just one of several voices is a less than tempting offer. The terrorists now on hunger strike at Muzaffarabad have, therefore, made it clear that they are looking forward to a Pakistan in which their political representatives, not General Musharraf, call the shots.
Whether the General can find the will - and the resources - to hit back is still unclear. Just how the impasse in Muzaffarabad ends will make clear whether a decisive break between the Pakistani state and the Islamist armies it has nurtured for decades is likely - or even possible.
Praveen Swami is Deputy Editor and Chief of Bureau, Frontline Magazine, New Delhi. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal