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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Bowing to pressure: Iran grants women spectators access to sporting event


By James M. Dorsey

Iran, bowing to external pressure, has allowed women spectators to attend a premier international men’s volleyball tournament on the island of Kish. The Iranian concession constitutes a rare occasion on which the Islamic republic has not backtracked on promises to international sports associations to lift its ban on women attending men’s sporting events. Human rights groups hailed the move as a positive, albeit small step forward.

The Iranian concession appeared to contradict Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s hard line towards international pressure in the wake of renewed sanctions imposed by US President Donald J. Trump. “Everybody has tested Iran over the past 38 years and they all know that Iran is hardly moved by threats. We do not respond very well to threats. We respond very well to respect and mutual respect and mutual interest,” Mr. Zarif told CNN’s Christian Amanpour this weekend on the side lines of the Munich Security Conference.

In contrast to Mr. Zarif’s assertion, the Iranian concession followed a decision by the Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) to dump its quiet diplomacy approach towards Iran and revert to public pressure. The FIVB threatened on the eve of the Kish tournament to suspend the event if Iran failed to grant women spectators access. Iran alongside Saudi Arabia is the only country that bars women spectators from attending men’s sporting events.

"From now on women can watch beach volleyball matches in Kish if they observe Islamic rules," said Kasra Ghafouri, acting director of Iran's Beach Volleyball Organisation.

The FIVB has flip flopped in its attitude towards Iran. The group initially took a lead among international sports associations in publicly declaring that it would not grant Iran hosting rights as long as women were not given unfettered access to stadia. In response, Iran promised to allow women to attend international volleyball tournaments in the Islamic republic. Taking Iranian authorities by their word, women travelled last year to Kish for the 2016 tournament only to discover that Iran would not make good on its promise.

Rather than demonstrating sincerity by following through on its threat, the FIVB said it would not sanction the Islamic republic because gender segregation was culturally so deep-seated that a boycott would not produce results. Instead, the federation argued that engagement held out more promise. 

The decision flew in the face of the facts. Gender segregation in volleyball in Iran was only introduced in 2012, 33 years after Islamic revolutionaries toppled the Shah. Senior volleyball executives said at the time that the FIVB feared that a boycott would put significant revenues at risk.

The FIVB’s change of attitude was seemingly backed by the United States. The US Volleyball Federation on the informal advice of the State Department decided at the time not to send its woman president to Iran when the US national team played there even though the vice president of Iran is a woman and Iranian sports associations have women’s sections that are headed by women.

Ultimately, quiet diplomacy did not pan out, prompting the FIVB to return to a proven tactic, the very threats that Mr. Zarif asserted would not work. Mr. Ghafouri referred in his statement exclusively to Kish, a resort island and free trade zone in the Gulf far from the Iranian heartland known for its somewhat more relaxed enforcement of strict Islamic mores. The litmus test for both Iran and the FIVB’s sincerity in ensuring women spectators’ access to international volleyball events is likely to be this June’s FIVB Volleyball World League in the capital Tehran.

The FIVB’s success in ensuring women’s access to the Kish tournament is remarkable given that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is locked into a tough battle in advance of presidential elections in May that could make him the first Iranian head of state not to serve a second term in more than three decades. Many Iranians are disappointed that Iran’s nuclear agreement that lifted crippling international sanctions and was championed by Mr. Rouhani has failed to meet popular expectations of a swift trickledown effect.

Mr. Rouhani is embroiled in a power struggle with powerful domestic forces like the Revolutionary Guards eager to ensure that Iran’s return to the international fold does not affect their vested interests. Women’s sporting rights do not figure high on Mr. Rouhani’s agenda in this struggle against the backdrop of Mr. Trump has calling the nuclear agreement into question.

Moreover, in contrast to soccer, volleyball has been largely a battle between an international sporting association and Iranian authorities rather than a struggle by Iranian women. British-Iranian national and law student Ghoncheh Ghavami became the exception when she and several others attempted in June 2014 to attend a Volleyball World League match at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. Ms. Ghavami was charged with “propaganda against the state,” and held in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison for months.      

Iranian women disguised as boys or men have, however, repeatedly over the years sought to enter Azadi Stadium, during soccer matches, Iran’s most popular sport. An attempt by eight women wearing men’s clothes, short hair and hats was foiled last month when they were arrested at the entrance to the stadium.

A BBC Persian reporter, one of the few Iranian women to have ever officially attended a post-revolution soccer match in Azadi Stadium, recently countered with her own experience Iranian justification of the ban on the grounds that it was designed to shield women from men’s rowdiness in sport stadia and to pre-empt the temptation of genders mixing.

In the stadium as a translator for a television crew during a 2006 World Cup qualifier, men wildly celebrating Iran’s victory made a path for her as she struggled to make her way through a crowd to a news conference. “They behaved much better, contrary to what the authorities think. If we have women in stadiums, men will behave much better,” the reporter said.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Friday, February 17, 2017

Challenging the state- Pakistani militants form deadly alliance


By James M. Dorsey and Azaz Syed

This week’s suicide bombing of a popular Sufi shrine is the latest operation of a recently formed alliance of militant jihadist and sectarian groups that includes the Islamic State (IS) and organizations associated with the Pakistani Taliban, according to Pakistani counterterrorism officials.

The bombing of the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in the southern Pakistani town of Sehwan in Sindh province by a female suicide bomber that killed 83 people, including 20 children, was the alliance’s 9th attack this week. The grouping earlier this week targeted the Punjabi parliament, military outposts, a Samaa TV crew, and a provincial police station.

The alliance represents a joining of forces by Pakistani and Afghan jihadists and groups who trace their origins to sectarian organizations that have deep social roots. The alliance’s declared aim is to challenge the state at a time that Pakistan is under external pressure to clean-up its counterterrorism act. A recent Pakistani crackdown on militants has been selective, half-hearted, and largely ineffective.

The Pakistani military and foreign office this week twice summoned Afghan embassy officials in response to the campaign of violence to protest the alleged use of Afghan territory for attacks in Pakistan and demand that Afghanistan either act against 76 militants identified by Pakistani intelligence or hand them over to Pakistani authorities. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif asserted that the attack on parliament had been planned in Afghanistan.

Pakistan on Friday closed its border with Afghanistan. Pakistani forces also launched a nation-wide sweep in search of members of the alliance in which as of this writing some 100 people were killed.

Counterterrorism officials said the alliance of eight organizations formed late last year included IS, the Pakistani Taliban and some of its associates, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami (LJA), Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), and Jundallah.

Members of the alliance have demonstrated their ability to wreak havoc long before they decided to join forces.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility for a December 2014 attack on a public military school in which 141 people, including 132 school children, were killed. The attack sparked public outrage and forced the government to announce a national action plan to crack down on militants and political violence. The plan has so far proven to be a paper tiger.

LJA and IS said they carried out an attack last October on a police academy in Quetta that left 62 cadets dead. In August, JuA wiped out a generation of Baluch lawyers who had gathered at a hospital in Quetta to mourn the killing of a colleague, the second one to be assassinated in a week.

The bombings and killings did little to persuade Pakistan’s security establishment that long-standing military and intelligence support for groups that did the country’s geopolitical bidding in Kashmir and Afghanistan as well as for sectarian and ultra-conservative organizations and religious schools that often also benefitted from Saudi funding was backfiring. The support has allowed some of these groups to garner popular support and make significant inroads into branches of the state.

“The enemy within is not a fringe... Large sections of society sympathize with these groups. They fund them, directly and indirectly. They provide them recruits. They reject the Constitution and the system. They don’t just live in the ‘bad lands’ but could be our neighbours. The forces have not only to operate in areas in the periphery, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but have also to operate in the cities where hundreds, perhaps thousands form sleeper cells, awaiting orders or planning to strike,” said Pakistani columnist Ejaz Haider in a commentary.

Credible Pakistani media reports, denied by the government as well as the military, said that the attacks had brought out sharp differences between various branches of government and the state over attitudes towards the militants during a meeting last year of civilian, military and intelligence leaders. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Foreign Minister were reported to have told military and intelligence commanders that Pakistan risked international isolation because of its failure to enforce the national action plan.

JuA last month announced the alliance’s challenging of the state with its declaration of Operation Ghazi, named after Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a leader of Islamabad’s controversial Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, widely viewed as jihadist nerve centre, who was killed in clashes in 2007 with the military. The group said the alliance would target provincial parliaments; security forces, including the military, intelligence and the police; financial institutions; non-Islamic political parties; media; co-ed educational institutions; Shiites and Ahmadis, a group widely viewed by conservative Muslims as heretics that have been declared non-Muslims in Pakistan’s constitution.

There is little indication that the formation of the alliance and the launch of its violent campaign will spark a fundamental re-think of its longstanding differentiation between militant groups that do its geopolitical bidding in Afghanistan and Kashmir and those that target the Pakistani state.

Pakistan’s refusal despite the crackdown in the wake of the most recent attacks to put an end to its selective countering of political violence was evident in an earlier crackdown on groups that are believed to have close ties to the security establishment.

Pakistan, in a bid to prevent a possible inclusion of Pakistan in a re-working by President Donald J. Trump of his troubled ban on travel to the United States from violence-prone Muslim countries with active jihadist groups and pre-empt sanctions by a Bangkok-based Asian money laundering watchdog, last month put leaders of another internationally designated group under house arrest. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global inter-governmental body that combats money laundering and funding of political violence is expected to discuss Pakistan in the coming days at a meeting in Paris.

The government, in addition to treating the leaders of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), widely seen as a front for Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, with kid’s gloves rather than putting them in prison, has so far remained silent about the group’s intention to resume operations under a new name. The government has also said nothing about the group’s plans to register itself as a political party.

Analysts with close ties to the military have argued that simply banning JuD and seizing its assets would not solve the problem because of the group’s widespread popular support. Some analysts draw a comparison to militant Islamist groups in the Middle East such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah in Lebanon that have garnered popular support by functioning both as political parties and social service organizations.

