Thursday, December 24, 2009

ISLAMABAD I Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment appears to have lost control of several jihadist militant organizations it created in the 1980s and ‘90s to fight Indians in Kashmir, leaving the nuclear-armed country vulnerable to terrorists who have infiltrated the country’s heartland in Punjab province.

Officials based in the tribal area of South Waziristan, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media, told The Washington Times that militants fled the area following the Pakistani army’s offensive this fall. The officials said the militants found refuge in South Waziristan earlier this decade when it became increasingly difficult for them to infiltrate Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Some of the extremists escaped to North Waziristan, Orakzai and the Khyber districts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as well south to Baluchistan province, but most went east to Punjab, the officials said. There the jihadists have been responsible for a series of audacious and bloody attacks that have terrorized the Pakistani capital and the cultural hub of Lahore as well as places frequented by the military.

Even more worrisome: Most of Pakistan’s nuclear installations are based in the Punjab, including some in Dera Ghazi Khan and Mianwali districts, which are close to Waziristan.

The situation has been complicated further by last week’s decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court to cancel an amnesty for hundreds of politicians, civil servants, businessmen and even some army generals. The court decision casts new doubts on the survival of President Asif Ali Zardari and several Cabinet ministers.

Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistan specialist who heads the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said “there was a pulling back in the use of these [militant] groups when [Gen. Pervez] Musharraf was president and sought to improve ties with India.”

Mr. Nawaz said the Pakistani government had “no well-thought-out plan for demobilizing these groups rather than letting them loose.” As a result, he said, militants from groups such as Jaish-e Mohammed and Lashkar-e Jhanghvi have joined with the Taliban and al Qaeda as kind of “franchisees.”

Such militants are believed to be behind the unprecedented spate of terrorist attacks in Punjab in recent months. Early this month, extremists even targeted a mosque situated in an army residential area, killing more than 50 people - most of them army personnel and their family members. An attack shortly thereafter on a market in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, also claimed about 50 lives. The next day, Dec. 8, a suicide assault on the office of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) in Multan killed 12 officials. The following week, terrorists struck the home of the provincial head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the ruling party in Punjab, killing more than 30.

In October, the militants penetrated Pakistani army headquarters itself in Rawalpindi, killing scores of military officials.

Al Qaeda has sought to “legitimize” such attacks, arguing that the military is helping “infidels,” primarily Americans. Groups such as Lashkar-e Taiba, believed responsible for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, India, apparently have bought into this ideology of “takfir,” which allows Muslims to kill other Muslims not deemed sufficiently observant.

The irony is that Pakistani intelligence created these militant groups to fight a proxy war against India in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

Specialists now worry that the militants are preparing a full-scale war on the Pakistani state.

“Punjabi militant groups being dubbed as Punjabi Taliban comprise hard-core trained militants, who are profoundly religiously motivated because they were brainwashed and indoctrinated in specially established camps by the military and ISI in 1990s,” said Gul Marjan, a specialist on terrorism based in Peshawar. “So there is every possibility that feeling disenchanted with the Pakistani military and government, considering them working against [the] Muslim cause, they would fight back against the military. Whatever happened in a mosque in Rawalpindi and a market in Lahore is probably the manifestation of this feeling within these militant outfits.”

Mr. Marjan added that the militants are seeking to perpetuate themselves and, if possible, control more territory and try to overrun the state - also al Qaeda’s goal in Pakistan.

A U.S. counterproliferation official, who spoke on condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of his work, said the U.S. was keeping a close watch on developments in Pakistan, particularly regarding its nuclear weapons.

“Any interest shown by militants in gaining access to Pakistani nuclear installations presents obvious and serious concerns, so it’s something to pay close attention to and guard against,” the U.S. official said. “The stakes are too high. It’s important to note that gaining access to a facility isn’t the same thing as acquiring control over weapons. The way the Pakistanis manage their nuclear sites and materiel seems to make the latter rather unlikely, but it’s something for the Pakistanis to keep a close eye on.”

Residents of South Waziristan told The Times that most of the militants who fled the recent government offensive used a route that passes through Barwand, Maulvi Khan Sirai, Sipla Toi, Jandola and Tank. The route has been largely unmanned during the two-month offensive in which Pakistan deployed about 30,000 troops, leading to suspicions that some in the Pakistani military and security establishment wanted to allow the extremists to escape.

The residents say those fleeing the area are distinguished easily by the language they speak and their darker complexions compared to the lighter-skinned Pashtuns native to the tribal region.

Some militant groups, which have not been responsible for attacks in Pakistan, retain close links to the Pakistani military, said Imran Khan, a specialist on terrorism.

“Groups like that of Maulvi Nazeer, Turkistan Bhittani in South Waziristan and Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristanare ‘pro-government,’ and they have been continuously referred to as such in Pakistani media without any objection from the military or civilian authorities,” Mr. Khan said.

However, high-level security and civilian administration officials have told The Times that the military has lost control over other groups and fears a large-scale backlash against the offensive in South Waziristan.

“Radical groups used to have linkswithin Pakistani institutions in the last decadebut this is not the case in many years,” said a senior official of the Federal Investigation Agency based in Islamabad, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the nature of his job.

The militants have attracted a number of foreign recruits, including five Americans from Virginia arrested earlier this month in Punjab. In August, police in Dera Ghazi Khan in Punjab arrested 12 foreigners, including Turks, Swedes, an Iranian and a Russian on the main national highway, the Indus Highway, trying to enter the country illegally.

Analysts say this influx of foreigners reflects the growing independence of Pakistani jihadists and links with groups such as al Qaeda.

In October, the minister for information in the North West Frontier Province, Mian Iftikhar, a member of the Pashtun nationalist and secular political party, the Awami National Party (ANP), pointed out the presence of Taliban training camps in south Punjab and demanded a military offensive against them.

Party spokesman Zahid Khan told a news conference in Peshawar Sunday that he doubted the effectiveness of the army’s South Waziristan offensive. The ANP so far has lost 270 of its party members, including two members of Parliament, to attacks from Taliban.

However, the law minister of Punjab, Rana Sanaullah, denied the presence of militants in south Punjab and said there was no need for a government offensive there.

c Barbara Slavin and Sara A. Carter in Washington contributed to this report.

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