Where Pakistan's militants go to ground
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - The massive Pakistani military operation currently underway against
militants in the South Waziristan tribal area is the brainchild of General
Stanley McChrystal, the top United States commander in Afghanistan. The aim is
to spread the Taliban-led Afghan insurgency into Pakistan. This, it is
reasoned, will make it easier to deal with the insurgency in Afghanistan with a
blend of military operations and political deals.
This draws Pakistan, already mired in political and economic crises, into an
ever-deepening quagmire. The country has become a playing field for operators
of all shades. These include Iranian Balochi insurgents, over a dozen Pakistani
militant groups linked with the Taliban or al-Qaeda, the US Central
Intelligence Agency's network, security contractors associated with the
establishment, and last but not the least, agent provocateurs. Pakistan, one of
the booming economies of Asia just two years ago, seriously risks becoming a
The mood in the country was further dampened on Tuesday with the inexplicable
twin suicide attacks on the International Islamic University of Islamabad. At
least six people were killed, including three women and the two attackers. All
but one of the victims were students.
The university is one of the most credible centers of Islamic learning in the
country; among its faculty is Dr Abdullah Azzam, the founder of
Maktabul Khidmat - the organization set up with Osama bin Laden in the 1980s to
provide money and recruit fighters around the world - and a mentor of Bin
The bombers would have had to pass through at least four checkpoints to reach
the university. What has shocked people is that they did not attack security
personal along the way, or choose any number of other establishment targets.
There is now a perception in the country of a reign of terror, worse even than
during the three times since independence in 1947 that Pakistan was at war with
On Thursday, gunmen killed a soldier and a high-ranking officer in Islamabad,
and in a separate attack, a district court in the capital was targeted. More
than 170 people have been killed over the past three weeks in terror attacks.
Prior to the attack on the university, many schools and educational institutes
were closed over security fears in the wake of the South Waziristan operation.
These were mostly in North-West Frontier Province, Islamabad and its twin city,
Rawalpindi. Following the attack, all the country's educational facilities have
now been closed. The chief minister of Punjab province, Shehbaz Sharif, said it
was impossible to provide security for pupils against terrorists.
The authorities have announced the arrest of scores of militants, especially
from the southern port city of Karachi, but no one knows who is in charge of
security. Is it American contractors in connivance with provincial home
departments and the police? Is it the military apparatus? There is speculation
that the military is split on the question of foreign intervention in the
Rumors abound of US fighter-bombers from the USS Ronald Reagan, a Nimitz-class
nuclear-powered supercarrier, bombing militant hideouts in South Waziristan.
There have been media reports that officials of the Sihala Police Training
College near Rawalpindi have been barred by US security officials from going to
the facility as it is being used to store explosives.
The reports claim that the commander of the college, Nisar Khan Durrani, in a
letter to the inspector general of police in Punjab, expressed concern over the
activities of US security officials at the institute and at the alleged storage
of high explosives. The college is situated about 20 kilometers from Pakistan's
nuclear Kahota Research Laboratory.
A US Embassy statement reacted angrily to the reports. "The US Embassy was
disappointed by a media report today that attributed nefarious purposes to the
Sihala law-enforcement training facility. The report was factually incorrect
and mischievous. The 512 Pakistani police officials who have trained at Sihala
could easily set the record straight."
The statement continued: "Since 2003, the United States has provided training
in a variety of counter-terrorism-related skills to Federal and Provincial
police officials at the Punjab Police College in Sihala. The specific courses
of training are identified in complete cooperation with the relevant
authorities of the Government of Pakistan who approve all of the course
selections. The students are selected for participation in the courses by
federal and provincial law-enforcement authorities. The use of the Sihala
training facility itself was proposed by the Pakistan government. The existence
of the facility is transparent. There is no 'monitoring' equipment located at
the facility and all materiel present at the facility is for the exclusive use
of the law-enforcement personnel receiving training."
Nevertheless, a clandestine and growing American intervention in Pakistan is
beyond doubt, and Asia Times Online contacts in New York close to the American
establishment squarely point to McChrystal as the sole architect of this.
An article by Pakistani analyst, Dr Farrukh Saleem, published in The News
International on July 12, 2009, reflects on McChrystal's AfPak vision and US
counter-insurgency measures in Pakistan.
McChrystal has served as
director, joint staff and also as commander, Joint Special Operations Command
(JSOC). Major-General McChrystal ran Baghdad's Camp Nama, the "Nasty Ass
Military Area", where prisoners were tortured to spill out beans on Jordanian
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. JSOC forces were credited for capturing Saddam Hussein
and McChrystal was later credited for the death of al-Zarqawi. The top US
commander in Afghanistan was commissioned in the US army in 1976 and most of
what McChrystal has done over the past 33 years remains classified. Newsweek
called the JSOC as "the most secretive force in the US military". And, Seymour
Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist of The New Yorker,
told Gulf News that [former US vice president] Dick Cheney headed a secret
assassination wing and the head of the wing has just been named as the new
commander in Afghanistan. In an interview with Gulf News (May 12) Hersh said
that there is a special unit called the JSOC that does high-value targeting of
men that are known to be involved in anti-American activities, or are believed
to be planning such activities.
