Popular support for militants complicates Pakistan crackdown

Masood Azhar (L), chief of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), addresses a press conference in Karachi. (File/AFP/Aamir Qureshi)
Updated 08 March 2019
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Popular support for militants complicates Pakistan crackdown

  • Kashmir is split between Pakistan and India and claimed by both in its entirety
  • Under pressure to rein in the militants, Pakistan took over mosques and religious schools belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad

BAHAWALPUR, Pakistan: On the congested streets of Bahawalpur, a city in southern Pakistan's jihadi heartland, emotions run high in favor of Jaish-e-Mohammad, a U.N.-designated terror group that recently pushed nuclear-armed India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
Such support complicates Prime Minister Imran Khan's latest crackdown on militant groups, including Jaish-e-Mohammed. In recent days, Khan has ordered the takeover of assets and property of dozens of banned militant organizations that operate in Pakistan.
Many of the groups are popular among the poor because they operate networks of charities. Some groups have also enjoyed the support of the military and intelligence services.
"Jaish-e-Mohammad is not a terrorist group, they just want to spread Islam," said Tahir Zia, a gray-bearded resident of Bahawalpur, a city whose 18th-century founders claim to be direct descendants of Islam's Prophet Mohammad.
According to Pakistan's counter-terrorism agency, the government has outlawed 68 militant groups. This includes Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lahskar-e-Taiba and Harakat-ul Mujahedeen — Pakistan-based groups that seek to wrest control of Indian-controlled territory in the disputed Kashmir region.
Kashmir is split between Pakistan and India and claimed by both in its entirety. The region has been the flashpoint of two wars between the South Asian neighbors as well as several lower-level face-offs.
The latest confrontation began Feb. 14 when a suicide bombing in Indian Kashmir killed 40 Indian soldiers. Jaish-e-Mohammad, which is based in Pakistan, claimed responsibility, even though the attacker was identified as an Indian Kashmiri militant. The bombing escalated tensions between India and Pakistan, with India launching an airstrike against suspected militant training camps. Journalists, who visited the site hours after the bombing, said the area was a deserted forested hilltop.
Under pressure to rein in the militants, Pakistan took over mosques and religious schools belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad. Their students and teachers have been barred from talking to the media. Police and paramilitary rangers armed with AK-47s, now guard the group's buildings.
The group's headquarters on the northern outskirts of Bahawalpur, a city of 2 million, are ringed by a 20-foot-high (6-meter) brick wall.
On a recent morning, several bearded men and two Pakistani police officers armed with automatic rifles turned away visitors approaching the compound's large steel gates.
Bahawalpur is located on the edge of Pakistan's Cholistan desert in the southern part of Punjab province. In recent decades, the area has become a jihadi heartland encouraged by state sponsorship and financial support from abroad, particularly Saudi Arabia, and several Gulf States.
The donors have financed a vast network of religious schools that cater to the poorest residents, teaching a brand of Islam that promotes sectarianism, brands Shiite Muslims as infidels and espouses jihad, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Khan, who adopted the role of peacemaker in the latest outbreak of hostilities between Pakistan and India, returned a captured Indian pilot, offered peace talks with his Indian counterpart, and launched a crackdown on militant groups from which previous administrations shied away.
On Tuesday, in a gesture aimed at mending relations on the subcontinent, Pakistan announced it had arrested 44 suspected members of several militant organizations, including Jaish-e-Mohammed. Among those arrested was Mufti Abdul Rauf, the brother of Masood Azhar, the founder of the organization. Azhar's whereabouts are unknown.
Rauf was also among those named by India in a dossier it gave to Pakistan after Khan promised to investigate suspected links between Pakistani-based militants and the February bombing.
On Wednesday, more schools, hospitals and charities run by banned groups were taken over by the government. Padlocks were put on some facilities.
In a tweet Wednesday, Interior Minister Shahryar Afridi promised his government would implement a widely cheered 2015 National Action Plan that calls for zero tolerance of militant groups. Pakistan's previous government devised the 20-point plan to combat terrorism and extremism in Pakistan, only to ignore it.
Still the move by Khan's government is fraught with dangers in a country where militant groups provide social services to poor residents ignored by the government. The 2016 Crisis Group report called south Punjab "the poorest region of the country's richest and most populous province."
In Bahawalpur, Jaish-e-Mohammad and its leader enjoy considerable support.
Storekeeper Sajjad Ali called Azhar a "man of peace" and dismissed accusations that he is a terrorist as Indian propaganda.
Hafiz Muzamil, a fiery young man, railed against India's violent suppression of a 30-year insurgency in Kashmir __ India's only Muslim dominated state __ and championed Jaish-e-Mohammad and Azhar as warriors for Islam. Crowds gathered as he spoke, most nodding vigorously.
Adnan Naseemullah, an expert in international affairs at King's College in London, warned of a short-term backlash against the crackdown.
"Pakistan, if it takes an aggressive, no-tolerance stand against Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harakat ul-Mujahidin, will suffer a violent backlash domestically," he said.
"But a zero-tolerance policy from the Pakistani state will over time shift the focus back on Kashmir and the treatment of the Kashmiri people, which is in Pakistan's long-term interest," he added.
International human rights groups have accused India of widespread abuses as it seeks to crush dissent in its part of Kashmir. "India's policy on Kashmir under (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi is straightforwardly and violently repressive," said Naseemullah.
For Pakistan, the deadly mix of militant groups on its soil is a decades-old problem with roots in the 1980s war in neighboring Afghanistan, when the United States and Pakistan were allies against the former Soviet Union. Together they nurtured an army of mujahedeen, or holy warriors, to oust the former Soviet Union from Afghanistan. When the war ended with a Soviet withdrawal in 1989, young Pakistani recruits to jihad were sent to the Indian half of disputed Kashmir to fight for a united Kashmir under the Pakistani flag.
It's a history that analysts like Zahid Hussain, author of two books on militancy, say haunts Pakistan.
"Various Pakistani governments have promised to take action against the many groups but have not done so," said Hussain. "Not only does it pose a danger to Pakistan's own national internal security, there is always the danger they will use Pakistani soil to launch an attack across the border."


