Saturday, July 26, 2014

United Militants Threaten Pakistan’s Populous Heart

This article was reported by Sabrina Tavernise, Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Eric Schmitt and written by Ms. Tavernise.

DERA GHAZI KHAN, Pakistan – Taliban insurgents are teaming up with local militant groups to make inroads in Punjab, the province that is home to more than half of Pakistanis, reinvigorating an alliance that Pakistani and American authorities say poses a serious risk to the stability of the country.

The deadly assault in March in Lahore, Punjab’s capital, against the Sri Lankan cricket team, and the bombing last fall of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the national capital, were only the most spectacular examples of the joint campaign, they said.

Now police officials, local residents and analysts warn that if the government does not take decisive action, these dusty, impoverished fringes of Punjab could be the next areas facing the insurgency. American intelligence and counterterrorism officials also said they viewed the developments with alarm.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand the gravity of the issue,” said a senior police official in Punjab, who declined to be idenfitied because he was discussing threats to the state. “If you want to destabilize Pakistan, you have to destabilize Punjab.”

As American drone attacks disrupt strongholds of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal areas, the insurgents are striking deeper into Pakistan – both in retaliation and in search of new havens.

Telltale signs of creeping militancy abound in a belt of towns and villages near here that a reporter visited last week. Militants have gained strength considerably in the district of Dera Ghazi Khan, which is a gateway both to Taliban-controlled areas and the heart of Punjab, the police and local residents say. Many were terrified.

Some villages, just north of here, are so deeply infiltrated by militants that they are already considered no-go zones by their neighbors.

In at least five towns in southern and western Punjab, including the midsize hub of Multan, barber shops, music stores and Internet cafes offensive to the militants’ strict interpretation of Islam have received threats. Traditional ceremonies that include drumming and dancing have been halted in some areas. Hard-line ideologues have addressed large crowds to push their idea of Islamic revolution. Sectarian attacks, dormant here since the 1990s, have erupted once again.

“It’s going from bad to worse,” said a senior police official in Dera Ghazi Khan. “They are now more active. These are the facts.”

American officials agreed. Bruce Riedel, who led the Obama administration’s recently completed strategy review of Pakistan and Afghanistan, said the Taliban now had “extensive links into the Punjab.”

“You are seeing more of a coalescence of these militant groups,” said Mr. Riedel, a former C.I.A. official. “Connections that have always existed are becoming tighter and more public than they have in the past.”

The Punjabi militant groups have had links with the Taliban, who are mostly Pashtun tribesmen, since the 1980s. Some of the Punjabi groups are veterans of Pakistan’s state-sponsored insurgency against Indian forces in Kashmir. Others made targets of Shiites.

Under pressure from the United States, former President Pervez Musharraf cut back state support for the Punjabi groups. They either went underground or migrated to the tribal areas, where they deepened their ties with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

At least 20 militants killed in American strikes in the tribal areas since last summer were Punjabi, according to people from the tribal areas and Pakistani officials. One Pakistani security official estimated that 5 percent to 10 percent of militants in the tribal regions could be Punjabi.

The alliance is based on more than shared ideology. “These are tactical alliances,” said a senior American counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss intelligence matters. The Pashtun Taliban and Arab militants, who are part of Al Qaeda, have money, sanctuary, training sites and suicide bombers. The Punjabi militants can provide logistical help in Punjabi cities, like Lahore, including handling bombers and target reconnaissance.

The cooperation between the groups intensified greatly after the government’s siege of Islamic hard-liners at the Red Mosque in Islamabad, in mid-2007, Pakistani and American security officials say. The siege has since become a rallying cry.

One such joint operation, an American security official said, was the Marriott bombing in Islamabad in September, which killed more than 50 people.

As this cooperation intensifies, places like Dera Ghazi Khan are particularly vulnerable. This frontier town is home to a combustible mix of worries: poverty, a growing phalanx of hard-line religious schools and a uranium processing plant that is a part of Pakistan’s nuclear program.

It is also strategically situated at the intersection of two main roads. One is a main artery into Pakistan’s heartland, in southern Punjab. The other connects Baluchistan Province in the west to the North-West Frontier Province, both Taliban strongholds.

