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Just whose side is Pakistan really on ? An ally in the war on terror or a haven for jihadists ?

Reader comment on item: Red Mosque in Rebellion

Submitted by Nazneen (India), Aug 14, 2007 at 12:39

For budding suicide bombers all roads seem to lead to Pakistan — and last week's global alert over a suspect massive terrorist attack did nothing to dispel that view. "The moment I heard the first news about the airline plot, I knew it was just a matter of time until we heard the word Pakistan," said a US intelligence agent. "Whether it's 9/11, the Bali bombs, 7/7 and now this, Pakistan is always the connection. That's gotta raise some questions." The roots of Pakistan's reputation as a haven for jihadists run deep. It was, after all, in the city of Peshawar that Al-Qaeda was born after ISI, Pakistan's military intelligence, started to recruit Arabs to fight in the Afghan jihad. It was ISI that turned the Taliban from a bunch of religious students into a movement that took over Afghanistan. According to Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, ISI continues to provide a safe haven, training them to fight British soldiers in Helmand. Whose side is Pakistan on? After September 11, when Pakistan's leadership was given the blunt choice by President Bush — "you're either with us or against us" — it had little option. The decision to support Bush's war on terror turned President Pervez Musharraf from a pariah dictator to a feted world leader.

It was a lucrative move. Pakistan has again become one of the biggest recipients of US aid — just as it was during the Afghan war against Soviet occupiers when ISI was the main conduit for arms and funds. Since September 11, America has dismissed $1.5 billion in debt and provided Pakistan with more than $3 billion in military assistance. Last year Pakistan was one of the world's fastest-growing economies. It recently placed a $2.5 billion order for American F-16 jet fighters — as much as Afghanistan's entire annual foreign aid. However, Musharraf has been walking a tightrope. At home he has been the target of three assassination attempts and much criticism, while abroad his commitment is under increasing question. Critics point out that the six top Al-Qaeda officials so far captured, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammad (KSM), the mastermind of 9/11, were all arrested in Pakistan. They were not hiding in caves but living in cities like Karachi and Faisalabad. KSM was picked up in the military cantonment of Rawalpindi.

It was in Pakistan where Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, was murdered in 2002. Pakistan has refused to extradite Omar Saeed Sheikh, the British-born Muslim convicted of the killing, prompting speculation that it fears what he might say. Sheikh was in ISI custody for a week before the FBI was informed and is reported to have given himself up to his former ISI handler. We also know from official reports that two of the July 7 bombers, Shehzad Tanweer and Mohammad Sidique Khan, travelled to Pakistan. It was Khan's second trip. It is still unclear what they did there, but British intelligence believes they underwent training and made martyrdom tapes. What is certain is that on their return the pair rented a place to build bombs. Pakistan's problem is that extremist organisations and training camps, such as those linked to the London bombers, were either created by, or supported and used by, ISI.

The camps were set up in the late 1980s with US backing to train fighters for jihad in Afghanistan. Their mission was expanded in the 1990s to send jihadis to the contested province of Kashmir to fight a proxy war with India. "Pakistan is still in denial," said Husain Haqqani of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington whose book, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, looks at state sponsorship of jihadi groups. He points out that many senior figures in Pakistan's military establishment had probably run camps: "The attitude of condoning extremist behaviour is so pervasive that it may be difficult for people to adjust to a new attitude of cracking down on them."

The difficulty is establishing links between Al-Qaeda and jihadi groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-i-Toiba, Musharraf's failure to rein them in suggests that they are out of control. "We might have created a Frankenstein," one Pakistani military officer admitted. How much the West has been willing to turn a blind eye was shown by its lack of censure over Abdul Qadeer Khan, the nuclear scientist who provided weapons technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Musharraf's ludicrous claim that these were the actions of an individual without the knowledge of the state was apparently accepted by Washington, despite evidence of military planes transporting parts. Those involved in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden have long believed that Pakistan knows more than it has let on and may have tipped off Al-Qaeda leaders, letting them escape. They point out that any time Pakistan has come under pressure from Washington it has diverted attention by arresting an Al-Qaeda leader.

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