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The Pawns Who Pay as Powers Play

06.24.2005 | POLITICS

KARACHI - In the complex undercurrents that dictate the ebb and flow of Pakistani politics and policy, yesterday's hero can very quickly become today's scoundrel. Just ask Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.

Sheikh Rashid is leader of the Pakistan Muslim League and minister for information in the administration of President General Pervez Musharraf, with whom he enjoys a very cozy relationship.

Sheikh Rashid's world was rocked recently when Kashmiri militant leader Yasin Malik, on a visit to Pakistan, praised Sheikh Rashid's services for the mujahideen fighting in Kashmir and recalled that he used to provide military training to militants.

Sheikh Rashid strongly denied running any such training camp and maintained that he was only running a humanitarian camp for refugees from Jammu & Kashmir.

In an effort to throw some light on these startling revelations, and equally strong denials, we spoke to Khalid Khawaja, a former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) official who was dismissed from the service by the late dictator General Zia ul-Haq because of his outspoken nature.

Khalid subsequently became a close associate of Osama bin Laden, and played an important behind-the-scenes role in both regional and national politics. Before the US attack on Afghanistan in late 2001, he was a part of the back-room diplomacy between the US and the Taliban, which failed miserably.

Syed Shahzad: The heroes of the past are the terrorists of the present. Everything changes dramatically, so that someone like Sheikh Rashid, who was once proud to take part in Kashmir's struggle, is now afraid he will be labeled a terrorist if he admits that he ever supported armed struggle in Kashmir. Why? [Sheikh Rashid and Khalid were interviewed together on television and Rashid not only denied that he had ever run a training camp, but also refused to identify Khalid as an old friend.]

Khalid Khawaja: In fact, the issue is terrorism. It is states and governments which sponsor terrorism to begin with, and subjects become the ultimate victims, and then a vicious cycle of terror rotates. In this state-sponsored crime there is no exception, and Pakistan, India, the US and Israel all have the same role.

Many of us call it a battle between East and West, between the Islamic and Judeo-Christian world, but it is neither of these. It is in fact the ruling regimes that want to dictate their will, and then they exploit [people] in various ways. Sometimes in the garb of monarchy, sometimes for democracy, and sometimes for dictatorship.

Ninety percent of people accept to be ruled, but there always remain some elements who refuse to succumb. They fight for freedom and resist till their last. However, in this conflict of two minorities - those who impose their will and those who resist it - the majority remains the sole victim. Yet people talk about Islam versus Christianity or Judaism. The basic theme remains the same. There is a group of people who want to impose their will, whether they happen to be Christian or Muslim, and there is a group of people who want to resist, and there is a silent majority which is trampled in between.

This is exactly the interpretation when we talk about Pakistan and India in the perspective of Kashmir. In fact, Pakistan was never sincere with Kashmiris. It was a selfish military strategic maneuver to bleed India. Whatever was done, it was for "Pakistanism". Meaning to impose Pakistan's strategic agenda in the region. We just used religion and jihad. It was just a ploy to engage Indian forces in Kashmir and keep their financial resources squeezed.

SS: Did not Pakistan morally support the Kashmiri struggle so that the Muslim population would get its rights?

KK: What are you talking about? Indian Muslims enjoy more rights than Muslims enjoy in Pakistan. There are hundreds of Pakistani people, including army-men, clerics, scholars and common people, who have been missing from their homes for over two years. It is a known fact that they were picked up by intelligence agencies. They were never tried in any court of law. Several of them were killed without any trail. Even the British system of justice during British India days was better, when nobody was kept in detention without trial. We ask, okay, don't give us the rights that free nations have, but at least give us those rights people had during the time of the British Raj.

A few years ago, a Muslim was picked by an Indian intelligence agency. Prominent Muslim leader and scholar Maulana Asad Madani met the governor of the province and protested. The governor said that this kind of interrogation was common in Pakistan, "So why do you protest in India?" Asad Madani reminded the governor in very strong words that this was not Pakistan, but India, and one had to produce a person in court, so eventually the Muslim was produced.

