Pakistan's patchy fight against Islamist violence sows confusion

MINGORA, Pakistan Fri Jul 8, 2011 6:50am EDT

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MINGORA, Pakistan (Reuters) - At the rehabilitation center for former militants in Pakistan's Swat valley, the psychiatrist speaks for the young man sitting opposite him in silence. "It was terrible. He was unable to escape. The fear is so strong. Still the fear is so strong."

Hundreds of miles away in Lahore, capital of Punjab province, a retired army officer recalls another young man who attacked him while he prayed - his "absolutely expressionless face" as he crouched down robot-like to reload his gun.

Both youths had been sucked into an increasingly fierce campaign of gun and bomb attacks by Islamist militants on military and civilian targets across Pakistan.

But there the similarity stops.

One is now being "de-radicalized" in the rehabilitation center in Swat, the northern region which only two years ago was overrun by the Pakistani Taliban and has since been cleared after a massive military operation.

He will be taught that Islam does not permit violence against the state and that suicide bombing is "haram" or forbidden.

The other had attacked the minority Ahmadi sect, declared non-Muslim by the state and subject to frequent attacks in Punjab, where many of them live.

Though he was arrested after being overpowered by the retired army officer, survivors said many of their neighbors celebrated his act of violence with the distribution of sweets.

The different responses to the two are symptomatic of Pakistan's compartmentalized approach on counter-terrorism and counter-extremism.

In some parts of the country - like Swat - violent Islamists are crushed and their beliefs confronted.

In others - like Punjab, the heartland province far more important to the stability of Pakistan than the more talked-about tribal areas bordering Afghanistan - they are tolerated while their ideology of religious extremism flourishes.

Swat is the Pakistan army's success story. After Taliban militants imposed a brutal regime of beheadings and killings, the army sent in troops to clear them out and restore order.

This week it held an international seminar on de-radicalization in the main town Mingora and organized tours of its rehabilitation centers to demonstrate its commitment to fighting terrorism.

The turbaned men who brought fear to Swat have been replaced by boys playing cricket in the cool before dusk; women are back out in the streets, some even showing their faces under casually draped headscarves, peace is enforced by a heavy military presence.

Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani - a man whose position in Pakistan was demonstrated by the alacrity at which the audience at the seminar rose to its feet when he entered the hall - insisted in a rare public speech on the need to fight the "political, psychological or religious" trends which lead to radicalism.

At the rehabilitation center, a large brick building with high walls and barbed wire set between craggy grassy hills in the Swat countryside, an officer explained that several hundred prisoners had been selected for "the removal of radical thoughts."

The young man sitting with the psychiatrist - he cannot be named for his own safety - was a construction worker who ended up with the Taliban and is now being counseled in the hope he can return to a normal life. He still suffers from post-traumatic stress from the violence he witnessed.

In another rehabilitation center, this one for juveniles aged 12-17, boys dressed in green and white striped shirts, brown trousers and black shoes are given classes about Pakistan.

The setting is softer here - the boys have neat bunk beds with covers of blue floral print on pale brown, a living room with television and table tennis, a computer room, a small library including a collection of English-language novels.

Some of them were used by the Taliban for menial chores - you have to rise one step up the hierarchy to become a suicide bomber, to be injected with drugs and dispatched to kill.

The Swat story has less gentle sides - in the thousands of hard-core prisoners who visitors are not taken to see, in reports, denied by the army, of extra-judicial executions.

Local people say they fear that the Taliban might yet return to an area mired in poverty and hit anew by devastating floods last year. But at least in terms of trend, Swat is a success.

PERMISSIVE CULTURE OF VIOLENCE

Punjab, having never known the extreme violence seen in Swat and with nothing to shock it into action, is going in the opposite direction.

Last year, more than 80 people were killed in Lahore at two mosques of the Ahmadi sect. The retired military officer - he too did not want to be named - and others who survived speak of neighbors distributing sweets in the streets of Lahore.

Only a few -- mainly in the liberal English media -- spoke out strongly to condemn the attacks.

This year Punjab's provincial governor Salman Taseer was assassinated at a cosmopolitan shopping center in Islamabad for questioning the country's blasphemy laws - legal provisions often used to justify violence against Ahmadis and other minorities. His murderer was celebrated as a hero.

The same Pakistani state which is challenging radicalism in Swat has been unable to respond to a similar ideology in Punjab - for the country's divided politicians, the religious right is a powerful force to be either courted or avoided as an enemy.

Western diplomats and many Pakistani analysts often express concern about a society which is becoming more permissive about settling religious and political differences through violence, and about a state which is unable to impose the rule of law even in its sleepy capital Islamabad.

Punjab-based militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed by India and the United States for the November 2008 attack on Mumbai which killed 166 people, are banned but have yet to be disarmed and dismantled.

The army says it does not want to tackle all militant groups at once for fear of driving them into a dangerous coalition, or splintering them into fragments it can no longer contain.

But since these groups were once nurtured by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to fight India, many suspect the army of deliberately retaining these groups as insurance against Pakistan's bigger neighbor, a charge it denies.

The result is widespread confusion in the public about exactly what the state and the army are trying to achieve on counter-terrorism and counter-extremism.

"I was quite mystified to note," wrote columnist Kamran Shafi in Dawn newspaper, "that the very army that considers the militants its strategic assets is de-programing young terrorists programed by its own assets in the first place. How does this work, please?"

SHADOWS FROM SWAT

At the seminar on de-radicalization, participants reeled off a list of reforms that needed to happen in Swat - prison and judicial reform, economic development, and education.

Many of these factors could be applied to the whole country. Yet at the seminar, nobody explained how the program of de-radicalization begun in Swat was meant to be replicated in a much more complex and larger place like Punjab.

Nobody asked how a confused and divided people were meant to distinguish between Pakistan's experience of Islam, politicized by the army as a unifying force, and subsequently by both the religious right and the Taliban to varying degrees.

Kayani promised the army was committed to taking "stern action against all terrorist groups" and called for the people of the country to rally behind the military.

"Pakistan Army being a national army, derives its strength from the people of Pakistan and is answerable to the people and their representatives in the parliament," he said.

Nobody questioned that either. The seminar was concluded by an officer who spoke of unanimous consensus in how right the military's approach to de-radicalization was.

(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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