AS he squatted under a TTP banner and toted his Kalashnikov, his face looked familiar, though his beard had grown much thicker and was perhaps dyed in henna, hiding the grey. After a long disappearance, Mast Gul resurfaced last week in North Waziristan with another militant commander claiming responsibility for a terrorist attack on a hotel in Peshawar that killed several Shias.
That takes me down memory lane more than 18 years ago when the burly young tribesman had returned to a hero’s welcome after leading a bloody, two-month siege of Charar Sharif, a 14th-century shrine in India-held Kashmir. The fighting killed several Indian soldiers and ended in the destruction of the historical holy place.
Working on a BBC documentary on Islamic blowback we travelled with Mast Gul for days filming his ‘victory’ processions in Punjab. Escorted by the top leadership of the Jamaat-i-Islami he was hailed as a great ‘Islamic warrior’. It was apparent that the JI was using him to boost its jihadi credentials and get maximum political mileage.
My most vivid memory was a reception for him at the Punjab University campus in Lahore. The jam-packed auditorium thundered with slogans of “jihad” as Mast Gul entered surrounded by armed militants in camouflage jackets. The atmosphere became more charged as he narrated the story of his encounter with Indian troops. “Kashmir will soon be liberated,” he vowed amid thunderous applause and salutary gunfire.
Such salutation was overwhelming for this tribal bumpkin known as a daredevil maverick to his acquaintances in Peshawar where he had resided. He was non-serious, often poking his colleagues with his Kalashnikov which he loved to keep by his side. He would randomly fire it to show off. The ‘hero of Charar Sharif’, however, was soon in oblivion after falling out with his patrons — until his reappearance last week.
That was the time when militant groups openly operated under the state’s patronage, recruiting volunteers that mostly attracted young men like Mast Gul, fascinated by guns and with a love for adventure. There were others too motivated by religious belief.
The militant groups would demonstrate guerrilla training sessions on Lahore’s Mall Road and other city centres. Through graffiti, wall posters and pamphlets they invited young men for training. ‘Jihad is the shortest route to heaven’ was one of many exhortations.
Many ideologically indoctrinated men died fighting in various global jihad theatres from Kashmir to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya. Pakistan had earned the unparalleled distinction of being the only country using militancy as a tool of its foreign and security policy, turning the country into a nursery for jihad. People like Mast Gul were certainly no aberration. The ruthless use of militancy for dangerous proxy wars has ultimately come back to haunt this country. The transition of Mast Gul from street urchin to jihadist and to ultimately ending up as a terrorist is also the story of many others.
A large number of militant fighters like Mast Gul have now taken up jihad inwards, killing their old patrons in security agencies as well as innocent Pakistanis. Their targets are also members of the Shia community and of other religious minorities: anyone who does not subscribe to their retrogressive worldview has to be eliminated.
Though the state’s change of tack after 9/11 may have precipitated Pakistan’s war within, it was only a matter of time before these motivated holy warriors turned against their own people in the name of religion. The culture of jihad sponsored by the mullah-military alliance was bound to catch up sooner or later. In fact, it would have been more catastrophic had Pakistan not decided to roll back its policy on militancy and withdraw its support for the Afghan Taliban regime.
It is utterly nonsensical to link the rise of violent militancy to the US occupation in Afghanistan or to drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Militancy has been deeply rooted in Pakistan for more than two decades. People like Mast Gul are certainly not the product of the post-9/11 situation.
Therefore, it is an extremely flawed argument that the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan will bring an end to the jihadi narrative and lead subsequently to the winding down of terrorism. The militants are not fighting for Afghanistan but for the control of Pakistan.
There is no ambiguity whatsoever about what the militants want. They are seeking to impose their retrogressive ideology through brute force. For them democracy is an un-Islamic system and unacceptable. Their war against the Pakistani state has nothing to do with the presence of foreign forces — something that Taliban apologists like Imran Khan want us to believe. Mast Gul and his sort will not disappear post-2014 following the withdrawal of coalition forces across the border.
What an irony that the state is bowing before murderers and criminals like Mast Gul who proudly own the killing of innocent Pakistanis. There’s no precedence anywhere of a state acting so weakly before the terrorists challenging its authority.
What our political leadership does not realise is that conceding their retrogressive ideology would certainly inflame religious tensions and even lead to sectarian civil war in the country. As the state loses control, militant leaders of all hues are resurfacing to assert themselves and revive the jihad industry. This culture of militancy has to be rolled back before it is too late.
The writer is an author and journalist.