The biggest curse in Pakistan is things done in the name of patriotism. I do not buy this theory. Patriotism is a vague term until it is allied with a proper ideology. I remember Colonel [Syed] Farooq's words [Farooq was a Bangladeshi officer who took part in the killing of Sheikh Mujib Rehman - Bangladesh's founding father - and his family in 1975] when he visited Pakistan in the late 1980s. He said that before the partition of British India [1947] he was a loyal citizen of the East India Company, then Pakistan, and even joined the Pakistan army. Then he became a loyal citizen of Bangladesh, and he said he may become loyal to something else in the future. Therefore, patriotism for a piece of land is nonsense.

SS: What happened in Afghanistan?

KK: In Afghanistan's case, a similar game was carried out on a massive scale when Muslim youths from all over the world were brought in by Pakistan and the US [to fight against the Soviets in the 1980s]. They were tools for the empires' proxy war. The name of jihad was used. The state religion in those days supported jihad against India [in Kashmir] and the USSR [in Afghanistan]. However, once jihad was established, the states did not have any way to convince Muslims that jihad was only against the USSR and India, and not against the US.

Now, again, it is a question of a state imposing its will. The message is clear: if you are against us, we will kill you and your sympathizers. In this state terrorism, there is no exception, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Pakistan, India, the US or Israel. All are the same.

You talk about terrorism by individuals, but you do not discuss what they were in the past and why they became terrorists. In fact, it is state terrorism which starts it all. A state recruited Muslim fighters all across the world and gathered them in Afghanistan. The US tried to kill them with a cruise missile attack in 1998 [in retaliation for terror attacks on US embassies in Africa]. That terrorism was unaccounted for, yet several innocent women and children were killed by a proven US attack. It had yet to be proven that the 9-11 incident was carried out by Osama, but the US attacked Afghanistan and targeted all. When the reaction came, and helpless people became suicide bombers, they were called terrorists.

I have the example of Ahmed Saeed Khadr's family. The whole family was Canadian, and they came to Afghanistan to take part in the country's rehabilitation. First his 14-year-old son Omar Khadr was arrested in Afghanistan. He was taken to Guantanamo Bay. It is narrated in the US media and all information is available on the world-wide web how he was sexually abused in prison by US soldiers. His second son Abdul Karim was shot in the back by US soldiers, and was paralyzed. Another son, Abdul Rahman, agreed to become a US informer. The stories were published by the US media that despite his services, he was also shabbily treated. Ahmed Saeed Khadr and his family, including his wife, granddaughter and two daughters, took refuge in South Waziristan [in Pakistan]. They were not spared by Pakistani authorities. Ahmed Saeed was brutally killed. His wife and daughters were brought to Islamabad and then set free. They were homeless. Nobody was ready to give them a house for rent.

The families of the worst kind of criminals are not deprived of this basic right. Our government did so. Ahmed Saeed's family demanded his body be handed over. The government of Pakistan even refused that demand. Now just get into the shoes of the victim and think how many options you would have if you faced such consequences.

Now Minister of Information Sheikh Rashid comes on TV every day and proudly announces that we have killed so many foreign militants. This is the same minister who privately ran a similar military training camp in the past and prepared militants. Had he been out of government, he would have been labeled a terrorist, but since he is part of the government agenda, he is okay. In this fight of interests, only pawns are crushed. India and Pakistan fought proxy wars, the victims were innocent Kashmiris who were raped, detained and killed, or those who sacrificed their lives in armed struggle. Now the two countries are friends and the victims are those who sacrificed their lives for armed struggle. Now they are terrorists.

When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets crushed. When two elephants make love, it is again the grass that gets crushed. Whether states fight with each other or make friendships, it is only the tools who became victims.

SS: Explain how Sheikh Rashid started the training camp.

KK: The story starts in 1986-87, when out of emotion I wrote a letter to General Zia ul-Haq saying that he was a hypocrite and he was only interested in ruling Pakistan, rather than imposing Islamic law in the country. General Zia immediately ordered my dismissal from my basic services in the Pakistan air force, where I was a squadron leader, and from the ISI, where I was deputed at the Afghan desk. I went to Afghanistan and fought side-by-side with the Afghan mujahideen against Soviet troops. There I developed a friendship with Dr Abdullah Azzam [a mentor of bin Laden], Osama bin Laden and Sheikh Abdul Majeed Zindani [another mentor of bin Laden's]. At the same time, I was still in touch with my former organization, the ISI, and its then DG [director general], retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul.