“We are being cornered in a blind alley,” said Mohammed Ali, a local landlord. “We can’t breathe easily.”

Attacks intended to intimidate and sow sectarian strife are more common. The police point to a suicide bombing in Dera Ghazi Khan on Feb. 5. Two local Punjabis, with the help of Taliban backers, orchestrated the attack, which killed 29 people at a Shiite ceremony, the local police said.

The authorities arrested two men as masterminds on April 6: Qari Muhammad Ismail Gul, the leader of a local madrasa; and Ghulam Mustafa Kaisrani, a jihadi who posed as a salesman for a medical company.

They belonged to a banned Punjabi group called Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, but were tied through phone calls to two deputies of the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, the police said.

“The phone numbers they call are in Waziristan,” said a police official, referring to the Taliban base in the tribal areas. “They are working together hand in glove.” One of the men had gone for training in Waziristan last summer, the police said. The operations are well-supported. Mr. Kaisrani had several bank transfers worth about $11 million from his Pakistani account, the authorities said.

Local crimes, including at least two recent bank robberies in Dera Ghazi Khan, were also traced to networks of Islamic militants, officials said.

“The money that’s coming in is huge,” said Zulfiqar Hameed, head of investigations for the Lahore Police Department. “When you go back through the chain of the transaction, you invariably find it’s been done for money.”

After the suicide attack here, the police confiscated a 20-minute inspirational video, titled “Revenge,” for the Red Mosque, which gave testimonials from suicide bombers in different cities and post-attack images.

Umme Hassan, the wife of a fiery preacher who was killed during the Red Mosque siege, now frequently travels to south Punjab, to rally the faithful. She has made 12 visits in the past several months before cheering crowds and showing emotional clips of the attack, said a Punjabi official who has been monitoring her visits.

“She claimed that they would bring Islamic revolution in three months,” said Umar Draz, who attended a rally in Muzzafargarh.

The situation in south and west Punjab is still far from that in the Swat Valley, a part of North-West Frontier Province that is now fully under Taliban control after the military agreed to a truce in February. But there are strong parallels.

The Taliban here exploit many of the same weaknesses that have allowed them to expand in other areas: an absent or intimidated police force; a lack of attention from national and provincial leaders; a population steadily cowed by threats, or won over by hard-line mullahs who usurp authority by playing on government neglect and poverty.

In Shadan Lund, a village just north of here, militants are openly demanding Islamic law, or Shariah, said Jan Sher, whose brother is a teacher there. “The situation is sharply going toward Swat,” Mr. Sher said. He and others said the single biggest obstacle to stopping the advance of militancy was the attitudes of Pakistanis themselves, whose fury at the United States has led to blind support for everyone who goes against it.

Shabaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, said he was painfully aware of the problems of insurgent infiltration and was taking steps to restore people’s faith in government, including plans for new schools and hospitals. “Hearts and minds must be won,” he said in an interview Monday. “If this struggle fails, this country has no future.”

But people complain that landowners and local politicians have done nothing to stop the advance and, in some cases, even assist the militants by giving money to some of the religious schools.

“The government is useless,” said Mr. Ali, the local landlord. “They live happy, secure lives in Lahore. Their children study abroad. They only come here to contest elections.”

The police are left alone to stop the advance. But in Punjab, as in much of the rest of Pakistan, they are spread unevenly, with little presence in rural areas. Out of 160,000 police officers in Punjab, fewer than 60,000 are posted in rural areas, leaving frontier stations in districts virtually unprotected, police officials said.

Locals feel helpless. When a 15-year-old boy vanished from a madrasa in a village near here recently – his classmates said to go on jihad – his uncle could not afford to go look for him, let alone confront the powerful men who run the madrasa.

“We are simple people,” the man said. “What can we do?”

Source: The New York Times

By SABRINA TAVERNISE, RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. and ERIC SCHMITT

Sabrina Tavernise reported from Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan; Richard A. Oppel Jr. from Peshawar, Pakistan; and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington, Waqar Gillani from Dera Ghazi Khan, and Pir Zubair Shah from Peshawar.