4 Democratic women of color slam Trump for ‘bigoted remarks’

Updated 58 min 3 sec ago
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4 Democratic women of color slam Trump for ‘bigoted remarks’

WASHINGTON: Defiant in the face of widespread censure, President Donald Trump escalated his demand for four Democratic congresswomen of color to leave the US “right now,” stoking the discord that helped send him to the White House and claiming “many people agree with me.”
The four lawmakers fired back, condemning what they called “xenophobic bigoted remarks” and renewing calls for Democrats to begin impeachment proceedings.
Trump had called on the four to “go back” to their “broken and crime-infested” countries in tweets that have been widely denounced as racist . His remarks were directed at Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. All are American citizens, and three of the four were born in the US
The episode served notice that Trump is willing to again rely on incendiary rhetoric on issues of race and immigration to preserve his political base in the leadup to the 2020 election. He shrugged off the criticism.
“It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” Trump said Monday at the White House. “A lot of people love it, by the way.”
At the Capitol, there was near unanimous condemnation from Democrats and a rumble of discontent from a subset of Republicans, but notably not from the party’s congressional leaders.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said Trump’s campaign slogan truly means he wants to “make America white again,” announced Monday that the House would vote on a resolution condemning his new comments . The resolution “strongly condemns” Trump’s “racist comments” and says they “have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.”
In response, Trump tweeted anew Tuesday about the four congresswomen: “Why isn’t the House voting to rebuke the filthy and hate laced things they have said? Because they are the Radical Left, and the Democrats are afraid to take them on. Sad!“
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s White House nominee in 2012 and now one of the president’s most vocal GOP critics, said Monday that Trump’s comments were “destructive, demeaning, and disunifying.”
Trump dug in. “If you’re not happy in the US, if you’re complaining all the time, you can leave, you can leave right now,” he said.
His words, which evoked the trope of telling black people to go back to Africa, may have been partly meant to widen the divides within the House Democratic caucus, which has been riven by internal debate over how best to oppose his policies. And while Trump’s attacks brought Democrats together in defense of their colleagues, his allies noted he was also having some success in making the progressive lawmakers the face of their party.
The Republican president questioned whether Democrats should “want to wrap” themselves around this group of four people as he recited a list of the quartet’s most controversial statements.
At a news conference with her three colleagues, Pressley referred to Trump as “the occupant of our White House” instead of president.
“He does not embody the grace, the empathy, the compassion, the integrity that that office requires and that the American people deserve,” she said, encouraging people “not take the bait.” Pressley said Trump’s comments were “a disruptive distraction from the issues of care, concern and consequence to the American people” — prescription drug prices, affordable housing, health care.”
Omar, a naturalized US citizen born in Somalia, accused him of “openly violating” the Constitution and sounded the call for impeachment proceedings.
Ocasio-Cortez said Trump “does not know how to defend his policies and so what he does is attack us personally.”
The Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, said his party would also try to force a vote in the GOP-controlled chamber.
Trump, who won the presidency in 2016 in part by energizing disaffected voters with inflammatory racial rhetoric, made clear he has no intention of backing away from that strategy in 2020.
“The Dems were trying to distance themselves from the four ‘progressives,’ but now they are forced to embrace them,” he tweeted Monday afternoon. “That means they are endorsing Socialism, hate of Israel and the USA! Not good for the Democrats!“
Trump has faced few consequences for such attacks in the past. They typically earn him cycles of wall-to-wall media attention. He is wagering that his most steadfast supporters will be energized by the controversy as much, or if not more so, than the opposition.
The president has told aides that he was giving voice to what many of his supporters believe — that they are tired of people, including immigrants, disrespecting their country, according to three Republicans close to the White House who were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
Trump singled out Omar, in particular, accusing her of having “hatred” for Israel and expressing “love” for “enemies like Al-Qaeda.”
“These are people that, in my opinion, hate our country,” he said.
Omar, in an interview, once laughed about how a college professor had spoken of Al-Qaeda with an intensity she said was not used to describe “America,” “England” or “The Army.”
Republicans largely trod carefully with their responses.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close ally of the president who golfed with him over the weekend, advised him to “aim higher” during an appearance on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” even as he accused the four Democrats of being “anti-Semitic” and “anti-American.”
Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, said “I don’t think that the president’s intent in any way is racist,” pointing to Trump’s decision to choose Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan, as his transportation secretary.
Chao is one of the few minorities among the largely white and male aides in high-profile roles in Trump’s administration. She is the wife of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who declined comment Monday on Trump’s attacks.
Among the few GOP lawmakers commenting Monday, Rep. Pete Olson of Texas said Trump’s tweets were “not reflective of the values of the 1,000,000+ people” in his district. “I urge our President immediately disavow his comments,” he wrote.
In an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll from February 2017, half of Americans said the mixing of culture and values from around the world is an important part of America’s identity as a nation. About a third said the same of a culture established by early European immigrants.
But partisans in that poll were divided over these aspects of America’s identity. About two-thirds of Democrats but only about a third of Republicans thought the mixing of world cultures was important to the country’s identity. By comparison, nearly half of Republicans but just about a quarter of Democrats saw the culture of early European immigrants as important to the nation.