Controversial Jamiat-ul-Ulema Islam leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman's high-profile visit to India and the attention accorded to him in governmental and non-governmental circles in New Delhi are being viewed by many India-watchers in the US with bewilderment and concern.
Rahman is a fundamentalist with a difference, known for his proximity to Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party. Despite his fundamentalist orientation, he supported her right to become prime minister and opposed the Jamaat-e-Islami campaign in the 1990s against a woman heading the government of an Islamic country.
Benazir rewarded him by making him Chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee and allegedly asked the Inter-Services Intelligence to place a large amount from its secret fund at his disposal during his travels abroad.
The Maulana loves foreign travel and the good things of life. During Benazir's second term as prime minister, he spent more time abroad than in Pakistan.
In 1993-1994, Pakistan's cotton crop was practically destroyed by insects for two years in succession and many textile mills were threatened with closure. Asif Zardari, Benazir's husband, through a business crony in Hong Kong, entered into a contract with Turkmenistan for emergency supplies of cotton. The responsibility for transporting them to Pakistan by road via Afghanistan was given to the Hong Kong-based Pakistani businessman.
His cotton convoys were attacked and the cotton looted by armed followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of the Hizb-e-Islami and Ismail Khan, the pro-Teheran warlord of Herat.
Zardari then asked retired Major General Naseerullah Babbar, Benazir's interior minister, to organize a special force to escort the cotton convoys through Afghanistan. Naseerullah, with Pervez Musharraf's help, organized the Taliban by rallying round many of the dregs of the Afghan war of the 1980s against the Soviet troops under Mullah Mohammad Omar's leadership.
They were helped in this by Fazlur Rahman and his protégé, Mufi Shamzai of the Binori madrasa of Karachi. Thus, the Taliban came into existence in 1994. The role played by Fazlur Rahman in helping Benazir and her husband create the Taliban led to serious differences between him and Qazi Hussain Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami, who was a strong supporter of Hekmatayar. Another strong critic of the Maulana's soft corner for Benazir and Zardari was retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, Director General of the ISI during her first tenure as prime minister.
The US started viewing the Maulana with suspicion in 1995 due to the proximity of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, then headed by Maulana Fazlur Rahman Khalil, to the Maulana. In March 1995, Kamran Khan, the well-known investigative journalist, wrote a series under the title 'Jihad Worldwide' in The News, the prestigious Pakistani daily. In these articles, he exposed not only the Harkat's role in organizing terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir, southern Philippines, the Arakan area of Myanmar and Chechnya, but also its attempts to carry its jihad to the US homeland by recruiting and training a group of Afro-American Muslims. It was suspected that the Harkat could not have been indulging in such activities without Fazlur Rahman's complicity.
This was followed by the kidnapping of some Western tourists, including two Americans, one of whom escaped, by the Harkat in Kashmir under the name Al Faran. The Clinton administration sought Benazir's help in getting them released. She and Zardari asked Fazlur Rahman to go to India to persuade the Harkat to release them.
At the request of the US embassy in New Delhi, the Narasimha Rao government agreed to let him come. The Rao government was hoping he would keep his mission unpublicized, but Fazlur Rahman, who has a weakness for publicity, made the visit high profile. After reaching New Delhi, he demanded that he should be allowed to visit Srinagar to which the Indian intelligence agencies were strongly opposed.
On discovering about his visit, circles close to the present ruling coalition in New Delhi, which were then in Opposition, strongly criticized the Rao government for allowing the Harkat's patron to visit India. Thereupon, the Rao government totally cut off all contact with him and he returned to Pakistan.
In October 1997, the US State Department designated the Harkat a foreign terrorist organization under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Consequently, it is a crime for anyone in the US to be associated with it and foreigners associated with it are not entitled to US visas. Fazlur Rahman, as a suspected supporter if not the Harkat's mentor, is covered by this ban. After the ban, the Harkat-ul-Ansar ostensibly split into two organizations, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami. The Maulana is viewed by many in Pakistan and the US as the patron of both.
After the explosions outside the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, the Clinton administration exercised considerable pressure on the Nawaz Sharif government and Lieutenant General Ziauddin, the then DG of the ISI, to help US Special Forces organize a commando raid into Kandahar to capture Osama bin Laden and take him to the US for trial.
This pressure was kept up during 1999. Nawaz Sharif, fearing an adverse reaction from Musharraf, his Chief of the Army Staff, was initially hesitant to co-operate. However, after a visit to Washington, DC by Ziauddin after the Kargil war, Nawaz agreed to pressurize the Taliban to hand over bin Laden to the US and, if it refused, to co-operate with US Special Forces in their planned raid.
