The World's Most Dangerous Place Islamist Groups Form Unholy Alliance in Pakistan

By and Britta Sandberg

Part 2: Nuclear Nightmares


Surprisingly, Baitullah Mehsud was receptive to the appeal for unity and aligned himself with other Taliban leaders. In late February, flyers written in Urdu turned up in the Pakistani-Afghan border region announcing the formation of a new platform for jihad. The Shura Ittihad-ul Mujahideen (SIM), or Council of United Holy Warriors, declared that the alliance of all militants had been formed at the request of Mullah Omar and bin Laden.

"There is a new quality to this," says Imtiaz Gul in his office at the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. "These groups are now the Pakistani face of al-Qaida." Gul, who has just written a book about terror in the tribal areas, is convinced that all Taliban leaders are in close contact with al-Qaida. According to Gul, their training camps for suicide bombers are run by foreign al-Qaida commanders. "Even the materials and style of the explosive vests the Taliban are now using are identical with those of al-Qaida suicide bombers," says Gul.

The expansion of the combat zone is driving Pakistan toward the abyss. The militant attacks pose a threat to the state, but so do the military operations against the Taliban, which may be doing as much damage as good. The drone attacks in the border region drive the extremists into Pakistan's interior and its cities. Besides, the attacks, which almost always claim the lives of Pakistani women and children in addition to militants, serve as a recruiting tool for new jihadists.

"I am against the drone attacks," says Petraeus adviser Kilcullen. "Even if we could kill half of the al-Qaida leaders, what does it help us if we cause an uprising by the population of Pakistan?" Kilcullen, an Australian, masterminded the most recent US strategy in Iraq, which went hand-in-hand with the troop buildup. He now believes that "we have to negotiate with 90 percent of those we are fighting with -- but we must do so from a position of strength." He also helped develop Obama's new AfPak strategy.

Kilcullen likens the situation in the entire crisis region to blood poisoning, noting that the militants have spread all across the country and that the entire country is affected. "We need to convvince the Pakistanis," he says, "that the real threat is coming from the inside -- the threat of state collapse and extremist takeover -- and not from India."

The Pakistani military is hardly capable of stopping the Taliban's victory march. A few weeks ago, the extremists gained control over the idyllic Swat Valley in the heart of Pakistan, where they have introduced an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic Sharia law and have taken over an emerald mine to help finance their movement. The government in Islamabad is so weak that it agreed to a cease-fire with one of the most merciless militants in the valley, Maulana Fazlullah, a former laborer at a local ski lift. Fazlullah and his thugs have terrorized the residents of the Malakand region for more than two years.

The terror has since penetrated into the country's interior, including the state of Punjab and its capital, Lahore. The city, Pakistan's liberal cultural center, is near the border with India. Evidence of the city's mounting Talibanization includes signs in show windows announcing that female customers will no longer be served. In October, Islamic militants blew up juice bars near Lahore's main train station because unmarried couples were allegedly using the shops for their romantic trysts. Three bombs were detonated at a local art festival a short time later. Nowadays, terrorist acts claim more lives in Pakistan than in neighboring Afghanistan. Last year, such attacks claimed 2,267 lives.

The military prefers to avoid serious confrontation with the extremists. Many officers still do not see the Taliban as their enemy. Pakistan's true enemy, in their view, is India, the country from which Pakistan once seceded and with which it has since waged three wars. There is a relatively common attitude in the military which holds that the fight against terrorism in the northwestern part of the country is being forced upon them by the Americans and that they are fighting the wrong war.

For decades, the military leadership has granted the ISI substantial freedom in its treatment of terrorist groups. This laissez-faire attitude gives them room to maneuver.

General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, a pleasant man with carefully parted hair, sits in his elegant office at ISI headquarters in Islamabad. "The ISI is a security agency and is on the frontlines of defending the country," he says.

In truth, however, the intelligence agency pursues its own covert foreign policy. Pasha points out that in the 1980s, Pakistan -- together with the Americans -- supported the Afghan mujahedeen in their war against the Soviets. This type of assistance was considered desirable at the time, he explains, and adds: "You must understand that both Afghan and Indian intelligence are working against us. It would certainly be odd if we were the only ones who were not operating."

The Americans have long suspected the ISI of playing a double game. After Sept. 11, 2001, former President Pervez Musharraf willingly pursued the al-Qaida terrorists who had sought refuge in the border region and received billions in military aid in return. At the same time, however, he spared the Taliban leaders, allowing them to go into hiding.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Obama administration officials were unusually candid in accusing the ISI of supporting the Taliban in its struggle against the Western alliance and the Karzai government in Kabul. That support, they said, includes ammunition and fuel, as well as the recruitment of fighters. The officials claimed that wiretapped telephone conversations prove that members of Pakistani intelligence have even given the Taliban advance warning of planned raids.

These conclusions are consistent with the impression that Mike McConnell, the former director of the National Security Agency (NSA), a US intelligence service, gained on a visit to Islamabad last year. A Pakistani two-star general frankly explained the mindset of his fellow military commanders to McConnell, noting that although the army is fighting the Taliban at the instruction of politicians, it also supports the militants. The Americans, the general reasoned, will eventually leave Afghanistan, at which point it will be up the Pakistani military to prevent India from advancing into the power vacuum. "That is why we must support the Taliban," the general said.

According to Bruce Riedel, an advisor to Obama, Pakistan has "created a Frankenstein that threatens the Pakistani state itself." Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has described Pakistan as an "international migraine," noting that it has nuclear weapons that could fall into the hands of terrorists -- a nightmare scenario, in the wake of 9/11.

ISI director Pasha is familiar with these fears in the capitals of the West. He pours tea into cups made of fine English porcelain. He says that he is saddened by the notion that the world believes his country could fall into the hands of terrorists. "That is unimaginable," he says. "It will never happen."

But the general has never made clear who, in his view, is an extremist and who is a good man for Pakistan. Only recently, he referred to brutal Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud as a good "patriot." Good for Pakistan or the ISI, or for whom?

The American government has now placed a $5 million (€3.8 million) bounty on Mehsud's head.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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