“Ensuring that such groups disavow violence and have a path towards participation in a pluralistic, competitive political environment is more likely to offer the prospect of greater stability. That may work for some groups like JuD but not for those responsible for this week’s wave of indiscriminate killing,” one analyst said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa


Azaz Syed is a prominent, award-winning Pakistani investigative reporter for Geo News and The News. He is the author of the acclaimed book, The Secrets of Pakistan's War On Al-Qaida

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Militants put half-hearted Pakistani counter-terrorism at crossroads

Source: The News

By James M. Dorsey

A militant faction associated with the Pakistani Taliban has put Pakistani authorities, already under pressure from the United States and an Asian money laundering watchdog, at a crossroads in their hitherto half-hearted efforts to crack down on violent groups, some of which maintain close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar earlier this week fired its first shots in a new offensive that aims at Pakistan government, military and civilian targets with a suicide attack on the Punjabi parliament. Fifteen people were killed in the attack. The group also attacked three military outposts in the Pakistani tribal agency of Mohmand.

The offensive dubbed Operation Ghazi came as Pakistan sought to fend off potential steps against Pakistan, including inclusion on a possible revision of President Donald J. Trump’s embattled list of countries whose nationals are temporarily banned from travel to the United States, and punitive steps by the Bangkok-based Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG). APG has been looking into Pakistani financial transaction of internationally banned groups that continue to operate with Pakistani acquiescence.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar demonstrated its ability to force Pakistan to act against militants, no matter how half-heartedly, with its December 2014 attack on a public military school in which 141 people, including 132 school children, were killed.

The attack sparked public outrage and forced the government to announce a national action plan to crack down on militants and political violence. The plan has largely proven to be a paper tiger.

With its announcement on February 10 of Operation Ghazi and this month’s attacks, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar could force Pakistan’s government and security establishment to again review its counterterrorism strategy, employment of militant proxies in Kashmir and Afghanistan, and implementation of the action plan. The operation was named after Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a leader of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, who was killed in clashes in 2007 with the military.

While any review is likely to amount in the short term to finetuning rather than a fundamental revision of Pakistani policies, it would probably nudge Pakistan one step closer to realizing that its strategy is backfiring and increasingly proving too costly. Pakistan has long denied supporting militant groups and has repeatedly charged that Jamaat-ul-Ahrar was a creation of Indian intelligence.

Pakistan last month put one of the world’s most wanted men, Hafez Muhammad Saeed, a leader of the banned group Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and its alleged front, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), under house arrest. Although internationally listed as a globally designated terrorist, Mr. Saeed was restricted in his freedom of movement rather than incarcerated while his movement has started operations under a new name, Tehrik-e-Azadi Jammu o Kashmir.

Earlier, Pakistan’s State Bank, the country’s monetary authority announced the freezing of accounts of 2,000 militants that militants and analysts said did not hold the bulk of the militants’ assets.

Projecting himself as a key figure in radical Islamist opposition to the state, Maulana Mohammad Abdul Aziz, the brother of Mr. Ghazi and current head of the Red Mosque, a notorious militant nerve centre, spelled out the philosophy of the militants in a recent interview. Sporting a white wild growth beard as he sat cross-legged on a mattress on the floor of a booklined room in a rundown compound that houses the mosque’s seminary, Mr. Abdul Aziz rejected the Pakistani government’s authority.

“These corrupt rulers are not fit to rule. They don’t have moral authority. They live in wealth while the people live in abject poverty. If the state is not within the boundaries of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, we have no right to recognize its authority. Pakistan is not a Muslim country. We still have the law of the colonial power. We disagree with those who believe in democracy,” Mr. Abdul Aziz said with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eye.

The International Crisis Group warned in a just released report that “ethno-political and sectarian interests and competition, intensified by internal migration, jihadist influx and unchecked movement of weapons, drugs and black money, have created an explosive mix” in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. The report said the city was a pressure cooker as a result of a failure of government policy, lack of action against militant and criminal groups, and “a heavy-handed, politicised crackdown by paramilitary Rangers.”

The report noted that “anti-India outfits like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa (LeT/JD) and Jaish-e-Mohammed continue to operate madrasas and charity fronts with scant reaction from the Rangers or police.”

The ICG called on federal and local government to “replace selective counter-terrorism with an approach that targets jihadist groups using violence within or from Pakistani territory; regulate the madrasa sector; and act comprehensively against those with jihadist links.”

Pakistan has a vast number of uncontrolled madrassas or religious seminaries that are run by militant groups, many with close ties to Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative religious establishment, that teach an intolerant, supremacist, often sectarian interpretation of Islam. Complicating any government effort to supervise madrassas, is the fact that the government has no reliable data on how many seminaries exist.

A military campaign in 2009 against the Pakistani Taliban in the country’s tribal areas prompted the group to set up shop in Karachi. Its estimated 8,000 operatives in the city heightened tension and increased levels of violence.

“Karachi thus changed from a city in which jihadist combatants mainly rested and recuperated from fighting elsewhere to one that also generated vital funding. TTP (Pakistani Taliban)-run extortion rackets, for instance, targeted marble factory owners in strongholds such as Manghopir, while kidnapping for ransom and robberies generated additional revenue. The police were regularly attacked, bans were enforced on ‘immoral activities’ and ‘peace committees’ (mobile courts and jirgas – councils of elders) were established to win over constituents and consolidate local authority,” the ICG report said.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Women’s gyms lay bare limits of Saudi reforms

 

By James M. Dorsey

A Saudi decision to license within weeks the kingdom’s first women-only gyms constitutes progress in a country in which women’s rights are severely curtailed. It also lays bare the limitations of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan for social and economic reforms that would rationalize and diversify the kingdom’s economy.

