The past week has witnessed major attacks on key Pakistani military and intelligence facilities by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group that for the past several years has fought an increasingly brutal and brash war in the heart of the Pakistani state. Yet while the attacks, and in particular the lengthy siege of the Mehran naval base in Karachi, have brought condemnation on the military for lax security procedures, few within Pakistan have openly questioned the state’s long-running dance with militant groups, many of whom cooperate closely while alternately working with and fighting Pakistan. But a string of events in the past few years have made the question of Pakistani support for – or allowance of – terrorist and militant groups unavoidable.
In the days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush’s remarks that nations would from then on be "with us or with the terrorists" and his direct threats to Pakistan to sever ties with militants forced then-military leader Pervez Musharraf to take a U-turn and begin targeting selected al-Qaeda and other militant leaders.
However, as the dust from the U.S. warning started settling down, truck-loads of Arab and Uzbek fighters and their Taliban facilitators from eastern Afghanistan’s Khost province and other parts of the country started traveling to and settling in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Through the payment of money along with various kinds of intimidation, those terrorists and their supporters won the loyalties and support, or simply the acquiescence, of the tribesmen, many of whom continue to suffer at the hands of their unwanted guests.
Yet even after militants were allowed to settle in the tribal areas with little resistance from the Pakistani state, the tribesmen were (and are still) told that it was because of U.S. drone strikes that these "holy warriors" fled to their areas. Hence, each missile against foreign militants or their Pakistani counterparts increased the potential number of militants flowing in and fueled rising anti-Americanism in Pakistan, serving the short-term political interests of pro-Taliban elements in the country’s security establishment, while allowing the army to play on anti-American sentiment domestically while still occasionally offering militants to the United States, either for arrest or targeting by drones, as a sign of good faith and in order to maintain a steady flow of military aid.
Recent history provides ample room for suspicion that the relationship between militants and the Pakistani military or intelligence agencies continues. Some key points should lead informed observers, for instance, to suspect some knowledge of slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s presence in the highly-secured cantonment town of Abbottabad among Pakistani intelligence officials. For instance, the structure of the house is very different from the rest of the buildings in the area, and that plus the barbed wires atop its 18 to 20 feet high boundary walls would have likely drawn some suspicion to the compound’s residents.
The compound is located less than a kilometer from Pakistan’s Kakul Military Academy. Security officials, who keep a strict watch on anyone entering and living in a cantonment zone, somehow managed to miss the compound, which sticks out from the others around it. The Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani even visited the Kakul Academy less than 10 days before the May 2 raid, something that was undoubtedly preceded by security officials combing the nearby areas for any suspicious people or activities, as is the standard practice for such visits. Additionally, locals told the writer that three gas connections were provided to the house within a few days after its construction, which otherwise takes weeks if not months. But again, no alarm was raised.
Additionally, groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Sipah-e-Sihaba Pakistan (SSP) continue to operate openly despite being nominally banned. Indeed, locals I have spoken with in Kurram agency blame Pakistani intelligence for bringing the Sunnis against the Shi’a there, simply to show the world that Pakistan is heading towards de-stabilization and only U.S. and international support can save the society from becoming radical (not to mention the benefit accrued by the Haqqani network, who now have space to operate if their North Waziristan sanctuary is compromised). And a brief look at some of the militants operating in Pakistan currently raises questions about how they have been able to implant themselves and continue operating.
For instance, is it believable that Khyber agency-based militant and former bus driver Mangal Bagh, a warlord with no more than 500 volunteers, can operate just 15 kilometers away from Pakistan’s 11 Corps headquarters in the town of Bara, kidnapping people from Peshawar and other parts of the country, attacking powerful tribal elders, ministers, and journalists from Khyber agency, attacking NATO supply convoys, and carrying out public attacks and executions? Maulana Fazlullah, a leading warlord in the Swat Valley, a man who was once a chair-lift operator on the Swat River, became the most powerful commander in the area in a span of two years, with little government opposition. When the military conducted an operation in Swat upon the request of the secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) government in Khyber-Puktunkhwa, Fazlullah somehow managed to break a cordon of 20,000 soldiers backed by helicopters and jets to escape. And in Bajaur, Taliban commander Faqir Muhammad’s forces were "cleared" in 2008, but though hundreds of thousands of locals were displaced, their houses destroyed, their crops burnt and their cattle killed, Faqir Muhammad continues to leave peacefully in the agency.
