Mar 31, 2011 1
Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a leading Pakistani Islamist politician, was the target today of a second suicide bombing attack in as many days. The attacks on Fazl, who heads his own faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam, a pro-Taliban Deobandi party, come days after State Department cables provided by WikiLeaks to The Hindu reveal that he wanted to mediate between the United States and the Taliban outside of Pakistan in 2007.
No group has claimed responsibility for the two atacks, but they are most likely unsuccessful assassination attempts by irreconcilable Pakistani jihadists who disapprove of his attempts to engage the United States and push for a political settlement for the war in Afghanistan. Fazl, the bearded, burly son of a prominent Pakistani cleric and politician, is known to be a smooth political operator and has been on the Pakistani Taliban’s hit list since 2008.
This week’s attacks on Fazl are the latest in a series of violence that suggest a deepening intra-jihadi war inside Pakistan. On one side are jihadists aligned with al-Qaeda and its borderless conflict; on the other are jihadists and their supporters who cooperate with the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment and see jihad as an instrument of state policy or believe that the Pakistani state is an effective agent of jihad.
This intra-jihadi conflict is best demonstrated by the recent execution of Colonel Imam, a former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officer who worked with Afghan militants in the 1980s and 1990s but also spoke out against the Pakistani Taliban in recent years. A Pakistani Taliban video showed the Afghan Taliban supporter being shot at point-blank range as the organization’s amir, Hakimullah Mehsud, watches approvingly.
While the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment (PakMIL) seeks the formal integration of its allies within the Afghan Taliban into the power structure in Afghanistan, it has no such plans inside its own country for the Pakistani Taliban. A political settlement in Afghanistan could leave the Pakistani Taliban as the odd man out — hence their attacks on those who support the Afghan Taliban but oppose the Pakistani Taliban.
An alternative but far less probable explanation for the attacks on Fazl is that they are intentional near misses by the PakMIL designed to serve as deadly warnings to Fazl to not play his own game and unilaterally engage the United States on the Taliban. According to the State Department cable, Fazl wanted to serve as an intermediary between the United States and the Afghan Taliban — but outside of Pakistan. This could cut the PakMIL out of the picture, if he was not covertly speaking on its behalf. As the arrest of Mullah Baradar demonstrates, the PakMIL has reacted and will continue to react strongly when it is believes it is being excluded out of an Afghan settlement.
With that said, the cable is now outdated. Fazl’s outreach to the United States occured nearly five years ago, and in recent months, he appears to have re-aligned with the PakMIL to put pressure on the secular Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). For the PakMIL, he and his party remain essential counterweights to the ANP in the Pashtun belt and inevitable players in talks with both the Afghan Taliban and reconcilable elements of the Pakistani Taliban.
Fazl has used the attacks as an opportunity to rally his base. Playing the anti-American card, he blamed the United States and also held his political rivals, the ANP and PPP, responsible for the attacks. In preparation for possible early parliamentary elections later this year or early next year, Fazl has held large rallies on contentious issues, such as the blasphemy law, and hosted a dinner party with representatives of a broad spectrum of opposition parties.
Ever the political machinator, Fazl is trying to leverage in this life two near-early trips to the next one. Despite his tough public face, the maulana is probably praying that his third strike won’t be coming anytime soon.