Foreign Minister Spanta Addresses 4th Round of Government Accountability

Dr. Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, yesterday delivered an address before the 4th Round of Government Accountability to the Nation. The session was part of an annual review of activities of all Ministries and Government Departments whereby cabinet members and heads of departments brief the public on the work of their Ministries over the course of the year. The first round of accountability week took place in November 2005.

In his address, Foreign Minister Spanta delivered a comprehensive briefing on the activities and achievements of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the past year. Foreign Minister Spanta stated that since assuming the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs, he prioritized the following areas of activity:

Afghanistan’s foreign policy, including diplomatic relations and foreign security and economic policy;
Enhancing capacity of officials of the Foreign Ministry; and
Fundamental reform of the Ministry’s framework of activities.
Additionally, Foreign Minister Spanta noted that, among various accomplishments, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had consolidated its relations with the broader international community. In that regard, it was said that Afghanistan had expanded both bilateral and multi-lateral relations by establishing diplomatic relations with additional countries and up-grading its participation in various international forums and organizations.

To that effect, he alluded to the following: election of Dr. Zahir Tanin, Afghanistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, as Vice-Chairman of the 63rd Session of the UN General Assembly and his appointment as Chair of the Working Group on Security Council reform; election of Ms. Zohra Rasekh, Director of the Human Rights and Women’s Affairs Dept. at the Foreign Ministry, as an independent expert at the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); Afghanistan’s membership in the Board of Governor’s of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); election of Mr. Yahya Maroufi, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Tehran, as Secretary General of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO); Afghanistan’s assumption of the post of Deputy Chair of the 15th Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and continuation of the Vice-Chairmanship of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People at the UN.

Foreign Minister Spanta highlighted the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in facilitating Afghanistan’s participation in various international gathering on numerous issues. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was responsible for the organization of 23 officials visits conducted by His Excellency President Karzai. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was responsible for preparation of draft statements, talking points and drafting of official declarations and international agreements, said Foreign Minister Spanta.” The Foreign Ministry undertook the aforementioned measures for official visits of Ministers and Deputy Ministers of other Ministries as well.

Furthermore, Foreign Minister Spanta emphasized the importance of good-governance at all levels of government, including government Ministries. He cited various measures initiated by senior officials at the Ministry aimed at improving governance at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Foreign Ministers also expressed the commitment of the Ministry’s leadership in promoting official appointments on the basis of merit and combating “a culture of nepotism.”

Holbrooke of South Asia

America’s regional envoy says Pakistan’s tribal areas are the problem.
His face tense and unsmiling, a young man from a village in Pakistan’s western tribal areas tells his story, mixing English, Pashto and Urdu. He is the only male in his clan to get an education, but can’t find a job, and blames a corrupt national government. Americans are bombing his neighbors, he says, tempting him to join the Islamist militants in his area. Across the room, another Pakistani turns toward his hosts at the U.S. Embassy and says, “You are hated.”
[The Weekend Interview] Ismael Roldan

The comments are addressed to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen and the new American special representative for the region, Richard Holbrooke. Seated alongside the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, Mr. Holbrooke asks a dozen or so men in the room about the presence of the Taliban in their villages. “We are all Taliban,” comes a response. The others nod in accord. All are or were “religious students,” or Taliban in Pashto. But the expression of solidarity with the various Pakistani and Afghan insurgents who go by the name is lost on no one.

After the meeting, Mr. Holbrooke looks shaken, out of character for a diplomatic operator who picked up the nickname “bulldozer” a decade ago in the Balkans. As he knows, these men who spoke so directly to him are the “friendly” types from the tribal areas — literate, ambitious and willing to risk the ire of the Taliban fighters to meet him and Adm. Mullen at the embassy.

Their home regions of North and South Waziristan and the Khyber agency are familiar place names in this long war: as the world’s sanctuary to al Qaeda’s leadership, as the launching pad for attacks on Western forces across the border in Afghanistan, and as the source of the Islamist challenge to the civilian government atop this rickety nuclear-armed state.

