Accessibility links

Breaking News

Pakistan/Afghanistan: Islamist Opens Pandora's Box

During a press conference on 7 August, one of Pakistan's most influential religious and political leaders claimed that while his country is telling the West that it's fighting terrorism, it is actually supporting the infiltration of militants into Afghanistan. His controversial remarks threaten to set off a firestorm in Pakistan's domestic politics and its foreign relations.

Mawlana Fazlur Rehman, secretary-general of Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) and leader of Pakistan's opposition in the National Assembly, during a news conference in Lahore on 7 August challenged his country's government to decide whether it supports jihadis or wishes to close down the camps in Pakistan where these forces are allegedly being trained. "We can't afford to be hypocritical anymore," he said, according to the Lahore-based "Daily Times." "The rulers [of Pakistan] are not only trying to deceive the United States and the West, but also hoodwinking the entire nation [of Pakistan]," Fazlur Rahman added.

"We ask the rulers to reveal the identity of the people being transported to Afghanistan from Waziristan [in Pakistan's tribal belt close to the Afghan border] via Kaali Sarak in private vehicles, to reveal who is supervising their trouble-free entry into Afghanistan, and [to reveal] the reasons for their infiltrations," Fazlur Rehman further demanded. Rehman also challenged Islamabad authorities to provide the Pakistani people with the "identities of the men being moved from Waziristan to militant camps in Mansehra" district in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

While official Pakistani sources have consistently denied any association with the terrorist organizations -- including the neo-Taliban -- that are destabilizing the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, according to a 28 July report in the "Los Angeles Times," sources in Pakistan indicated that in early May 13 militant camps had been reactivated in Mansehra region alone. "Our transport fleet is back, electricity has been restored, and the communications system is in place," a militant source told the daily.

Afghan Reaction

The initial reaction of the Afghan government to the remarks of Fazlur Rehman has been cautious. Government spokesman Mohammad Karim Rahimi told a news conference on 8 August in Kabul that Afghanistan's concerns regarding the infiltration of militants from Pakistan "are known to Pakistan and to the international community," and as such Fazlur Rehman's "remarks are important." "Whatever concerns Afghanistan's national security is important to us. Therefore, his remarks are important and we will discuss them and think about them," Rahimi added.

Afghan media has been less cautious in its approach to Fazlur Rehman's remarks. In a commentary on 9 August, Afghanistan's official Bakhtar News Agency stated that Fazlur Rahman's remarks provide proof of the "direct cooperation of Pakistan with terrorist networks." The commentary adds that the remarks cast doubt on Islamabad's claims that it is trying to stop the infiltration of terrorists into Afghanistan from its side of the border. On 10 August, Bakhtar posted a commentary by Kabul daily "Cheragh" on its website which wrote that "the speech of Mawlawi Fazlur Rehman, who was once referred to as the father of the Taliban groups, leaves no ground for Pakistan to conceal its interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan."

The Mawlana Explain His Remarks

Faced with mounted criticism about his remarks, Fazlur Rehman told the official Pakistan TV 1 on 9 August that what he had said was taken out of context by newspapers.

His remarks, he claimed, were made "as an example" of what "many people were saying -- leveling the allegation -- that people were going to Afghanistan from Pakistan." Fazlur Rehman asked how can these people infiltrate into Afghan territory from Pakistan when there are "70,000 troops there, on the border"?

Fazlur Rehman however did not clarify the charges of deception he purportedly made against Pakistani leaders, nor did he deny the reports.

The remarks, while going against the core of Islamabad's stated policy, were more astonishing coming from Fazlur Rehman, who, as leader of the Jamiat-e Ulema-e Islam-Fazlur Rehman Group (JUI-F), has been one of the strongest backers of the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan. He remains a firm supporter of the neo-Taliban fighting against the Afghan government and is someone who propelled the MMA (a six-party Islamist coalition that includes the JUI-F) into the main opposition front in Pakistan partly by campaigning against the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since 2002, the JUI-F has been the dominant force in governments of the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, both bordering Afghanistan.

In fact, one of Kabul's demands to Islamabad has been the curtailment of Fazlur Rehman's activities.

So why is an Islamist clergyman-turned-politician seemingly calling attention to a phenomenon that he has been supporting?

According to Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Pakistan's relations with that country, "severe tensions" have developed between the Pakistani military and the JUI-F. Rashid's comments, which appeared in the "International Herald Tribune" on 10 August, add that with his 7 August remarks, Fazlur Rehman "is now defying the army by declaring that it bears responsibility for the fruits of its past policies" supporting Islamist militants. He adds that the Pakistani military "should not seek to parry American pressure by blaming Pakistan's Islamic parties," the largest one of which is headed by Fazlur Rehman himself.

Whether Fazlur Rehman's controversial remarks snowball into something bigger or melt away, Afghanistan is sure to use them when confronting Pakistan on its longstanding grievance regarding what Kabul believes is a lack of cohesion between Islamabad's declarations and its actions.

According to the "Daily Times," Fazlur Rehman has stated that if pressured he will reveal facts that would open a Pandora's box. Somehow he has already opened that box, both with his reported remarks and his later attempts to clarify them. If 70,000 troops are not sufficient to stop the constant infiltrations of jihadis from Pakistan into Afghanistan, Islamabad is seemingly unable or unwilling to control this problem. Paradoxically, the influence of forces represented and supported by Fazlur Rehman is what may have forced Pakistan's government to be both with and against the jihadis in the first place.

For weekly news and analysis on Afghanistan, subscribe to "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report."