AQ Khan and Nuclear Bomb : Part IV : Reining in the army

No sooner had she [Benazir Bhutto] entered office than the military called on her with a special briefing. The subject was Kashmir, where the insurgency ignited by Generals Beg and Gul had fallen into a lull. Bhutto had a new director general of military operations, Pervez Musharraf, an ambitious and wily officer, who requested permission to revive and escalate the campaign. Musharraf had been Hamid Gul’s artillery pupil and had made his name battling it out in Kashmir. He had fled India as a child with his family in 1947, leaving an ancestral home in New Delhi to be occupied by Hindus, and he bore a deep-seated hatred of India’s attempts to encroach on Pakistan’s territory, particularly in Kashmir and Bangladesh. Musharraf had advanced through the ranks by focusing on all of the military’s non-negotiables, as defined by Gul’s secret manifesto penned in 1987. At the behest of army chief General Beg, in 1987 Musharraf had led a newly formed alpine commando unit in a pre-emptive strike on Indian positions in Siachen, only to be beaten back.

Undaunted, Musharraf had in 1988 been called on by General Beg to put down a Shia riot in Gilgit, in the north of Pakistan. Rather than get the Pakistan army bloodied, he inducted a tribal band of Pashtun and Sunni irregulars, many from the SSP which … mounted a savage pogrom, killing more than 300, and when the fighting had subsided Musharraf opened an office for SSP extremists in Gilgit, helping spread their influence across Pakistan. After Zia’s death in August 1988, Musharraf had got closer to Generals Beg and Gul, and played the extremist card many times.

In October 1993 he suggested to prime minister Bhutto that she change the rules of war and give the army sole responsibility for deciding the timing of conflicts, as Beg had argued, suggesting the move would enable the Pakistani military to react quicker if there was ever a pre-emptive strike by India. But Benazir Bhutto refused again, fearful of what an unfettered army would do.

Unfazed, Musharraf moved on, setting out his special plan for Kashmir. “He told me he wanted to ‘unleash the forces of fundamentalism’ to ramp up the war,” Bhutto recalled. Musharraf wanted to recruit from among the Sunni extremists cultivated by Zia in the Punjab and the remote Northwest Frontier Province, many of whom had already tasted war in Afghanistan. According to the military’s own tally, dipping into these groups could fetch as many as 10,000 new jihadis to send over the border into India. Bhutto gave Musharraf the go-ahead. She needed the military on her side. “Second time around I did not want to rock the boat,” she said.

After getting Jamat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulama e Islam on board, Musharraf won support from the Markaz Dawa Al Irshad (MDI). The MDI had already formed a military wing known as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), formed in 1990 in Kunar province, Afghanistan, with a goal of restoring Islamic rule to the whole of South Asia, Russia and even China.Through Musharraf’s patronage, LeT would become the largest jihadi organization in Pakistan.

The remaining factions to emerge, who were to produce fodder for Kashmir and elsewhere, were entirely the creation of Musharraf himself and included Harkat-ul-Ansar (HuA), formed by the merger of two armed Sunni factions founded in the era of the Afghan war in order to oust the Soviets.14 HuA was to become the most vicious and unscrupulous of all the militant groups.

Over the border in India, the recruitment drive was immediately obvious, its story told in the bloodshed that soon catapulted Kashmir into crisis. The joint intelligence committee in New Delhi estimated the Pakistani military was spending $7.5 million per month to reinvigorate the proxy war.15 They presented a file of evidence to the US, warning that fundamentalists were being infiltrated into Kashmir and Musharraf was at the helm. But the US was not interested.

In 1994, Musharraf, as director general of military operations, recognized the potential of the Taliban as a client army that could become a client government. An expert in sectarian politics, Musharraf also recognized them as a righteous Sunni army. If necessary, they could be called upon to ….. act as a buffer against Iran.

Bhutto’s government was in step. Interior minister General Naseerullah Babar wholeheartedly backed the Taliban plan. A die-hard Pashtun and former confidant of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, General Babar was said to have single-handedly captured a seventy-strong company of Indian soldiers in the 1965 war, for which he was awarded the Sitara-e-Jurat or Star of Courage. Unlike the ISI, his interest was not in religious war. General Babar saw the Taliban as a tool to impose peace. “They looked useful,” the general recalled.18 “When one compared them to the horses we had backed in Afghanistan already, they were pedigree. The Taliban would bring order, restore morality and more important than any of these things, the peace they imposed would enable us to open up trade across the region into Central Asia and beyond. They were intended as a poultice: drawing out the bad blood.”

With the involvement of Jamiat Ulema Islam, the only Islamist faction in Bhutto’s coalition government, which was close to the merchants and [transport] agencies based along the Pakistan–Afghan border, General Babar sanctioned a broadening of Musharraf’s secret supply operation for the Taliban, which city by city was marching eastwards. Bhutto wrestled with the decision. Although backing the Taliban went against her secular instincts, she knew it was impossible to survive in Pakistan without engaging with sectarian forces.

To rein in the ISI and win back US support, Bhutto acted rapidly on a piece of raw intelligence that dropped into her lap. On 7 February 1995 crack troops answerable only to the prime minister raided an Islamabad guest house and seized Ramzi Yousef, who had been living there secretly under ISI protection for two years. Waiving legal formalities that would have allowed the case to drag on indefinitely (and enable Yousef to be sprung by his supporters in the army), Bhutto had him immediately extradited to the US. One month later, on 8 March, after Yousef’s supporters had responded by shooting dead two Americans who worked at the US consulate in Karachi, Bhutto ordered a tentative crackdown against the extremists, placing Maulana Azam Tariq, the second in command of the Sipah-e-Sahaba, which had paid Yousef to kill Bhutto, and Maulana Masood Azhar, a leader of Harkat-ul-Ansar, which had kidnapped the tourists in Kashmir, on an exit control list.56

Even this mild response drove sections of the military wild. In September 1995, Bhutto uncovered plans for a coup led by Major General Zahir-ul-Islam Abbasi, director general of infantry corps at the army high command.57The ISI was everywhere and Bhutto was losing control. Then she received an uncomfortable call from Washington: her military attaché had been caught running a counterfeit currency racket. Brigadier Khalid Maqbool, who was in reality the ISI station chief, had been passing fake $100 bills so sophisticated that the US Treasury was later forced to change the design of the note.60 Maqbool refused to explain to his prime minister what he had been doing or under whose authorization he had done it and was deported from the US back to Pakistan. “It was hugely embarrassing,” recalled Bhutto.61 “We made up a story in the end to cover the scandal and said the bills had come from Afghanistan after the US contingent left. No one believed us. We behaved like gangsters and our credibility was shot to pieces.”

Excerpted from “Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network

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