A senior adviser on South Asia to three U.S. presidents is now warning about “Armageddon in Islamabad.”
At the request of President Obama, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA expert on the region, also chaired an interagency policy review on Afghanistan and nuclear Pakistan. His latest assessment says, “A jihadist victory in Pakistan, meaning the takeover of the nation by a militant Sunni movement led by the Taliban … would create the greatest threat the United States has yet to face in its war on terror … [and] is now a real possibility in the foreseeable future.” It would bolster al Qaeda’s capabilities tenfold, Mr. Riedel concludes. It would also give terrorists a nuclear capability.
Pakistan’s “creation of and collusion with extremist groups has left Islamabad vulnerable to an Islamist coup,” concludes Mr. Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in a lengthy study in the July/August issue of the National Interest. An Islamist coup would not be possible without the collusion of at least some army units in Rawalpindi, the garrison town 20 minutes from Islamabad. Pakistan has suffered four military coups in 60 years, living half its existence under military rule.
Beginning with the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Islamization of Pakistan was organized by the late military dictator Zia ul-Haq, and encouraged and funded by Saudi Arabia and the United States as a counter to communist ideology. This spawned thousands of single discipline madrassas (free Koranic schools) that, in turn, spawned thousands of jihadis brainwashed to hate American, Indian and Israeli apostates. It also led to the creation of such nationwide terrorist groups as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JEM) under the supervision of ISI for the Kashmir front against India. Officially banned, they moved underground.
Pakistan’s all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) also “volunteered” some 10,000 young jihadis from the Mohmand tribal agency to fight U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but the Taliban had already collapsed and the untrained youngsters were quietly shipped back to Pakistan with denials on all sides.
After U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, ISI spread the word among tribal chiefs in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that “Pakistan is next.” A two-star ISI general “briefed” tribal chiefs after the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001 on U.S. plans “following the conquest of Afghanistan.” This reporter was briefed by one of the chiefs the next day. The Bush administration, the general had explained, plans to attack Pakistan in an attempt to seize its nuclear arsenal and “leave it naked to Indian aggression.”
Pakistan is plagued by a dozen terrorist groups that are officially banned but seem to operate with virtual impunity. Suicide bombers have targeted every major city in Pakistan — more than once. Some 8,000 were killed in 2008. Al Qaeda’s facilities, in safe havens along a 1,400-mile border with Afghanistan, are difficult to distinguish from Taliban when bombed by U.S. drones.
The man who convinced millions of Pakistanis that Sept. 11, 2001, was a “CIA and Mossad” plot to give the United States a pretext to launch a war on Islam was none other than Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief (1987-88), who has been strategic adviser to extremist politico-religious parties. Known as the “godfather” of the Taliban, he is back in the news pushing direct talks between his friend Mullah Muhammad Omar — the one-eyed Taliban chief in hiding for the past eight years with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head — and the United States to negotiate an end to the Afghan war.
Gen. Gul, who had spent two weeks in Afghanistan immediately prior to Sept. 11, 2001, presumably knows where Mullah Omar can be contacted. He is believed to be near Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, long a rest area for Taliban fighters back from Afghanistan.
As long as the FATA constitute a privileged sanctuary for the enemy, Afghanistan is unwinnable. A spokesman for the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) denied an interview that CNN’s Michael Ware had just conducted with ISPR Director Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, who stated the obvious: ISI still had contacts with all the clandestine groups operating against the U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
“A jihadist, nuclear-armed Pakistan,” writes Mr. Riedel, “is a scenario we need to avoid at all costs.” But, he adds, “There is good reason for pessimism, working with the existing order in Pakistan may not succeed. But there is every reason to try, given the horrors of the alternative.”
To begin with, U.S. aid levels should not be the product “of temper tantrums on Capitol Hill,” says Mr. Riedel. “We should help Pakistan deal with its illiteracy rate because literate women will fight the Taliban. We should provide the Pakistani army with the helicopter it needs to combat insurgents in the western badlands. We should stop trying to legislate Pakistani behavior by attaching conditions to aid legislation, a tactic that has consistently failed with Pakistan in the past. Our goal should be to convince Pakistanis that the existential threat to their liberty comes not from the CIA or India, but from al Qaeda.”
Across the border in Afghanistan, a surge of 4,000 Marines, 4,000 British and 750 Afghan troops in Helmand Province came as no surprise to Taliban insurgents.
As they do in any guerrilla war, insurgents fade out before a superior force. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is under no illusions when he says that even moderate successes against the Taliban will only be seen over the next five to 10 years.
Most NATO allies want out by 2011. Britain, whose troop strength, mostly in Helmand, is now increasing from 6,000 to 7,700, and is under increasing pressure in both Parliament and public opinion polls to fix a time line for withdrawal. With eight soldiers killed in a day, it was the deadliest 24 hours for British troops since the 1982 Falkland Islands war.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.