Against this background, it can
be argued that the US will concentrate on Pakistan in its search for Taliban
leader Mullah Omar, Bin Laden and other top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders.
However, the US intervention in Pakistan is already having unintended
consequences. Either through American operations or as a result of operations
taken under immense American pressure, dozens of militant groups linked with
the Taliban who were previously well tracked by Pakistani security agencies are
now on the loose.
The Pakistani Taliban are not the only problem. The insurgency in Balochistan
province and general lawlessness, especially in the southern provinces of Sindh
and Balochistan, are no less a threat than the Taliban.
North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where
the Taliban have a strong foothold, are the main focus of the security
situation in the country. Yet, almost 85% of southwestern Balochistan is beyond
the control of the state.
There is also a large Balochi community in Lyari in Karachi, the country's
biggest city and its financial and industrial capital. Lyari is the stronghold
of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, which uses underworld connections there
to intimidate opposition politicians.
Beyond criminals, the area is a haven for insurgents, including those from
al-Qaeda, the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi (an anti-Shi'ite group linked to al-Qaeda), the
Taliban and, importantly, Iranian Baloch insurgents from the Mujahideen-e-Khalq
(MEK) and other Iranian Baloch organizations.
Before his capture in Rawalpindi in 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Balochi
al-Qaeda operator charged with masterminding the September 11, 2001, attacks in
the US, alternated between two residences - one in the Kalakot area of Lyari
because of his links with the Ramzi Baloch tribe, and the other in Ibrahim
Hyderi, another Balochi slum in Karachi. He was arrested only when he left
these places for operational reasons and moved to Rawalpindi.
The same Kalakot area is still the home of Balochi insurgent Dost Mohammad, an
underground leader of the MEK, now working in coordination with the Americans
against Iranian interests in the region.
The alliance of the Iranian Jundallah - responsible for the suicide attack on
top Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders on Sunday - and the Pakistani
anti-Shi'ite Laskhar-e-Jhangvi's Balochi members was also set up in Lyari.
Members of the Laskhar have carried out several high-profile murders of
Shi'ites in Balochistan and then taken refuge among the more than 600,000
residents of Lyari.
The MEK also became a part of this strange alliance, illustrating how various
interests, which include anti-revolution forces, Baloch insurgents, Islamists
and American proxies, mindfully or unmindfully, have made an alliance against
the Iranian regime. Al-Qaeda later entered into this alliance to exploit
Jundallah for its own purposes.
Abdul Malik Rigi, the Iranian Balochi leader of Jundallah, lived in Lyari. He
was known as a Baloch nationalist and as a drug smuggler. He moved around in
off-road vehicles and kept a gang of 20 to 25 youths around him at all times.
Last year, he was in Mehmoodabad, a slum in Karachi close to the upscale
Defense Housing Authority. Here he had a quarrel with another group and
gunshots were exchanged in which he was injured.
A former gang member of Rigi told Asia Times Online that initially he was in
the Baloch Liberation Organization (BLO) and in those days he moved freely from
his Lyari base to Turkey, carrying heroin. He was never caught due to deep
penetration within the corrupt security forces of both Pakistan and Iran, who
turned a blind eye to the drug smugglers in return of money.
A few years ago, Rigi changed after interaction with the banned Pakistani
outfit, Sepah-e-Sahaba, in Lyari. His anti-Iranian stance as a Balochi shifted
to one of being anti-Shi'ite. At a later stage, he joined hands with Sepah's
breakaway faction, the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, the anti-Shi'ite and al-Qaeda-linked
Through this connection, Rigi went to the Afghan province of Zabul, but the
Taliban refused him entry into their ranks and due to his suspicious background
of having links with US intelligence, he was driven out of Afghanistan.
This year, through his Laskhar connection, he was introduced to al-Qaeda, which
was in desperate need for someone to help them in Iran. Al-Qaeda's main
interest was to use Iran as a passageway. Their previous good ties with Iran
were badly disturbed due to the massacre of Shi'ites in Iraq.
Rigi assured al-Qaeda of his help and in return al-Qaeda agreed to support his
initiative in Iran against the Iranian regime. Where Rigi operates at present
is a big question. All that is known is that he has had three different
sanctuaries in the recent past: Lyari in Karachi, the coastal areas of
Pakistani Balochistan and in Iranian Balochistan.
In many ways, Lyari is a microcosm of the world of militancy. Neither the
Americans nor the Pakistan has the wherewithal to block the militants'
arteries; thanks to Pakistan's socio-political infrastructure, the militants
have made space for themselves with "natural arrangements" all over the
country. From these areas they can strike anywhere, at any time, in the country
or in the region. General McChrystal has a real fight ahead by the taking his
battle to Pakistan.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]