After General Zia's death in a plane crash [1988], elections were announced and there was a possibility that the Pakistan People's Party [PPP] led by Benazir Bhutto would win, which would be a great setback for the cause of jihad. We discussed this situation, and all the mujahideen thought that they should play a role in blocking the PPP from winning the elections. I joined my former DG Hamid Gul and played a role in forming the then Islamic Democratic Alliance comprising the Pakistan Muslim League and the Jamaat-i-Islami. The PPP won the elections by a thin margin and faced a strong opposition. Osama bin Laden provided me with funds, which I handed over to Nawaz Sharif, then the chief minister of Punjab [and later premier], to dislodge Benazir Bhutto. Nawaz Sharif insisted that I arrange a direct meeting with the "Sheikh", which I did in Saudi Arabia. Nawaz met thrice with Osama in Saudi Arabia.

The most historic was the meeting in the Green Palace Hotel in Medina between Nawaz Sharif, Osama and myself. Osama asked Nawaz to devote himself to "jihad in Kashmir". Nawaz immediately said, "I love jihad." Osama smiled, and then stood up from his chair and went to a nearby pillar and said. "Yes, you may love jihad, but your love for jihad is this much." He then pointed to a small portion of the pillar. "Your love for children is this much," he said, pointing to a larger portion of the pillar. "And your love for your parents is this much," he continued, pointing towards the largest portion. "I agree that you love jihad, but this love is the smallest in proportion to your other affections in life."

These sorts of arguments were beyond Nawaz Sharif's comprehension and he kept asking me. "Manya key nai manya?" [Agreed or not?] He was looking for a Rs500 million [US$8.4 million at today's rate] grant from Osama. Though Osama gave a comparatively smaller amount, the landmark thing he secured for Nawaz Sharif was a meeting with the [Saudi] royal family, which gave Nawaz Sharif a lot of political support, and it remained till he was dislodged [as premier] by General Pervez Musharraf [in a coup in 1999]. Saudi Arabia arranged for his release and his safe exit to Saudi Arabia.

That was a typical situation, when Osama was famed for his generosity, and even politicians like Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, who was president of the National People's Party and president of the Islamic Democratic Alliance, and then interim prime minister, were also after me to arrange meetings with the "Sheikh".

Then Nawaz Sharif introduced me to Sheikh Rashid, and he took me to his Freedom House camp near Fateh Jang Road near Rawalpindi. He asked me to get support from Arabs. I took several of my Arab friends to his training camp, and they provided him with some money, though they were not satisfied with the environment.

The youths were mostly trained to fire AK-47 rifles, but there was no arrangement for the ideological training of youths. That was the point on which the Arabs objected, that it is ideological training that makes a difference between a mercenary and a mujahid. Rashid was the least bothered about ideological training, he was interested in money - Rs50,000 per person. Some money was provided to Rashid, and he claimed that he procured AK-47 guns with that money. How many, I do not remember.

SS: What you are saying means that it was all a fraud in the name of jihad?

KK: Jihad needs strong justification, and when it is launched it requires piety in character. We as Muslims believe that if a person is wrongly killed it amounts to the killing of entire humanity.

SS: What do you say about suicide bombers who carry out random attacks?

KK: They are reactionaries whose reactions are illustrations of anger and frustration, but we cannot call it Islam at all. In their behavior, although they are Muslims, they are the same as [Pentagon chief Donald] Rumsfeld, [President George W] Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney, who, in reaction to 3,500 killed people in New York, made a full season of killing people in Afghanistan and Iraq. The way the US imposed war on Afghanistan, the real mujahids, like [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar and Osama went into the background, and the leadership is in the hands of those who do not know what jihad is all about. They are just venting their frustration against the US.

This article was originally published by Asia Times Online.

About the Author
Syed Saleem Shahzad is the Bureau Chief for Asia Times Online in Pakistan.
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