The Obama administration recently unveiled a new strategy to enlarge America’s military footprint in Afghanistan and press Pakistan to act against Taliban safe havens. Mr. Holbrooke and Admiral Mullen took the policy on a regional road show this week, and at every stop got a sobering earful. While Afghanistan’s troubles are monumental, the nightmare scenarios start and end with Pakistan.

Mr. Holbrooke, who leads the diplomatic charge, acknowledges the hardest work will be here. His airplane reading is Dennis Kux’s history of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship titled, “The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies.” “Pakistan is at the center of our strategic concerns,” he tells me Tuesday night, flying from Islamabad to India’s capital, Delhi. “If Afghanistan had the best government on earth, a drug-free culture and no corruption it would still be unstable if the situation in Pakistan remained as today. That is an undisputable fact, and that is the core of the dilemma that the Western nations, the NATO alliance, face today.”

Take the dilemma a logical step further, I suggest. The terrorists who threaten America are in Pakistan, but the U.S. fights the Afghan Taliban, who don’t. “That’s a fair point,” says Mr. Holbrooke, “but the reason for fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan is clear: The Taliban are the frontrunners for al Qaeda. If they succeed in Afghanistan, without any shadow of a doubt, al Qaeda would move back into Afghanistan, set up a larger presence, recruit more people and pursue its objectives against the United States even more aggressively.” Public support for the expanded U.S. Afghan mission hinges on making this case stick.

In a Hillary Clinton White House, Mr. Holbrooke would almost certainly be in charge at the State Department. In this administration, he serves Secretary Clinton and brings a familiar mix of enthusiasm and bluster, charming and bullying the world’s difficult characters. In the previous decade, Mr. Holbrooke brokered the end of the Bosnian conflict, working then as now closely with the military. He went on to write a memoir titled “To End a War” and become something of a celebrity in the Balkans, even having a bar in Kosovo named after him. The 1995 Dayton peace talks “was 21 days and it was pass or fail,” he says. “This is more complicated even than that.”

The complications in Afghanistan start with an incubator state and mind-boggling corruption, from top to bottom. The past year saw a sharp spike in Afghan civilian as well as American casualties. A rural insurgency is fed by anger at the government and money from the Gulf states, as well as the booming poppy trade. The administration will send 17,000 additional combat troops to confront the Taliban, initially in the south. Mr. Obama also approved 4,000 military trainers, and plans are in the works to double the target size for the army and the police.

Mr. Holbrooke needs to walk a fine diplomatic line. On the one hand, he assures people who know their history that America won’t pull the plug early on this project. At a meeting with Afghan female legislators who have most to fear from a Taliban comeback, he says, “President Obama has made a commitment. We will not abandon you.” On the other hand, the U.S. must counter Taliban propaganda that America replaced Russia as the occupying force. With conservative Afghan religious leaders, Mr. Holbrooke shifts his emphasis: “We are not here as occupiers. We are here to help you. We will leave when you no longer need us.”

Though Adm. Mullen provides the plane on this trip and holds the senior job, Mr. Holbrooke takes the lead in meetings. He moderates discussions like a big-band leader, improvising as necessary. “Good to have a force of nature on the case,” notes a European diplomat watching one performance over dinner in Kabul. “You’re reminded that half of diplomacy is theater.” Holbrooke detractors tend to put the proportion higher.

America sits in the driver’s seat in Afghanistan, but not Pakistan. Here it’s far from clear who does.

Flying into Islamabad, Mr. Holbrooke and Adm. Mullen call on the civilian and military rulers to ask for action against the militants in the tribal areas. The Pakistanis press back. At a joint press conference, the foreign minister is prickly, denouncing strikes by unmanned U.S. Predators on Pakistani territory and noting an absence of “trust.”

In private, American officials report no better progress. The Pakistanis say their terror problems are Afghanistan’s fault. They resent American criticism of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military’s intelligence arm that nurtured Islamist groups for decades, and rule out the deployment of any American troops on their territory.

Talking to the Pakistani press, Mr. Holbrooke says, “We face a common threat, a common challenge.” Pakistani civilians are concerned by the rising number of suicide bombings, now seen in once tranquil Islamabad and Lahore. Whether the army is as well is the question. The military struck a “peace” deal with the local Taliban in the Swat Valley. President Asif Ali Zardari didn’t sign the accord, but the military went ahead to implement it, turning a former tourist destination in the mountains into a Taliban redoubt beyond the reach of the Pakistani state. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan dates back to the previous regime’s 2006 truce with the militants in Pakistani border areas.

