- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2010

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has advocated a gradual approach in trying to shut down anti-India militant groups fighting in Kashmir, noting the popularity of such groups among Pakistanis.

Speaking at the Atlantic Council this week, Mr. Musharraf also praised the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba’s (LeT) charitable wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, for having done the “best job” in relief operations after the 2005 earthquake in the part of Kashmir claimed by Pakistan and an “excellent job” in the aftermath of the recent floods.

Mr. Musharraf said militant groups like LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Hizb-ul-Mujahedeen are popular in Pakistan because they oppose India’s military. “When they go and fight in Kashmir, it is very popular with the people of Pakistan. They are mujahedeen, and they are fighting the Indian army,” he said.

He added that successive Pakistani governments have been reluctant to shut these groups down because they are so popular.

According to U.S. and Indian intelligence agencies, LeT was behind the 2008 Mumbai attack in which 166 people, including six Americans, were killed.

The Obama administration has been pressing the Pakistani government to sever ties to terrorist groups, including LeT and JeM. In a meeting in Washington last month with Pakistan’s chief of the army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, President Obama sought to censure Pakistani tolerance of or support for terrorism.

Mr. Obama conveyed his concerns about “ticking time bombs” that could spell catastrophe for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, said Bruce Riedel, who conducted a review of U.S. policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan for Mr. Obama, at the New America Foundation this week.

Mr. Riedel described the two time bombs as “a mass-casualty terrorist attack inside the U.S. postmarked Pakistan” and LeT carrying out “another 26/11 somewhere in India.”

India refers to the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which began on Nov. 26, as 26/11.

In the past several months, potentially devastating acts of terrorism have been foiled, including failed attempts to bomb Times Square in New York and place bombs on Washington’s Metro transit system. Pakistani Americans were involved in both cases.

As president, Mr. Musharraf had banned some militants groups, but they continued their activities under new names. Shutting down the groups “is easier said than done,” he said.

But Islamabad does not abet the creation of safe havens for militants, Mr. Musharraf said, adding that the U.S. needs to develop a better understanding of Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency before blaming them for sheltering insurgents.

Western intelligence officials say Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are being provided safe haven in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt, especially around the cities of Quetta and Peshawar.

“While these refugee camps may be a safe haven for any kind of activity, it is not government-sponsored,” Mr. Musharraf said. “There is no safe haven created or no abetting with the Taliban to come and stay there.”

Mr. Musharraf said there are a dozen such refugee camps in Pakistan. “Terrorists must be coming and staying in these camps, there must be people who are harboring them,” he said.

U.S. officials say ISI continues to maintain linkages to militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, LeT and the Haqqani Network.

These concerns were reinforced by the confession of Pakistani American David Coleman Headley on the role the ISI played in planning the Mumbai operation. Headley pleaded guilty to helping LeT carry out the Mumbai attacks by carrying out surveillance of targets.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the information, said terrorist safe havens in Pakistan are not confined to the northwestern region straddling the border with Afghanistan.

“There are terrorists in Pakistan outside the frontier areas, which is definitely contributing to the threat against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and against Pakistan itself,” the U.S. official said.

A second U.S. official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: “Everyone’s eyes are wide open … to the complexities of the Pakistanis’ historical relationships with certain players in the region.”

In his new memoir “Decision Points,” former President George W. Bush writes that some in the ISI retained close ties to Taliban officials, while others wanted an insurance policy in case the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan and India tried to gain influence there.

In 2005 and 2006, sanctuaries in Peshawar and Quetta aided the rise of the insurgency, Mr. Bush said.

By 2008, he got tired of reading intelligence reports about terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan and hinted that he sanctioned the covert Predator drone strikes in Pakistan.

“Over time, it became clear that Musharraf either would not or could not fulfill all his promises” to deny al Qaeda safe haven in Pakistan and break ties with the Taliban, Mr. Bush writes, adding that part of the problem was Pakistan’s “obsession with India.”

Mr. Musharraf described Kashmir as the root cause of terrorism in the region and lamented the fact that Mr. Obama did not raise the issue on his recent visit to India. “The solution is the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Not because Pakistan wants it, it is necessary for the world to fight terrorism and extremism,” the former Pakistani leader said.

On the use of Predator drones to kill militants hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Mr. Musharraf said the use of the unmanned aerial vehicles pose a dilemma since the drones kill militants but their indiscriminate use has caused collateral damage.

Mr. Musharraf, who has launched his own political party, is exploring the possibility of returning to Pakistan and running for the office of president — a position he held for seven years after seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1999. He was forced to resign in 2008.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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