Pakistan and Britain: On exits and entrances

September 30, 2009

With one million Britons of Pakistani origin, and as the former colonial power, Britain has a unique relationship with Pakistan. But concerns about Britain’s vulnerability to bomb attacks planned by Pakistan-based militants — British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said that three-quarters of the most serious plots investigated by British authorities had links to al Qaeda in Pakistanhas made for a rocky relationship.

Irfan Husain, a columnist for Dawn newspaper who divides his time between Britain and Pakistan, writes that these tensions are being worsened by the problems Pakistanis have in obtaining visas to visit Britain.

“It is true that Pakistan is increasingly viewed as the epicentre of Islamic terrorism. Many plots, real and imaginary, have had their roots in the badlands of Fata (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas),” he writes. “Many young Brits of Pakistani descent have travelled to remote parts of the country to receive training in bomb-making. But the point is that these young men do not need visas to return to Bradford and Wolverhampton. Being born in Britain, they enter their country without let or hindrance.”

Among those denied entry were members of the Lahore Pipe Band hoping to take part in a world championship in Scotland, a trade delegation, a well-known columnist, and a guitarist.

It’s not entirely clear whether the visa problems are driven more by bureaucratic bungling than fear of terrorism. The Guardian newspaper says that several thousand Pakistani students hoping to start university in Britain are facing delays of three months or more for visas because of a “bureaucratic fiasco” – after a reorganisation, visa applications from Pakistan are now processed in Abu Dhabi.

Husain argues that by denying entry to the likes of writers and musicians, Britain is compounding the very problem it wants to contain - the spread of extremism. These are the kind of people who should be made welcome in the west, he says. ”Given the position they enjoy in Pakistan, they can influence many to see that the enemy is not the West, but the forces of darkness that have gained the ascendancy in our own country. By turning them down, the British government only provides ammunition to those who are convinced of the West’s inherent anti-Islam policies.”

In any case, most security analysts would argue that the main  concern is not about Pakistanis coming into Britain; it is about Britons of Pakistani origin leaving the country to attend militant training camps based in Pakistan. On this subject, Stephen Tankel has an interesting post about signs of growth in the operations of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militant groups. Based in Pakistan’s heartland Punjab province, these groups were initially focused on fighting India over Kashmir, but are increasingly seen as a potential or direct threat to the west.

“In the past JeM and LeT were valuable to al-Qaeda because of what is called the ‘Kashmiri Escalator’. A disproportionate number of British Pakistanis are of Kashmiri decent and those interested in making contact with a militant group often can employ familial connections in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to find their ways to Lashkar or JeM,” he writes. 

“Recruits procure training from one of the two groups, after which some of them are passed on to al-Qaeda operatives who are often in the FATA. In 2009 British security officials estimated that approximately 4,000 people were trained in this way since 9/11…”

The apparent growth of these two groups in the heart of Pakistan, he writes, give pause for thought about the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. “Enormous sacrifices are being made to keep Afghanistan free from al-Qaeda and its allies. Meanwhile, next-door some of those same allies are building away in the seemingly safest of havens.”

The argument about who is responsible for British citizens seeking training in militant camps in Pakistan is a complex one – both countries tend to blame the other. And as Amil Khan wrote in this post last year, the attitude of British Pakistanis to Pakistan is far more layered than a simple question of which country should take the blame when something goes wrong.

But if one of the aims is to stop young British Pakistanis from being drawn towards hardline Islam, and at the same time offer them an alternative image of both Britain and Pakistan, why ban the bagpipers?

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