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Where Pakistan’s militants go to ground - Syed Saleem Shahzad

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

The massive Pakistani military operation currently underway against militants in the South Waziristan tribal area is the brainchild of General Stanley McChrystal, the top United States commander in Afghanistan. The aim is to spread the Taliban-led Afghan insurgency into Pakistan. This, it is reasoned, will make it easier to deal with the insurgency in Afghanistan with a blend of military operations and political deals.

This draws Pakistan, already mired in political and economic crises, into an ever-deepening quagmire. The country has become a playing field for operators of all shades. These include Iranian Balochi insurgents, over a dozen Pakistani militant groups linked with the Taliban or al-Qaeda, the US Central Intelligence Agency’s network, security contractors associated with the American establishment, and last but not the least, agent provocateurs. Pakistan, one of the booming economies of Asia just two years ago, seriously risks becoming a failed state.

The mood in the country was further dampened on Tuesday with the inexplicable twin suicide attacks on the International Islamic University of Islamabad. At least six people were killed, including three women and the two attackers. All but one of the victims were students.

The university is one of the most credible centers of Islamic learning in the country; among its graduates is Dr Abdullah Azzam, the founder of Maktabul Khidmat - the organization set up with Osama bin Laden in the 1980s to provide money and recruit fighters around the world - and a mentor of Bin Laden.

The bombers would have had to pass through at least four checkpoints to reach the university. What has shocked people is that they did not attack security personal along the way, or choose any number of other establishment targets.

There is now a perception in the country of a reign of terror, worse even than during the three times since independence in 1947 that Pakistan was at war with India.

On Thursday, gunmen killed a soldier and a high-ranking officer in Islamabad, and in a separate attack, a district court in the capital was targeted. More than 170 people have been killed over the past three weeks in terror attacks.

Prior to the attack on the university, many schools and educational institutes were closed over security fears in the wake of the South Waziristan operation. These were mostly in North-West Frontier Province, Islamabad and its twin city, Rawalpindi. Following the attack, all the country’s educational facilities have now been closed. The chief minister of Punjab province, Shehbaz Sharif, said it was impossible to provide security for pupils against terrorists.

The authorities have announced the arrest of scores of militants, especially from the southern port city of Karachi, but no one knows who is in charge of security. Is it American contractors in connivance with provincial home departments and the police? Is it the military apparatus? There is speculation that the military is split on the question of foreign intervention in the country.

Rumors abound of US fighter-bombers from the USS Ronald Reagan, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier, bombing militant hideouts in South Waziristan.

There have been media reports that officials of the Sihala Police Training College near Rawalpindi have been barred by US security officials from going to the facility as it is being used to store explosives.

The reports claim that the commander of the college, Nisar Khan Durrani, in a letter to the inspector general of police in Punjab, expressed concern over the activities of US security officials at the institute and at the alleged storage of high explosives. The college is situated about 20 kilometers from Pakistan’s nuclear Kahota Research Laboratory.

A US Embassy statement reacted angrily to the reports. “The US Embassy was disappointed by a media report today that attributed nefarious purposes to the Sihala law-enforcement training facility. The report was factually incorrect and mischievous. The 512 Pakistani police officials who have trained at Sihala could easily set the record straight.”

The statement continued: “Since 2003, the United States has provided training in a variety of counter-terrorism-related skills to Federal and Provincial police officials at the Punjab Police College in Sihala. The specific courses of training are identified in complete cooperation with the relevant authorities of the Government of Pakistan who approve all of the course selections. The students are selected for participation in the courses by federal and provincial law-enforcement authorities. The use of the Sihala training facility itself was proposed by the Pakistan government. The existence of the facility is transparent. There is no ‘monitoring’ equipment located at the facility and all materiel present at the facility is for the exclusive use of the law-enforcement personnel receiving training.”

Nevertheless, a clandestine and growing American intervention in Pakistan is beyond doubt, and Asia Times Online contacts in New York close to the American establishment squarely point to McChrystal as the sole architect of this.

An article by Pakistani analyst, Dr Farrukh Saleem, published in The News International on July 12, 2009, reflects on McChrystal’s AfPak vision and US counter-insurgency measures in Pakistan.

McChrystal has served as director, joint staff and also as commander, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Major-General McChrystal ran Baghdad’s Camp Nama, the “Nasty Ass Military Area”, where prisoners were tortured to spill out beans on Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. JSOC forces were credited for capturing Saddam Hussein and McChrystal was later credited for the death of al-Zarqawi. The top US commander in Afghanistan was commissioned in the US army in 1976 and most of what McChrystal has done over the past 33 years remains classified. Newsweek called the JSOC as “the most secretive force in the US military”. And, Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist of The New Yorker, told Gulf News that [former US vice president] Dick Cheney headed a secret assassination wing and the head of the wing has just been named as the new commander in Afghanistan. In an interview with Gulf News (May 12) Hersh said that there is a special unit called the JSOC that does high-value targeting of men that are known to be involved in anti-American activities, or are believed to be planning such activities.

