Asia-Pacific, Headlines

PAKISTAN: Credibility of Reforms Dented by Journalist’s Murder

Commentary - Mushahid Hussain

ISLAMABAD, Feb 26 2002 (IPS) - No single event could have damaged Pakistan’s image and credibility more than the gruesome, video-filmed decapitation of American journalist Daniel Pearl, which became evident last week.

Although journalists are often killed in the line of duty (37 lost their lives while performing professional duties in 2001), this one was with a difference, both in terms of its timing and the manner.

It came after Pakistan’s big about-turn in policy. It shed a two decade-old approach that was neither acceptable internationally nor feasible domestically, as Pakistan seeks to re-invent its image and role in the comity of nations away from a ‘sponsor of religious extremism’ to a supporter of a moderate and modern Muslim worldview.

The manner of the murder of Pearl, South Asia bureau chief of the ‘Wall Street Journal’ also depicted a despicable and sick mindset that is a blot on the fair name of Pakistanis and Muslims, since the act was committed on Pakistani territory by terrorists trying to use religion to mercilessly murder a journalist who was not a combatant, but a professional doing his duty.

Apart from denting Pakistan’s image internationally, it will put greater pressure on Pakistan and the government to ‘deliver’ on its commitments contained in President Pervez Musharraf’s Jan.12 speech.

More than anything else, the spotlight will be on Pakistan’s sprawling security and police apparatus. It has come out in a very bad light given its penchant for raising expectations when the reality on the ground was contrary to the projection, providing false leads and making tall claims that had no factual basis.

Three aspects of officialdom’s bluster-cum-confusion that turned into a big bungle should suffice to put its performance in perspective.

First, there was no consistency as to the identity of the kidnappers, who were first presented as a criminal bunch as if the kidnapping was apolitical. Then, they were accused to have ‘links with India’ (without presenting any evidence and as if that would absolve the Pakistani government of all responsibility) and finally the kidnap was presented as an ‘expected fallout of the government’s crackdown on terrorism and extremism’.

Second, the ‘nabbing’ of the alleged key mastermind of the kidnapping, Sheikh Omar, was presented as a ‘breakthrough’, again, as it turned out, a wrong claim. (Actually, he turned himself in on Feb. 5 but it was ‘leaked’ a week later to be conveniently timed with Musharraf’s Washington journey, as if stating facts could somehow ‘spoil’ it.)

Deadlines to hunt down Pearl’s kidnappers were provided, but later retracted, and assurances about Pearl’s safety given although they later turned out to be baseless.

Third, there was the rather remarkable ‘discovery’ implying that Maulana Masood Azhar and Sheikh Omar, both of whom were released from an Indian prison on the demand of hijackers of an Indian plane that was taken to Kandahar in December 1999, were after all ‘Indian agents’. This was an exercise in hindsight wisdom that would have carried credibility had it been perceived at the time of the Kandahar hijacking, not 26 months later.

After the Kandahar hijacking, both Sheikh Omar and Maulana Masood Azhar were living in Pakistan. Massoud Azhar later founded his own militant organisation, the Jaish-e-Muhammed (Army of Mohammad), to ‘strive for the liberation of Kashmir from Indian occupation’, which was banned by Musharraf in his Jan. 12 speech as part of a general crackdown against extremism.

This was also declared one of the “four most dangerous terrorist groups” by U.S. President George Bush in his State of the Union speech of Jan.29, the others being the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the Lebanese Hezbollah.

The Pearl killing has provided Pakistan’s detractors a way to draw a linkage between India, intelligence and Islam, trying to attribute the worst to the Pakistani state and Muslims generally.

India has been trying hard but without much success since Sep. 11 to slot Pakistan as ‘part of the problem of terrorism’, presenting itself as a victim of Pakistani ‘cross-border terrorism’ due to the two countries’ dispute over Kashmir.

However, it is significant that after the Dec. 13 attack on the Indian Parliament, the onus has been on Pakistan to ‘deliver’.

Neither the United States nor any Western country has raised any concern over the massive Indian military build-up on Pakistan’s borders, which means that preventing war is not the same as pressuring India to withdraw its forces.

Although this Indian strategy has collapsed in the aftermath of just-finished state elections, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost in all four states including the Hindu heartland of Uttar Pradesh — which means Pakistan-baiting could not sway the electorate — India has been allowed to raise the political temperature and tensions with impunity.

An illustration of this change is the area of intelligence. The ‘New York Times’ newspaper reported on Feb. 20 about the restructuring of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). It wrote that “in a significant signal of its change in course, Pakistan has begun to disband two major units of its powerful intelligence service that had close links to Islamic militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir”.

These “Islamic militants fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir include groups regarded by the United States as terrorist organisations,” it added.

It is in that context that the Pearl murder deserves the strongest possible condemnation as an act designed to be detrimental to Pakistan’s interests and damaging to the image of Islam, which stands for tolerance and compassion.

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