Ziauddin met Mullah Omar at Kandahar in this connection. While sticking to his refusal to hand over bin Laden to the US, Mullah Omar agreed to consider expelling him to another Islamic country. On discovering this, Musharraf, who was not kept in the picture by Nawaz Sharif or Ziauddin, sent Mohammad Aziz, then his Chief of the General Staff, along with Fazlur Rahman to Kandahar to tell Mullah Omar that he should not carry out any instructions received from Ziauddin.
It was on discovering this that Nawaz Sharif decided to sack Musharraf and appoint Ziauddin as the COAS, triggering off the October 12, 1999 coup.
Following Ziauddin's visit to Kandahar, there were many speculative reports in the Pakistani media that US Special Forces had already arrived in the North-West Frontier Province and were about to raid Kandahar. Fazlur Rahman issued a statement warning the US that if bin Laden were killed or captured, no American national in Pakistan would be safe.
A senior US diplomat posted in Islamabad thereupon visited him and reportedly warned him that if any US national in Pakistan came to any harm, it would hold him personally responsible and act against him. Threafter, he lowered his anti-US rhetoric.
After 9/11, Musharraf sent a delegation of Pakistani mullahs headed by Mufti Shamzai to Kandahar to persuade Mullah Omar to hand over bin Laden to the US in order to avert a war. The delegation was accompanied by Lieutenant General Mehmood Ahmed, the then ISI chief.
Before going to Kandahar, the mullahs and the ISI chief met Fazlur Rahman at Peshawar. They then met Mullah Omar at Kandahar, returned and reported to Musharraf that the Taliban leader had refused to co-operate. It was said the US discovered from one of its sources in the mullahs' delegation that instead of pressurizing Mullah Omar to hand over bin Laden to the US, the delegation, in Mehmood Ahmed's presence, congratulated him for resisting US pressure and encouraged him to continue to do so.
It was after this that the US pressurized Musharraf to remove Ahmed, known to be close to Fazlur Rahman, from his post. He did so on October 7, 2001, and appointed Lieutenant General Ehsanul Haq, then Corps Commander in Peshawar and a close friend of Qazi Hussain Ahmed, as the new DG.
Musharraf's decision to co-operate with the US against the Taliban led to a re-alignment in Pakistan. The JEI and JUI forgot their past differences over Fazlur Rahman's role in helping the Benazir government in the creation of the Taliban as a counter to Hekmatayar's HEI and joined hands in backing the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the HEI in their joint operations against US forces in Afghanistan.
Despite the formation of the coalition of six fundamentalist parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, of which the JUI and JEI are the driving force, suspicions continue to mark the relations between the Maulana and the Qazi. Each suspects the other of continuing to maintain clandestine contacts with the military-intelligence establishment. There was also friction over the Maulana's decision to nominate a member of his party as the chief minister of the NWFP without consulting the Qazi.
Since 9/11, US suspicions of the Maulana have worsened because of the active role played by the HUM under the name HUM (Al Alami International) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami in the terrorist strikes against French and American nationals in Karachi and Islamabad.
There were reports before the US invasion of Iraq that HUM had sent its cadres to Saudi Arabia under the cover of Haj pilgrims and that they were to infiltrate into Iraq to start a jihad against US troops. When an injured bin Laden escaped into Pakistan from Afghanistan in early 2002, Mufti Shamzai, Fazlur Rahman's protégé, gave him shelter at the Binori madrasa in Karachi till last August.
Five Pakistani jihadi organizations are members of bin Laden's International Islamic Front -- HUM, HUJI, the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Of these, HUM, HUJI, JEM and LEJ are close to the Maulana. The Lashkar, despite its strong Wahabbi orientation, is not. The Maulana's perceived hobnobbing with India could act as a red rag to the bull and provoke an intensification of terrorist strikes in Indian territory.
The questions being asked in the US are: Did the Maulana come on his own or at the instance of the Government of India or the Bharatiya Janata Party? What was the motive? What would be its implications?
It is alleged by many here that the Government of India has been making overtures to the Maulana through PPP circles close to Benazir in the hope of using his services to persuade Deobandi leaders in India to react more positively to the proposals made by the Kanchi Shankaracharya for a solution to the Ayodhya issue and to pressurize jihadi organizations close to him to stop their terrorist activities in India.
There is concern that this exercise might prove counter-productive and lead to an aggravation of the ground situation in Jammu and Kashmir.