Restrictions on what activities the gyms will be allowed to offer reflects the power of an ultra-conservative religious establishment and segment of society critical of the long overdue reforms that became inevitable as a result of sharply reduced oil revenues and the need to enhance Saudi competitivity in a 21st knowledge-driven global economy.

At least two years in the making, the licensing rules announced by Princess Reema bin Bandar, vice president for women’s affairs of the General Authority of Sports, the kingdom’s sports czar, focus on Prince Mohammed’s plans laid out in a document entitled Vision 2030. The plans involve streamlining government expenditure, including public health costs in a country that boasts one of the world’s highest rates of obesity and diabetes.

“It is not my role to convince the society, but my role is limited to opening the doors for our girls to live a healthy lifestyle away from diseases that result from obesity and lack of movement,” Princess Reema said in announcing the licensing.

Princess Reema, the kingdom’s first ever women’s sports official, hopes to open gyms in every district and neighbourhood in the kingdom. The move constitutes progress in a country that has yet to introduce sports in public girl’s schools and has no public facilities for women’s sports.

Commercially run gyms catering primarily to upper and upper middle class women as well as privately organized women’s sports teams have been operating in the kingdom in a legal nether land for several years.

Princess Reema indicated that gyms would be licensed to focus on activities such as swimming, running and bodybuilding but not for sports such as soccer volleyball, basketball and tennis.

The licensing rules are in line with a policy articulated in 2014 by Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia's Olympic Committee. At the time, Mr. Al-Mishal, responding to pressure by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said women would only be allowed to compete in disciplines that were "accepted culturally and religiously in Saudi Arabia" and conform to a literal interpretation of the Qur’an. Mr. Al-Mishal identified such sports as equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery.

They are also in line with unrealistic hopes abandoned several years ago to emphasize individual rather than team sports in a men’s only national sports plan. The idea to de-emphasize team sports was intended to limit the potential of soccer becoming a venue of anti-government protest as it had in Egypt and elsewhere during the 2011 popular Arab revolts. It proved unrealistic given that Saudi Arabia, like most nations in the region, is soccer-crazy. Saudi Arabia announced earlier this month that it would privatize five of the kingdom’s top soccer clubs.

Women’s sports is one litmus test of Saudi Arabia’s ability to tackle its social, political and economic challenges head on and move forward with Prince Mohammed’s outline of how the government hopes to diversify the economy, streamline its bloated bureaucracy and safeguard the Al Saud’s grip on power.

Vision 2030 identifies sports “as a mainstay of a healthy and balanced lifestyle and promises “to encourage widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic activities.”

The licensing of women’s gyms is occurring even though Vision 2030 made no reference to facilities for women. The document also failed to even implicitly address demands by the IOC and human rights groups that women be allowed to compete freely in all athletic disciplines rather than only ones mentioned in the Qur’an.

The Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs, headed by Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmed, reported in 2014 that up to 74 percent of adults and 40 percent of children are believed to be overweight or obese.

“Women in Saudi Arabia are being killed softly by their government. Not by public executions or brutal rapes and beatings, but by day-to-day restrictions imposed on them by their government… It must be understood that restrictions on women sports and physical activity have nothing to do with culture or religion, but rather, are fuelled by the ruling elite as a means to control the population. As long as the Saudi government continues to claim that such bans are a result of cultural and personal practices, women will continue to suffer a decline in physical and mental health, as well as their social, economic and political status,” the report asserted.

It said that the restrictions amounted to “an almost completely sedentary lifestyle forced on women by the government through a de facto ban on physical education and sports participation for women that stems from the Wahhabi imperative of ‘keeping women unseen.’”

Saudi media have reported that lack of exposure to sun had led to vitamin D deficiency among 80 
percent of Saudi women.

A Human Rights Watch report concluded last year that “inside Saudi Arabia, widespread discrimination still hampers access to sports for Saudi women and girls, including in public education.”

The group noted that Saudi women were denied access to state sports infrastructure and barred from participating in national tournaments and state-organized sports leagues as well as attending men’s national team matches as spectators. Women have difficulty accessing the 150 clubs that are regulated by the General Authority, which organizes tournaments only for men.

Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi government to demonstrate its sincerity by making physical education for girls’ mandatory in all state schools; ensuring that women can train to teach physical education in schools; establishing sports federations for women and allows them to compete domestically and internationally; supporting women who want to compete in international sporting competitions on an equal footing with men; and allowing women to attend sporting events involving men’s national teams.

“Saudi authorities need to address gender discrimination in sports, not just because it is required by international human rights law, but because it could have lasting benefits for the health and well-being of the next generation of Saudi girls,” Human Rights Watch director of global initiatives Minky Worden said at the time.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Monday, February 13, 2017

EXCLUSIVE - Going into politics: Detained Pakistani militant tests the system


By Azaz Syed and James M. Dorsey

Muhammad Hafez Saeed, the recently detained UN and US-designated global terrorist and one of the world’s most wanted men, plans to register his group, Jama’at-ud-Dawa (JuD), widely seen as a front for another proscribed organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), as a political party in Pakistan, according to sources close to the militant.

