The struggle for control of Pakistan – soon to be the fifth most populous country in the world with the fifth largest nuclear arsenal – intensifies every day. The outcome is far from certain. The key player, Pakistan’s army, seems dangerously ambivalent about which side should prevail: the jihadist Frankenstein it created or the democratically elected civilian government it despises.
The American commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2nd accelerated the struggle underway inside Pakistan to determine the country’s future. Contrary to some assessments, Pakistan is neither a failed state nor a failing state. It functions as effectively today as in decades past. Rather it is a state under siege from a radical syndicate of terror groups loosely aligned together with the goal of creating an extremist jihadist state in south Asia. They want to hijack Pakistan and its weapons.
Less than a hundred hours after the Abbottabad raid, Al Qaeda’s shura council, its command centre, announced the group was declaring war on Pakistan and the “traitors and thieves” in the government who had betrayed the “martyr shaykh” bin Laden to the Americans. It was ironic since many Americans suspect the Pakistani army was actually complicit in abetting bin Laden’s successful evasion of the largest manhunt in human history for 10 years. That both Al Qaeda and America distrust the Pakistani army speaks volumes.
Since then Al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan have carried out their threat with a vengeance. Suicide bombings and other terror attacks have occurred across the country. The worst was an attack on a major Pakistani navy base in Karachi, a heavily guarded facility where both US and Chinese experts assist the navy. Two US-made P3 surveillance aircraft were destroyed in the attack. The assailants had insider knowledge of the base, and Pakistani security has arrested former naval personnel accused of helping the attackers.
The Karachi attack illustrates the essence of the battle for Pakistan today. The militants support Al Qaeda, but were members of its ally the Pakistani Taliban. Their goal was to humiliate the navy. The navy fought back, but is riddled with jihadist sympathizers who help the militants.
A Pakistani journalist, Syed Salman Shahzad, wrote an expose after the attack of the jihadist penetration of the military, especially the navy. He received threatening calls from the military’s intelligence service, the notorious Inter Services Intelligence directorate, telling him to stop reporting on the issue, and was murdered shortly afterward.
The Pakistani army is genuinely at war with parts of the syndicate of jihadi terror in Pakistan like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It has more than 140,000 troops engaged in operations against the militants along the Afghan border. Some 35,000 Pakistanis including several thousand soldiers have died in the fighting since 2001, the equivalent of a dozen 911s. Dozens of ISI men have died.
But the ISI is also still in bed with other parts of the syndicate like Lashkar e Tayyiba, the group that attacked Mumbai in 2008, and the Afghan Taliban that fights NATO. Despite years of American complaints, those partnerships are still intact. But the terrorists don’t stay in the lanes the ISI wants them to stay in. For example, both LeT and the Taliban eulogized bin Laden after his death and mourned the departure of a great “hero” of their movements.
The army’s ambivalence about the jihad flows from its deep obsession with India. Pakistan – with American help – created the jihad in the 1980s to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. But from the start the ISI, commanded by then dictator Zia ul Huq and his brilliant ISI director general Akhtar Rahman, planed to use jihadi groups against India as well and build an international cadre of mujahedin to help fight India. Over the decades the “S” Department of ISI established close connections with scores of jihadi groups, becoming a state within ISI, which in turn is a state within the army. The army decides national-security policy with little or no input from the political establishment.
General Nadeem Taj exemplifies the story. Taj was former dictator Pervez Musharraf’s right-hand man. They were together in 1999 when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif fired Musharraf as chief of army staff while he was returning by plane from a visit to Sri Lanka. Taj orchestrated the coup that put Musharraf in power from the plane and was rewarded with several key jobs including in 2006 command of the Kakul Military Academy in Abbottabad, Pakistan’s West Point or Sandhurst.It was on his watch as commandant of the academy that bin Laden moved into his hideout less than a mile away. Was Taj clueless or complicit?
In September 2007 Taj became DG/ISI replacing General Ashfaq Kayani who was promoted chief of army staff (COAS). Taj lasted less than a year before he was removed under intense pressure from Washington. The Bush administration had concluded that Taj’s ISI was directly involved in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 and was undermining the new drone program to attack Al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan by warning the terrorists before attacks. Taj was regarded as either unable to rein in the S Department or complicit in its duplicity.
Nonetheless, Taj was promoted to command a key corps in the army, the highest command level short of COAS. Now he has been accused of complicity in the planning of the Mumbai attack by several family members of the American victims of the terror rampage in a New York court case. It was on Taj’s watch as DG/ISI that the attack was carefully planned by the LeT and the targets, including the Chabad house where most of the Americans died, were selected. David Headley, an American of Pakistani origin, has testified that the ISI was directly involved in the plot, and the US Department of Justice has assembled an impressive body of emails and other evidence that backs up his claims.
The jihadist penetrations of the army raise persistent questions about the security of Pakistan’s nukes. According to a WikiLeaked State Department cable, from September 2009, France’s national security adviser Jean-David Levitte told the American Embassy in Paris that France believes it is not secure. Levitte is one of the most astute diplomats in the world today, and he is almost certainly right.
The policies that would help wean the Pakistani army off its obsession with India and jihad are well known. A concerted effort to end the Indo-Pakistani conflict is essential. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, despite Mumbai, is trying to do just that. But it is a hard challenge. Talks to resolve the relatively simple issue of the disputed Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest war zone at the roof of the Himalayas, failed again in May. The harder issue, Kashmir, will probably take years to resolve at best.
But we don’t have years. Only a fortnight before the Abbottabad raid, General Kayani gave a speech at the military academy in the city, almost within earshot of bin Laden. In his remarks Kayani claimed the back of the militant syndicate in Pakistan had been broken and the army had triumphed. It is now clear he was badly mistaken.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution and adjunct professor at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad, came out in March. Rights: Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online