Among Pakistani politicians, Mr. Zardari speaks most clearly about the threat emanating from the country’s west, noting the assassination in late 2007 of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. But he is politically weak, and sounds disinclined to push the military to wage war against the Pashtun tribes in the mountains.

“Holbrooke is a friend,” Mr. Zardari tells me and a couple other journalists along for the ride on this listening tour. “But it’s a long walk. And in that long walk I am losing the people of Pakistan.”

Mr. Holbrooke says the Pakistani president “deserves credit for his personal courage” in holding the job. He welcomes the “statesmanlike” resolution of a recent political feud with rival Nawaz Sharif over the reinstatement of a supreme court judge. The fight could have resulted, he says, in “civil war on the one hand or assassinations on the other.”

With politics a sideshow, many observers, including in American intelligence, think the Pakistani military and the ISI play a double game. They make the necessary pledges to secure billions in American aid while keeping ties to Islamists. The calculation, a Pakistani analyst notes, is America will leave sooner or later and the military needs to hedge its strategic bets.

“We are well aware of these accusations,” says Mr. Holbrooke. “But our experience with [Pakistani Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani does not support them. We deal with him with respect and with the assumption that he is a serious person doing the best he can under difficult circumstances.”

As part of a “long-term commitment to Pakistan,” the Obama administration wants to lock in billions in aid for the country. Military officials also say the scope of Predator strikes will be broadened, against Pakistani official objections, and efforts to get the adversarial Pakistani and Afghan intelligence services to cooperate will be intensified. Mr. Holbrooke insists the U.S. will respect Pakistan’s “red lines” about American combat troops.

“Some people say to me, particularly after a few drinks, ‘Why don’t we go in there with our troops and just clean it up?’” he says. “First of all we can’t without their permission, and that would not be a good idea. Secondly, cleaning them up in the mountains of Pakistan’s tribal areas, as anyone can see from the search for al Qaeda in Afghanistan, is a daunting mission. It’s the same kind of mountains. A few weeks ago I flew up through the deepest and remotest valleys imaginable. You could see tiny villages in the crevices in the mountains. You don’t want American troops in there. So that option’s gone.”

Though only Pakistan and Afghanistan appear in his job title, Mr. Holbrooke isn’t one to think small. He helped court the Europeans to chip in more troops and aid — with no more success on the former than the Bush administration. He wants to press the Gulf states to cut the illicit flow of funding to the Taliban, involve India and reach out to the Chinese, who are close to the Pakistani military. Last month, at the donor’s conference on Afghanistan at The Hague, he was the first American official to engage an Iranian official since 1979. After Iran downplayed the encounter, so does Mr. Holbrooke. “I’m very much in favor of giving Iran a place at the table if it wants it to discuss the future of Afghanistan,” he says. “But they have not indicated whether they wish to participate or not.”

Mr. Holbrooke’s first posting was in Saigon in the 1960s. As Vietnam analogies for Afghanistan mushroom, particularly from inside his own Democratic Party, he doesn’t dismiss them outright. But he makes a case for continued engagement with a view, perhaps, toward firming up support on the Hill and among the public for a war about to enter its eighth year. “There are a lot of structural similarities” with Vietnam, he says. “The sanctuary [in Pakistan]. They even have a parrot’s peak in both countries, on the Pakistan-Afghan border just as there was in Cambodia. An issue of governance. The fact that the government was supporting a guerilla war. Counterinsurgency.

“But the fundamental difference is 9/11. The Vietcong and the north Vietnamese never posed a threat to the United States homeland. The people of 9/11 who were in that area still do and are still planning. That is why we’re in the region with troops. That’s the only justification for what we’re doing. If the tribal areas of western Pakistan were not a sanctuary, I believe that Afghanistan could take care of itself within a relatively short period of time.”
By MATTHEW KAMINSKI
Islamabad, Pakistan
Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.