The move comes days after Mr. Saeed and several other JuD leaders were put under house arrest in a bid to fend off potential steps against Pakistan, including inclusion on President Donald J. Trump’s list of countries whose nationals are temporarily banned from travel to the United States, and punitive steps by an Asian money laundering watchdog.

In a further effort to fend off pressure, Pakistan’s State Bank, the country’s monetary authority said it had installed a long overdue automated system to detect money laundering and terrorism financing. 
The announcement followed last year’s freezing by the bank of the accounts of 2,000 militants – a move described by both analysts and militants as ineffective because those accounts were not where militants keep their assets.

Meanwhile, the State Department, in a hint of a possibly tougher line towards Pakistan. refused in recent days to issue a visa to Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, an Islamic scholar who is deputy chairman of Pakistan’s Senate and a member of parliament for Jama’at-i-Islami (F), a political party with close ties to the Taliban. Mr. Haideri was scheduled to travel to New York to attend a meeting of the International Parliamentary Union (IPU) at the headquarters of the United Nations.

In response, Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani announced that the Pakistani parliamentary body would ban its members from travelling to the US unless it received an explanation for the refusal. The US embassy in Islamabad has so far refrained from explaining the decision.

JuD sources said its transition to a political party was in part designed to stop cadres from joining the Islamic State (IS). They said some 500 JuD activists had left the group to join more militant organizations, including IS. They said the defections often occurred after the Pakistani military launches operations against militants in areas like South Waziristan.

Writing in Dawn, Pakistani security analyst Muhammad Amir Rana argued in favour of allowing JuD to transition into a political party. A “major challenge for the state is how to neutralise groups that once served its strategic purpose. The most practised way in a post-insurgency perspective is to reintegrate them into mainstream society,” Mr. Rana wrote.

“The state can freeze their assets, shut down their charity and organisational operations, put their leaderships under different schedules of anti-terrorism laws, try their leaders in courts of law, and, in the worst case, strip them of their nationality. But will this eliminate the problem?” Mr. Rana added.

JuD’s application, which since Mr. Saeed’s arrest has suggested that it would be operating under a new name, Tehreek-e-Azadi-e-Kashmir (Kashmir Freedom Movement), a practice frequently adopted by militant groups with government acquiescence, would however in the minds of Western officials and analysts and some Pakistanis test the sincerity of a recent Pakistani government crackdown on militants. JuD is believed to have close ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence. A JuD leader said the group would register with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) under its own name rather than under a new one.

Mr. Saeed is believed to be among others responsible for the 2008 attacks on 12 targets in Mumbai, including the Taj Mahal Hotel, a train station, a café and a Jewish centre. Some 164 people were killed and more than 300 wounded. The US government has a bounty of $10 million on Mr. Saeed for information leading to his capture. Mr. Saeed, who was once a LeT leader, has since disassociated himself from the group and denied any link between JuD and LeT.

A JuD leader said that the group might wait with registration with the ECP and let the current focus on the group fade away. “We have decided to go in the politics. However, we’ll let the current phase evolve after having been put on the government’s watch list before registering,” the leader said.

JuD sources said the decision to go into politics and register with the ECP was taken days before last month’s crackdown on the group.

Some analysts believe that JuD would have to get a court order to be allowed to register given that its designation by the United Nations and the United States bans it from conducting business as normal, including performing financial transactions. ECP registration requires providing audited accounts.
JuD sources said the group has $19 million in assets that were in accounts of local officials of the group in various districts in the country.

JuD is believed to be the largest militant group in Pakistan. General John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, told Congress last week that 20 of the 98 groups designated by the United States as well as “three violent, extremist organizations” operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 
"That is highest concentration of violent, extremist groups in the world,” Gen. Nicholson said.

Gen. Johnson was speaking amid mounting pressure on the Trump administration to adopt a tougher position towards Pakistani support of militants from a chorus of voices that include the military, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, and influential Washington-based think tanks.

 “JuD is the biggest non-state actor in Pakistan. It has the largest infrastructure in the country,” Mr.  Rana said in an interview. JuD is believed to have 100 offices across Pakistan. A JuD leader said the group had trained more than two million cadres and employs 12,000 people.

Azaz Syed is a prominent, award-winning Pakistani investigative reporter for Geo News and The News. He is the author of the acclaimed book, The Secrets of Pakistan's War On Al.Qaeda


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Friday, February 10, 2017

Trump pressured to confront Pakistan on support for militants

Source: The Express Tribune
By James M. Dorsey

Pressure on the Trump administration is mounting to adopt a tougher position towards Pakistani support of militants in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan itself. The pressure comes from a chorus of voices that include the US military, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, and influential Washington-based think tanks.

The calls for a harder line were issued despite a Pakistani crackdown on militants in recent months that many see as half-hearted. It also comes days after China, at Pakistan’s behest, blocked the United Nations Security Council from listing a prominent Pakistani militant as a globally designated terrorist.

