January 21, 2017 1:19:40 am
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s three-day visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina in December 2016 was hardly noticed internationally. This was the first time since the tragic 1990s that Pakistanis heard Bosnia mentioned in the national media. But there is much between the two states which shall be remembered.
In 1991, the population of the collapsed confederal Yugoslavia trifurcated before throwing themselves into a bloody civil war. The Muslims as an ancient minority were different from the other two, Serbs and Croats. Under Tito’s communism, the 1948 census didn’t allow the Muslims to register as Muslims, because religion didn’t form nationality then, and asked them instead to name themselves either Serb or Croat. Eighty-nine per cent of the Muslims registered themselves as “nationality undetermined”, 8 per cent as Serbs and 3 per cent as Croats. They were a useful make-weight in the Serb-Croat nationalist drives which gave them importance. In the 1953 census, the Muslims were allowed to register as Yugoslavs. All of them did while most of the Serbs and Croats preferred to register as ethnicities. In this pattern one can discern the disaster that struck Yugoslavia in 1991.
In 1991-5, the world was savagely reminded of the Balkans’ capacity to harm itself through nationalism when the Serbs of Yugoslavia started butchering Muslims in Sarajevo. A batch of early Bosnian refugees was made to land in Pakistan where they were looked after despite the “cultural gap” felt by the Europeanised Bosnian Muslims.
According to Hein G. Kiessling in his book Faith, Unity, Discipline: the ISI of Pakistan (2016), Pakistan assisted Bosnia, in cooperation with Iran, supplying small weapons, “flown to the Balkans by the Pakistan Air Force”. Under General Zia, Pakistan was already looking for causes to defend abroad and seeking leadership of the supranational Muslim ummah. Kiessling writes: “Former DG ISI Hamid Gul, who travelled to Bosnia himself, assisted in the training in the Harkatul Mujahideen. Besides Gul, another former ISI chief too was active in the Bosnian operations. Retired Lieutenant General Asad Durrani, by then Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany, coordinated from Bonn teams of young Muslims from the ummah for the Bosnia assignment.” NATO and CIA saw Pakistan transporting men and material by air and looked the other way.
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One can understand the warmth between the two PMs in Bosnia last month as Nawaz Sharif visited with his wife. It was a gesture not only to the Bosnian Muslims but also to the army back home whose brave effort in the Balkans was appreciated by Pakistanis not able then to grasp the long-term effect of this adventure. It was one of the most transformational factors in the evolution of Pakistan: It changed the thinking of the officers who later took command of the Pakistan army. But the most important factor was the “return of the warrior” from proxy adventures abroad and the way it affected the internal sovereignty of the state.
The example of the British national Umar Sheikh is instructive. He was among the 200 British Pakistanis who trained in Pakistan and fought in Bosnia. He left the London School of Economics in 1993 for Pakistan where his ISI handling officer was Brigadier Ejaz Shah, also the ISI contact for Mullah Umar and Osama bin Laden. Umar Sheikh was to later gang up with Jaish-e-Muhammad to trap and help kill American journalist Daniel Pearl for al Qaeda.
According to Daily Pakistan (April 16, 2006) Umar Sheikh had conspired in 2001 to kill President Musharraf while the latter was taking a 23 March Pakistan Day salute in Islamabad. But the plan backfired, Umar Sheikh was arrested in 2002. He is today imprisoned in Pakistan waiting to be hanged for the murder of Daniel Pearl. The media has reported that he is lionised by the jail wardens as a true Muslim, even allowed once to use a cellphone to threaten Musharraf.
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek’ Pakistan
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