And those who rose up to confront the Taliban received little protection from the government. When the ANP, after coming into power in Khyber-Puktunkhwa, raised its voice against the Taliban, party leader Asfandyar Wali Khan was attacked by a suicide bomber inside his house in his hometown of Charsadda. Since then, the party leadership has lived in Islamabad. The party’s spokesman and Information Minister Mian Iftikhar’s son was killed by armed men close to his house last July. Mian Iftikhar and another outspoken minister of the KP government, Bashir Bilour, escaped several attempts on their lives; Asfandyar Wali Khan’s sister Dr. Gulalay, who is not involved with party politics, was attacked in Peshawar, and ANP lawmaker Alam Zeb Khan was killed in a bomb attack in the same city, before finally the party leadership and members were forced to stop their vocal opposition to the militants.
One key problem in the Pakistan-U.S. relationship, particularly in the present situation, is that both countries are dependent on each other despite pursuing contrasting interests in Afghanistan and in South Asia. And to keep this marriage of convenience going, the U.S. will likely come out with some praise for Pakistani efforts, more than Sen. John Kerry did during his recent Islamabad trip, while Pakistan may launch some kind of sham military operation in North Waziristan and may kill or arrest some Haqqani, Taliban or al-Qaeda leaders just to brush aside the U.S. and international opinion about its support for the al-Qaeda and Taliban.
Just last week the Pakistani Army announced the arrest of a "senior Yemeni al-Qaeda operative" named Mohammed Ali Qasim, or Abu Suhaib al-Makki, in the teeming city of Karachi. While al-Makki’s place in the al-Qaeda hierarchy is in dispute, he was somehow able to live undisturbed in Pakistan for 10 years, only to be arrested just days after bin Laden’s death. Expect to see more "senior" leaders arrested or killed, whether in operations or drone strikes, in the coming weeks and months.
Meanwhile, the Taliban and al-Qaeda affiliates, drawing covert support from some individuals in the intelligence apparatus, may carry out attacks in cities, on mosques, and even on military and government installations just to remind the world that the country is itself a victim of terrorism – just look for example to last week’s devastating suicide bombing in Charsadda on a paramilitary constabulary post, claimed by the TT
P, the attacks last week against the Saudi consulate and a Saudi diplomat in Karachi, or this week’s attacks against the Mehran base and yesterday’s attack on the police Criminal Investigations Department in Peshawar.
The Pakistani media does not and will not help ease the heightened tension between Pakistan and the United States. Heavily influenced by the security establishment, it presents an image of the society that is anti-American to the core. This image is simply not true, but instead originated from the handpicked anchorpersons of the private Pakistani TV channels, who run after interviews with Taliban commanders to increase their profiles, and some selected analysts and commentators, who present that picture of Pakistani society to the United States, constantly raising the specter of a Pakistan on the edge of a collapse into fundamentalism.
But instead of turning away from Pakistan, the United States must listen carefully to the demands of the Pakistani security and political establishment, while also plainly conveying their own. And instead of investing in the generals and politicians, the U.S. should focus its attentions more thoroughly on Pakistani society and its long-term economic and social needs that have nothing to do with the Taliban. It is the army and the government who always disappoint the United States, and it is the Pakistani people who always end up disappointed with the United States.
These are the simple but key steps that have to be taken. If not, instability will prevail in Afghanistan and terrorist safe havens will survive in the tribal areas. Innocent people in all parts of Pakistan will continue to fall prey to the Taliban and other jihadist groups, and the eventual U.S. withdrawal from and the hastily arranged peace deal in Afghanistan will not alleviate the situation. But no change can take place unless President Obama and the world revive Bush’s ultimatum, and tell Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership that they are either "with us or with the terrorists."
Daud Khattak is a journalist working with RFE/RL’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio in Prague.