Pakistani officials hope that some of Mr. Trump’s key aides such as Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security advisor Michael Flynn, both of whom have had long standing dealings with Pakistan during their military careers, may act as buffers. They argue that the two men appreciate Pakistan’s problems and believe that trust between the United States and Pakistan needs to be rebuilt. Mr. Mattis argued in his Senate confirmation hearing that the United States needed to remain engaged with Pakistan

Pakistani media reported that Mr. Mattis had expressed support for the Pakistani military’s role in combatting terrorism during a 20-minute telephone conversation this week with newly appointed Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Military and Congressional support for a tougher approach was expressed this week in a US Armed Services Committee hearing on Afghanistan during which General John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, noted that 20 of the 98 groups designated by the United States as well as “three violent, extremist organizations” operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “That is highest concentration of violent, extremist groups in the world,” Gen. Nicholson said.

In testimony to the committee, General Nicholson called for “a holistic review” of US relations with Pakistan, arguing that the Taliban and the Haqqani network had “no incentive to reconcile” as long as they enjoyed safe haven in Pakistan.

“External safe haven and support in Pakistan increases the cost to the United States in terms of lives, time, and money, and it advantages the enemy with the strategic initiative, allowing them to determine the pace and venue of conflict from sanctuary,” Gen. Nicholson said.

“Success in Afghanistan will require a candid evaluation of our relationship with Pakistan… The fact remains that numerous terrorist groups remain active in Pakistan, attack its neighbours and kill US forces. Put simply: our mission in Afghanistan is immeasurably more difficult, if not impossible while our enemies retain a safe haven in Pakistan. These sanctuaries must be eliminated,” Mr. McCain said.

Mr. Reed added that “Pakistani support for extremist groups operating in Afghanistan must end if we and Afghanistan are to achieve necessary levels of security.”

The pronouncements in the committee hearing gave added significance to policy recommendations made by a group of prominent experts, including former Pakistan ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani and former CIA official and advisor to four US presidents Bruce Riedel, associated with among others The Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Middle East Institute, the New America Foundation and Georgetown University.

“The U.S. must stop chasing the mirage of securing change in Pakistan’s strategic direction by giving it additional aid or military equipment. It must be acknowledged that Pakistan is unlikely to change its current policies through inducements alone. The U.S. must also recognize that its efforts over several decades to strengthen Pakistan militarily have only encouraged those elements in Pakistan that hope someday to wrest Kashmir from India through force. The Trump administration must be ready to adopt tougher measures toward Islamabad that involve taking risks in an effort to evoke different Pakistani responses,” the experts said in their report.

The experts suggested the Trump administration should wait a year with designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism while it takes steps to convince Pakistan to fundamentally alter its policies.

Such steps would include warning Pakistan that it could lose its status as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA); prioritizing engagement with Pakistan’s civilian leaders rather than with the military and intelligence services; imposing counterterrorism conditions on U.S. military aid and reimbursements to Pakistan; and establishing a sequence and timeline for specific actions Pakistan should take against militants responsible for attacks outside Pakistan.

There is little to suggest a reversal of policy in recent Pakistani measures to crackdown on militants including imposing house arrest on Muhammad Hafez Saeed and other leaders of Jama’at-ud-Dawa (JuD), widely viewed as a front for the proscribed group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and the freezing of accounts of some 2,000 militants.

Apparently pre-warned that action may be taken against him, Mr. Saeed suggested during a press conference in Islamabad in mid-January that JuD may operate under a new name, a practice frequently adopted by militant groups with government acquiescence. Mr. Saeed said the new name was Tehreek-e-Azadi-e-Kashmir (Kashmir Freedom Movement). The Indian Express reported that JuD/LeT continued after Mr. Saeed’s house arrest to operate training camps in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

Various militants and analysts said the accounts targeted were not where funds were kept. Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhyvani, a leader of the virulently anti-Shiite group, Ahle Sunnat Wal Juma'at, a successor of Sipah-e-Sabaha, said in an interview that there were a mere 500,000 rupees ($4,772) in his frozen account.

Persuading Pakistan to alter its ways is likely to prove no mean task. The government as well as the military and intelligence believe that the United States favours Indian dominance in the region and has allowed India to gain influence in Afghanistan. Gen. Nicholson went out of his way in his testimony to thank India for billions of dollars in aid it was granting Afghanistan. Many, particularly in the military and intelligence, see the militants as useful proxies against India.

More vexing is likely the fact that military and intelligence support for Saudi-like and at times Saudi-backed violent and non-violent groups with an ultra-conservative, religiously inspired world view has become part of the fabric of key branches of the state and the government as well as significant segments of society.

Cracking down on militants, particularly if it is seen to be on behest of the United States, could provoke as many problems as it offers solutions. Mounting pressure in Washington on the Trump administration amounts to the writing on the wall. Pakistani leaders are likely to be caught in a Catch-22.

The solution might lie in Beijing. Many in Pakistan have their hopes for economic development pinned on China’s planned $46 billion investment in Pakistani infrastructure and energy. China, despite having so far shielded a Pakistani militant in the UN Security Council, is exerting pressure of its own on Pakistan to mend its ways. As a result, Pakistan is one area where China and the US could find common cause.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Protecting Militants: China blocks UN listing of Pakistani as a globally designated terrorist


By James M. Dorsey

China, at the behest of Pakistan, has prevented the United Nations from listing a prominent Pakistani militant as a globally designated terrorist. China’s protection of Masood Azhar, who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military, raises questions about the sincerity of a Pakistani crackdown on militants as well as China’s willingness to use its influence to persuade Pakistan to put an end to the use of militants as proxies.

