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Pakistan: Authorities Vow To Block Any Influx Of Retreating Taliban, Al-Qaeda Fighters

  • Charles Recknagel

As the Taliban collapses in Afghanistan, there are widespread fears that some members of the militia and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network may slip across the border into Pakistan to escape pursuit. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Islamabad that the Pakistani government is taking that possibility seriously enough to reinforce its security forces on the border.

Islamabad, 19 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- So far, there is no evidence of any efforts by the Taliban or Al-Qaeda to move large numbers of their members to Pakistan as they retreat in Afghanistan.

Speculation that key members of both organizations might try to escape across the Pakistani border has been fueled for weeks by press reports. The Qatar-based Arabic-language TV station Al-Jazeera recently reported that Osama bin Laden had left Afghanistan. The report prompted immediate denials from top Taliban officials, who said bin Laden remains "somewhere" in the country.

The U.S. Defense Department, which says it is closing in on bin Laden, refused to confirm or deny any reports regarding his whereabouts. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on 16 November that he believes the Taliban still has access to some helicopters that might be used in an attempt to spirit Al-Qaeda and militia leaders to safety.

The Pakistani government has said that it is stepping up security on its Afghan border to try to block any armed fighters from crossing over. President Pervez Musharraf held a meeting on 16 November with the governors of the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan to review measures to seal major crossing points along the porous 1,500-kilometer frontier.

The president's spokesman, Major General Rashid Qureshi, said "some troops" have been moved up to reinforce border guard units, but he provided no details. He also reiterated Pakistan's policy that "except for extreme humanitarian cases, nobody without valid travel documents will be allowed to enter the country."

The possible influx of retreating Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters worries many in Pakistan for several reasons. One of the most immediate is that the fighters might try to hide in Pakistan's refugee camps, bringing the conflict to Afghan civilians who have tried to escape from it.

The UNHCR's regional spokesman in Islamabad, Yusuf Hassan, voiced those concerns in a press briefing on 16 November: "We are obviously concerned that there would be fighting forces who would try to come into neighboring countries to seek shelter, and we have expressed this concern to the authorities, and we hope that [sheltering of refugees] would be clearly done in such a way that civilians are not mixed with people who are from any of the fighting forces that may flee into the neighboring countries."

But concern for the refugee population is only one of the fears here. Another is that any retreating fighters might try to set up guerrilla bases in Pakistan's mountainous border region, or try to relocate Al-Qaeda's terrorist network to safe havens in Pakistan cities.

One reason that such fears are taken seriously in Pakistan is the large number of Pakistanis believed to be fighting alongside the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and likely to return home if they are defeated.

While there are no precise figures, thousands of Pakistani students from Taliban-linked religious schools in Pakistan have for years been part of the militia's battle line. There are also reported to be many Pakistanis among the some 10,000 fighters of Al-Qaeda's "foreign legion," which also includes Arabs, Chechens, Filipinos, and some Uyghurs.

Already, scores of Pakistani militants are known to have died in the U.S.-led air strikes. Some 85 fighters of the Pakistani extremist group Harkat Jihad-i-Islami were reported killed in bombing in northern Afghanistan on 8 November. Their deaths came just a week after 35 members of another Pakistani group, the Harkat ul-Mujahideen, were killed in air strikes around Kabul. A memorial service for the 35 Harkat ul-Mujahideen fighters brought out roughly 10,000 supporters in Pakistan's commercial capital of Karachi.

Militant leaders in Pakistan say that the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan are steadily radicalizing the country's Islamic parties. Leaders of the moderate Jamaat-i-Islami, and of the more militant Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, have been under frequent house arrest since Islamabad joined the U.S.-led coalition against terror. And protests by their supporters -- while mostly small-scale and peaceful -- have sometimes turned violent.

Muhammed Fateh, a regional coordinator for the Islamic militant party Tanzeem-i-Islami, says that until the U.S. air strikes began, many Islamic parties were willing to work within Pakistan's political framework. He told our correspondent in Peshawar that meant largely cooperating with the Musharraf government while waiting for a return to democracy as the best chance to realize their goal of turning Pakistan into a fundamentalist Islamic state. Muhammed Fateh says: "We were living in...a marriage of convenience [with the Musharraf government]. Those political parties which believe that elections is the sole [way] were waiting until, once [the military government's] term is over, the elections would be held."

But Fateh says Musharraf's decision to join the U.S.-led coalition against terror against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden has changed that picture: "But all of a sudden, the government decided to be part and parcel of those people [in the U.S.-led coalition, even though] the Koran says you don't have to make friends with the Jews and the Christians if it comes to siding with a Muslim or a non-Muslim. So this is the basic issue which has created all this scene and scenario."

Just how much Pakistan's Islamists have been radicalized -- and how much more they might be by an influx of fighters form Afghanistan -- is open to debate.

There are many observers here who discount any notion that the current Afghan crisis will make militant parties in Pakistan any more of a threat than they are today. The militant Islamist parties claim to have millions of adherents but have never won more than 3 percent of the popular vote in past elections.

Ikram Ahmed, news editor in Quetta for the nationwide Urdu newspaper "The Daily Jang," says he believes the Taliban's organization would have difficulty surviving if they had to retreat from Afghanistan. He also says that their defeat would have a weakening effect upon like-minded militant groups in Pakistan. Ikram Ahmed says: "I don't think that if the Taliban are defeated they will create any problem for Pakistan or that the other radical religious groups in Pakistan will be in a position to create trouble in Pakistan, because the policy of our government has changed toward the Taliban and toward the [radical] religious groups. Without the support of the establishment, or without support from the outside, they cannot survive."

Ahmed says that the Taliban are in large part the result of official Pakistani efforts to foster a sympathetic regime in Afghanistan. And he says the Taliban's past successes depended much on outside aid, notably from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which now officially has been cut off.

He says that, similarly, many of the religious schools in Pakistan which form the backbone of the country's own militant movements have benefited from past government policies. Islamabad has generally maintained a hands-off policy toward the schools and allowed them to receive large amounts of financial assistance from donors in the Arab gulf.

The question now may not only be how much any influx of fighters from Afghanistan would radicalize Pakistan's militants. It could equally well be how much that influx would galvanize the government to crack down on any Islamist militant groups it considers a threat. And so far, with several militant leaders under arrest and most Pakistanis accepting Musharraf's pro-U.S. policies, it seems the government is holding the stronger cards.