WASHINGTON - The growing crisis over Islamic extremism in Pakistan is drawing attention to the complicity of that country's military government in the rise of the biggest haven for Islamic terrorism in the world.
The issue, which is also linked to the threat to U.S. troops in Afghanistan from Taliban bases in Pakistan, is likely to push aside the George W. Bush administration's campaign to portray Iran as the primary external source of instability and violence against U.S. troops in the region. The serious impacts of the policy of accommodation practiced by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf toward the Taliban and its extremist supporters in Pakistan has been dramatised this week by the clashes between security forces and Islamic extremists at the Red Mosque in Islamabad.
That crisis came only a few days after a report in the New York Times Jun. 28 that the Pakistani Interior Ministry had warned Musharraf earlier in June that a "general policy of appeasement towards the Taliban" had " further emboldened" the Islamic extremist forces.
But despite these indications that the news from Pakistan is likely to shed a harsh light on its Pakistan policy, the Bush administration has continued to offer unqualified endorsement of Musharraf's policy toward terrorism. Efforts by journalists to elicit an expression of concern about the implications of the violence in Islamabad from State Department spokesman Sean McCormack produced only reassuring phrases that there is "still a lot more to do" in regard to Islamic extremists in Pakistan and that "we support [Musharraf] in those efforts".
The Bush administration knows that Musharraf has been playing a double game over al Qaeda and Taliban networks. Four months earlier, it had tried to exert quiet pressure on Musharraf over the issue, but had also continued its policy of portraying Musharaff as a loyal ally in the "war against terror", even after he signaled his rejection of any pressure.
Vice President Dick Cheney visited Islamabad in late February, accompanied by Stephen R. Kappes, deputy director of the CIA, when unnamed U.S. officials told the Washington Post that there was evidence al Qaeda operatives in camps in Pakistan had resumed training of foreign jihadists. Just hours after Cheney had reportedly delivered a warning that aid would be cut by Congress if something was not done, the Musharraf government issued a statement insisting that "Pakistan does not accept dictation from any side or any source."
That response suggested an unwillingness or inability on Musharraf's part to change his policy toward the Islamic terrorists. But back home the administration continued to issue statements aimed at minimising the problem. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher went so far as to deny that Cheney had delivered any warning to Musharraf and gave his government a pass, saying "Steps have been taken, cooperation has improved."
U.S., NATO and Afghan officials had already concluded that the Pakistani intelligence service had continued to collaborate with the Taliban and al Qaeda operating from bases in North and South Waziristan. The confession of a captured Taliban spokesman, Muhammad Hanif, that Mullah Omar is living in Quetta, Pakistan under the protection of its ISI intelligence agency had been videotaped by Afghan intelligence and distributed to journalists in January.
Dr. Barnett Rubin, a top academic specialist on Afghanistan from New York University, who travels frequently to that country, said in an interview for a PBS Frontline special last fall that U.S. military officials in Afghanistan believe Pakistan could seriously disrupt the Taliban by taking down its leadership body in Quetta.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay demanded before the Canadian parliament's defence committee last November that Pakistan seek out and arrest senior Taliban officials, and prevent the exploitation by insurgents of refugee camps in Afghanistan.
The Musharraf government's deals with pro-Taliban groups in 2004 and 2006 in the border provinces of South and North Waziristan helped the Taliban generate increased manpower and logistics support for cross-border raids into Afghanistan by Taliban guerrillas based in those provinces.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group last December, after the September 2006 accord, the government "released militants, returned their weapons, disbanded security check posts and agreed to allow foreign terrorists to stay if they gave up violence." The new accommodation with the Taliban "facilitates the growth of militancy and attacks in Afghanistan by giving pro-Taliban elements a free hand to recruit, train and arm," the report said.
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When New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall visited border towns without permission in January, she reported finding "signs that Pakistani authorities are encouraging the insurgents, if not sponsoring them."
The result of the policy of appeasement of the Taliban is that Pakistan has madrassas in the border provinces that churn out committed jihadists by the tens of thousands every year, and the number of active supporters of Islamic terrorism in Pakistan appears to be in the hundreds of thousands.
In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that put the Bush administration's portrayal of al Qaeda in Iraq as the main foreign terrorist threat in perspective, New York University's Rubin declared, "The main centre of global terrorism is in Pakistan..."
Al Qaeda forces in Iraq, which Bush has highlighted in recent speeches as the central front in the administration's war against terrorism, have never been estimated at more than a few thousand.
Musharraf's failure to act against religious extremists and their madrassas is widely understood to be part of a fundamental strategy by the military regime of using political parties that embrace extreme Islamic ideology as a political base of support for the military dictatorship to ensure against the return of democratic forces seeking to reverse Musharraf's 1999 coup.
Musharraf helped the Jammat-e-Islami party, which has had ties with al Qaeda leaders in the past, and five allied Islamic groups win state elections in October 2002 in the provinces bordering Afghanistan. After that electoral victory, officials of those parties began actively assisting the Taliban and al Qaeda activities in the border provinces.
Administration officials have cited the arrest of several key al Qaeda officials since 9/11 as evidence of Musharraf's bona fides. But New York Times correspondent James Risen shows in his book "State of War" that the Musharraf regime was far from fully cooperative in the U.S. effort to destroy the al Qaeda network in Pakistan.
Risen writes that al Qaeda operatives began to set up a new centre of operations in Pakistan's South Waziristan province after fleeing from Afghanistan in early 2002, and the Pakistani military tenaciously fought to keep the U.S. forces in Afghanistan from crossing the border into Pakistan to pursue al Qaeda operatives.
The CIA was later allowed to set up secret bases within Pakistan to try to locate bin Laden, according to Risen, but CIA personnel could only travel with Pakistani security escorts, which severely limited their ability to gather intelligence in Pakistan's northwest frontier.
The Bush administration has been protecting Musharraf's regime from the domestic U.S. consequences that would have followed any official acknowledgement of the truth, despite its awareness knowledge of Musharraf's bad faith. As the risk of political backlash at home over the issue increases, however, that policy is certain to come under severe pressure.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service