The United States, Britain, France and India have long wanted the United Nations Security Council Sanctions Committee to designate Mr. Azhar on the grounds that his organization, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), has already been proscribed by Pakistan as well as the international body.

Mr. Azhar, a fighter in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for an attack last year on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station. The militants, dressed in Indian military uniforms fought a 14-hour battle against Indian security forces that only ended when the last attacker was killed. Mr. Azhar was briefly detained after the attack and has since gone underground.

Mr. Azhar, who was freed from Indian prison in 1999 in exchange for the release of passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines flight, is also believed to be responsible for an attack in 2001 on the Indian parliament in New Delhi that brought Pakistan and India to the brink of war.

JeM despite being banned continues to publicly raise funds and recruit fighters in mosques. Indian journalist Praveen Swami quoted Mufti Abdul Rauf Asghar, Mr. Azhar’s elder brother, as telling worshippers gathered in a mosque in Punjab in late January to commemorate a militant who had been killed in India: “Islam is a world power and cannot be destroyed. Whoever tries to destroy it will be destroyed himself. Jihad is the most important obligation of our faith.”

Pakistani indulgence of JeM and Chinese connivance in preventing Mr. Azhar, a portly bespectacled son of a Bahawalpur religious studies teacher and author of a four-volume treatise on jihad as well as books with titles like Forty Diseases of the Jews, from being designated has raised eyebrows in both Pakistani and Chinese policy circles.

Opening a window on apparent differences between civilian and military branches of government, 
Pakistani Foreign Minister Aizaz Chaudhry last year reportedly warned a gathering of political, military and intelligence leaders that Pakistan risked international isolation if it failed to crack down on militant groups. Mr. Chaudhry noted that Pakistan’s closest ally, China with its massive $46 billion investment in Pakistani infrastructure as part of its One Belt, One Road initiative, was increasingly questioning the wisdom of protecting Mr. Azhar at Pakistan’s behest.

Chinese vice foreign minister Li Baodong last year defended his country’s repeated shielding of Mr. Azhar by suggesting that attempts to designate the JeM amounted to using counter-terrorism for political goals. “China is opposed to all forms of terrorism. There should be no double standards on counter-terrorism. Nor should one pursue own political gains in the name of counter-terrorism,” Mr. Li said.

Chinese policy analysts with close government ties squirm when asked about China’s repeated veto of efforts to designate Mr. Azhar. The analysts suggest that the Pakistani military and intelligence’s use of proxies like Mr. Azhar in their dispute with India over Kashmir has sparked debate about the wisdom of sinking $46 billion into Pakistan.

China’s hopes that the investment in infrastructure would persuade the Pakistani military and intelligence to seriously back away from using militant proxies have so far remain unfulfilled.

The investment is part of China’s larger effort to link Eurasia to China through infrastructure. It expects that the linkage will spur economic development both in Pakistan and China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang where China’s harsh measures against the cultural practices of the Uighurs have sought to pre-empt Islamist violence.

Responding to the civilian government’s effort to crackdown on Jaish-e-Mohammad, including last year’s freezing of its accounts by the State Bank of Pakistan, Mr. Azhar defended the group’s contribution to Pakistan’s defence of Kashmir as well as the jihadist movement at large.

“When we entered the tent of the jihadist movement. it had no branch in Kashmir, nor was there lightning in Iraq or Syria. There were just two fronts, in Afghanistan and Palestine, one of them active and one of them shut. We have watched as the jihad we befriended grew from a glowing ember into the sun; from a small spring into a river, and now, as it is about to become a great ocean,” Mr. Azhar wrote in the group’s magazine.

A BBC investigative documentary last year traced jihadist thinking in Britain to a month-long visit to Britain in 1993 by Mr. Azhar, who at the time headed Pakistani militant group Harakat ul Mujahideen.

Mr. Azhar gave 40 lectures during his fund-raising and recruitment tour and was feted by Islamic scholars from Britain’s largest mosque network. More and more scholars joined his entourage as he toured the country before moving on to Saudi Arabia. A passionate and emotive speaker, women reportedly took off their jewellery and handed it to Azhar after listening to his speeches.
“It was Azhar, a Pakistani cleric, who was the first to spread the seeds of modern jihadist militancy in Britain – and it was through South Asian mosques belonging to the Deobandi movement that he did it,” says BBC reporter Innes Bowen

Indian analysts believe that shielding Mr. Azhar serves China’s purpose of keeping India preoccupied with the threat of political violence. China’s is moreover grateful for successful Pakistani efforts to stop the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (IOC) that groups 57 Muslim nations from criticizing Chinese policy in Xinjiang. Finally, the analysts say, shielding Mr. Azhar constitutes retaliation for India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama.

In defending Mr. Azhar with one eye on India, China is walking a fine line that threatens to undermine its massively funded policy objectives in Pakistan, a country that for years has been reeling from militancy that has fuelled sectarianism at home and created militant groups that at times have turned on their Pakistani masters.

By doing so, China risks allowing militancy to further fester in a country where militancy is not confined to small groups but has been woven into the fabric of significant segments of society. Attempting to heal what is an open wound requires not only economic development but also a Pakistani and Chinese counter-terrorism strategy that refrains from making politically opportunistic compromises.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Tackling Iran: Trump fuels the fire

Source: IBTimes

By James M. Dorsey

The Trump administration risks fuelling sectarianism across the Muslim world and exacerbating multiple conflicts that are ripping the Middle East and North Africa apart by singling out Iran rather than tackling root causes.