Against this background, it can be argued that the US will concentrate on Pakistan in its search for Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Bin Laden and other top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders.

However, the US intervention in Pakistan is already having unintended consequences. Either through American operations or as a result of operations taken under immense American pressure, dozens of militant groups linked with the Taliban who were previously well tracked by Pakistani security agencies are now on the loose.

The Pakistani Taliban are not the only problem. The insurgency in Balochistan province and general lawlessness, especially in the southern provinces of Sindh and Balochistan, are no less a threat than the Taliban.

North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where the Taliban have a strong foothold, are the main focus of the security situation in the country. Yet, almost 85% of southwestern Balochistan is beyond the control of the state.

There is also a large Balochi community in Lyari in Karachi, the country’s biggest city and its financial and industrial capital. Lyari is the stronghold of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, which uses underworld connections there to intimidate opposition politicians.

Beyond criminals, the area is a haven for insurgents, including those from al-Qaeda, the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi (an anti-Shi’ite group linked to al-Qaeda), the Taliban and, importantly, Iranian Baloch insurgents from the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) and other Iranian Baloch organizations.

Before his capture in Rawalpindi in 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Balochi al-Qaeda operator charged with masterminding the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, alternated between two residences - one in the Kalakot area of Lyari because of his links with the Ramzi Baloch tribe, and the other in Ibrahim Hyderi, another Balochi slum in Karachi. He was arrested only when he left these places for operational reasons and moved to Rawalpindi.

The same Kalakot area is still the home of Balochi insurgent Dost Mohammad, an underground leader of the MEK, now working in coordination with the Americans against Iranian interests in the region.

The alliance of the Iranian Jundallah - responsible for the suicide attack on top Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders on Sunday - and the Pakistani anti-Shi’ite Laskhar-e-Jhangvi’s Balochi members was also set up in Lyari. Members of the Laskhar have carried out several high-profile murders of Shi’ites in Balochistan and then taken refuge among the more than 600,000 residents of Lyari.

The MEK also became a part of this strange alliance, illustrating how various interests, which include anti-revolution forces, Baloch insurgents, Islamists and American proxies, mindfully or unmindfully, have made an alliance against the Iranian regime. Al-Qaeda later entered into this alliance to exploit Jundallah for its own purposes.

Abdul Malik Rigi, the Iranian Balochi leader of Jundallah, lived in Lyari. He was known as a Baloch nationalist and as a drug smuggler. He moved around in off-road vehicles and kept a gang of 20 to 25 youths around him at all times. Last year, he was in Mehmoodabad, a slum in Karachi close to the upscale Defense Housing Authority. Here he had a quarrel with another group and gunshots were exchanged in which he was injured.

A former gang member of Rigi told Asia Times Online that initially he was in the Baloch Liberation Organization (BLO) and in those days he moved freely from his Lyari base to Turkey, carrying heroin. He was never caught due to deep penetration within the corrupt security forces of both Pakistan and Iran, who turned a blind eye to the drug smugglers in return of money.

A few years ago, Rigi changed after interaction with the banned Pakistani outfit, Sepah-e-Sahaba, in Lyari. His anti-Iranian stance as a Balochi shifted to one of being anti-Shi’ite. At a later stage, he joined hands with Sepah’s breakaway faction, the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, the anti-Shi’ite and al-Qaeda-linked militant organization.

Through this connection, Rigi went to the Afghan province of Zabul, but the Taliban refused him entry into their ranks and due to his suspicious background of having links with US intelligence, he was driven out of Afghanistan.

This year, through his Laskhar connection, he was introduced to al-Qaeda, which was in desperate need for someone to help them in Iran. Al-Qaeda’s main interest was to use Iran as a passageway. Their previous good ties with Iran were badly disturbed due to the massacre of Shi’ites in Iraq.

Rigi assured al-Qaeda of his help and in return al-Qaeda agreed to support his initiative in Iran against the Iranian regime. Where Rigi operates at present is a big question. All that is known is that he has had three different sanctuaries in the recent past: Lyari in Karachi, the coastal areas of Pakistani Balochistan and in Iranian Balochistan.

In many ways, Lyari is a microcosm of the world of militancy. Neither the Americans nor the Pakistan has the wherewithal to block the militants’ arteries; thanks to Pakistan’s socio-political infrastructure, the militants have made space for themselves with “natural arrangements” all over the country. From these areas they can strike anywhere, at any time, in the country or in the region. General McChrystal has a real fight ahead by the taking his battle to Pakistan.

- Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]

{Source: Asia Times}

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