A year after Osama bin Laden was found and killed, Pakistan still harbors, willingly or unwillingly, America’s greatest enemies: current al Qaida chief Ayman al Zawahiri and Afghan insurgent leaders Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Pakistani Islamist leader Hafiz Saeed was added to that list in March, when the United States offered $10 million for his capture.
What is striking, say analysts, is how little has changed in Pakistan a year after U.S. special forces burst into a large house in Abbottabad in the early hours of May 2, 2011, and shot bin Laden dead.
Pakistan’s security establishment remains addicted to using, or at least tolerating, Islamic extremist groups as its proxy warriors, despite the deaths of thousands of Pakistani civilians and soldiers and the humiliation of bin Laden being found just steps from the country’s premier military academy. While the country is fighting some jihadi groups such as the so-called Pakistani Taliban, which is broadly affiliated with al Qaida, others are still apparently regarded as “good Taliban”.
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The latest incarnation of the pro-state jihadi is an alliance of fire-breathing mullahs, many associated with banned militant groups, called Difa-e-Pakistan, or Defense of Pakistan Council.
Pakistani thinking about the utility of jihadi actors, especially those operating across its western border, is shaped by the impending 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan, said Ayesha Siddiqa, an analyst and author of “Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy.”
“With 2014 round the corner, you don’t expect the establishment now to give up on them (jihadi groups),” said Siddiqa. “Nothing has changed since May last year.”
In Pakistan, the civilian government has little influence over security policy, which is run firmly by the military and its spy agencies. Since the 1980s, that military has backed jihadist groups as a way to push action without having to fight itself, first in Afghanistan, against the Soviet invasion of that country, then, in the 1990s, in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir against India. Since 9/11, Pakistan has formally sided with the United States, following George W. Bush’s “with us or against us” ultimatum, but allegedly the pro-jihadi policy continued in secret.
Today, the Pakistani military says that it does not have the resources to fight all the extremist groups on its soil at once, so it is first targeting those most dangerous for the country. Some military officials insist they will eventually go after all jihadist groups.
The question of whether Pakistani officials helped hide bin Laden is still unanswered. But even if there were no official complicity, Pakistan’s ambivalent policy toward violent extremists would have provided the al Qaida leader with an enabling environment, analysts say.
The world’s most wanted man was found living in a garrison town less than a mile from Pakistan’s elite military academy. It’s clear now from testimony that his captured wives gave Pakistani interrogators that since December 2001, when he fled the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan, bin Laden spent almost his entire time in Pakistan.
American intelligence believes that Zawahiri, who was bin Laden’s deputy and succeeded him last year, also is likely somewhere in Pakistan. John Brennan, deputy national security adviser, told CNN Sunday that Zawahiri “as well as other al Qaeda leaders continue to burrow into areas of the FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.”
The U.S. has always maintained that Taliban founder and leader Mullah Omar has had refuge in Pakistan since he fled Afghanistan in late 2001. He was supposedly in the western town of Quetta initially, but he could now be elsewhere in the sparsely populated Baluchistan province, or melted into the chaotic megacity of Karachi.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, who took over command of the Haqqani network from his father, Jalaluddin, a veteran Pakistan-backed jihadist, spends most of his time in North Waziristan, part of the FATA, the rugged, isolated region along the Afghan border, U.S. intelligence believes. The Haqqanis have been blamed for some of the most spectacular attacks on U.S. and allied targets in Kabul in recent years.
Many here argue that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency could find Omar or Haqqani if it wanted to, but they have concluded that for now it’s not in the ISI’s interests to do so. Many believe that the ISI was behind the revival of the Taliban after their 2001 defeat _ a claim made, for instance, in the recently published book by leading Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, “Pakistan on the Brink.”
Hafiz Saeed is in a different category in that he lives openly in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city. He founded, and by some accounts still runs, Lashkar-e-Taiba, an armed extremist group blamed for the 2008 terrorist assault on the Indian city of Mumbai, in which 166 people, including six American citizens, were killed.
Yet Saeed is able to appear openly on behalf of Difa-e-Pakistan, which has been hosting virulently anti-American rallies around the country. Difa-e-Pakistan’s leading figures include Sami ul Haq, whose madrassah in northwest Pakistan is a university for jihadis, including the Taliban, and Fazlur Rehman Khalil, who was one of the five signatories in 1998 to bin Laden’s World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.
“The real challenge now is not ‘al Qaida Central’ but organizations like Difa-e-Pakistan,” said Imtiaz Gul, author of “The Most Dangerous Place.” “Al Qaida in Pakistan’s border region is dispersed. Groups like the TTP (Pakistani Taliban) are mercenaries and are not socially networked. But people like Hafiz Saeed and Difa-e-Pakistan have a social base.”
There’s no official estimate of how big that base is, but a survey of Pakistani attitudes by the Washington-based Pew Center in the wake of last year’s bin Laden raid provides an idea: Only 10 percent of the Pakistanis surveyed approved of the raid, while only 14 percent thought killing bin Laden was a “good thing.”