Iran moved into President Donald J. Trump’s firing line when his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, an anti-Iran hawk, put the Islamic republic “on notice” for testing a ballistic missile. The test was likely a provocative probing of US policy towards Iran, one of seven countries whose nationals are temporarily banned from travel to the United States. Mr. Trump has repeatedly denounced the nuclear agreement concluded by the United States and other world powers with Iran as a bad deal.

It remains unclear what Mr. Flynn’s notification entails. A resolution circulated in the House of Representatives before Mr. Trump’s inauguration would authorize US military action against Iran if the president believes it is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Most analysts, including supporters of Mr. Trump, believe that Iran has largely honoured the international agreement curbing the Islamic republic’s nuclear program, making an immediate military response to the missile test unlikely.

Gulf states alongside Israel have moreover urged Mr. Trump to adopt a tough approach towards what they see as belligerent Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries and support for terrorism, but to stop short of annulling the agreement.  Mr. Trump is expected to move away from his campaign pledges to tear up the agreement, but with Mr. Flynn’s warning appears to be adopting the advice of US allies.

A Saudi read out of a phone conversation last weekend between King Salman and Mr. Trump said the two leaders agreed to counter "those who seek to undermine security and stability in the region and interfere in the affairs of other states." The White House said the they also had a meeting of the minds on the “importance of rigorously enforcing" the nuclear deal.

The consensus notwithstanding, Mr. Trump’s travel ban, despite including Iran, puts King Salman in a bind, as he balances the kingdom's foreign policy objectives with its self-proclaimed leadership of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia has so far refrained from commenting on the ban despite pressure from some of its allies to do so.

Saudi Arabia's predicament and it's welcoming of the rise of Mr. Trump in the expectation that he will fight some of the kingdom's battles creates the opportunity for the new president to put disruption to constructive use.

It could allow Mr. Trump to tackle not only Iran but also Saudi Arabia on a fundamental issue that drives volatility, sectarianism and political violence in the Muslim world in general and Iranian and Saudi policies specifically: the rise of supremacist, intolerant, anti-pluralistic ultra-conservatism.

Supporters of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have already hinted at the opportunity. “Iran has every interest in reducing tension with Saudi Arabia at a time when the Trump presidency in the United States is creating new uncertainties,” said an editorial in the pro-Rouhani Entekhab daily.

The opportunity that arises is not limited to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Leaving aside the ethics of banning travel on the basis of religion or nationality, Mr. Trump’s  ban as well as his intention to  focus US counter-terrorism exclusively on Islam rather than on all forms of political extremism, including far-right supremacism, would also allow him to pressure other countries where divisive ultra-conservatism has been allowed to fester.

That is evident in efforts by the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia to stay out of Mr. Trump’s firing line by refraining from criticizing the ban. Both Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, have witnessed the rise of ultra-conservative intolerance towards non-Muslim and Muslim minorities such as Shiites and Ahmadis, a sect widely viewed by conservative followers of the faith as heretics, that are informed by Saudi-backed puritan interpretations of Islam

There is little to suggest that Mr. Trump recognizes the opportunity. A failure to exploit the opportunity and exclusively target Iran is however likely to backfire, embolden Saudi policies that create problems rather than offer solutions, and fuel sectarian and other cycles of violence.

While Iran has refrained from promoting a supremacist world view of its own, there is little doubt that it implements its ultra-conservatism with the application of medieval, punitive measures of Islamic law, including amputation and stoning. It has also reshaped the politics as well as the very integrity of Arab countries like Lebanon where it supports Shiite militia Hezbollah, Syria that has been torn apart by a vicious civil war, the creation of Shiite militias in Iraq, and Yemen where Iran has come to the aid of the Houthis. The problem is that so have Saudi Arabia and its allies or in other words: there are no nice guys in this fight.

A four-decade long, $100 billion global Saudi effort to box in, if not undermine, a post-1979 revolution Iranian system of government that it sees as an existential threat to the autocratic rule of the Al Saud family by funding ultra-conservative political and religious groups has contributed to the rise of supremacism, intolerance and anti-pluralism across the Muslim world and created potential breeding grounds of extremism.

The rise of ultra-conservatism has fuelled sectarianism and violence against Shiites and Ahmadis; hardened attitudes towards women and alternative lifestyles; and curbed fundamental freedoms under the guise of blasphemy.

Iranian interference in the affairs of other countries stems as much from long-fading revolutionary zeal in the wake of the 1979 revolution as it constitutes a response to the Saudi-led Sunni campaign that involved not only support for non-violent, ultra-conservative groups, but also the funding of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s devastating eight-year long war against Iran in the 1980s as well as virulently anti-Shiite and anti-Ahmadi forces in Pakistan that are responsible for the deaths of thousands, and militant groups in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

At the bottom line, Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been locked into a struggle for dominance in the Muslim world that has fuelled violence, created breeding grounds for extremism, and brought the Middle East and North Africa to the edge of an abyss. Tackling symptoms or only specific players rather than root causes threatens to fuel the fire rather than extinguish it.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa