Counter-Terrorism: The Deal With The Devil That Terrifies Asia


June 8, 2014: Pakistan’s long (since the 1970s) support of Islamic terrorism has made it something of a pariah to all its neighbors. This is because Pakistan appears to have lost control of the Islamic terrorist groups it has provided support and sanctuary to for so long. This puts all the neighbors at greater risk of attack by Islamic terrorists who still operate out of bases in Pakistan. Those threatened include India, Afghanistan, China, Iran, the Moslem Central Asian nations and, worst of all, non-Moslem nations worldwide. Especially since September 11, 2001 Pakistan was increasingly and often publically criticized for its terrorism policy. This became more common since 2011 as many of the terrorists it supported have declared war on their host and the neighbors have concluded that Pakistan has lost control of the terrorism monster it created. Now the neighbors are discussing this situation with each other and international organizations. Pakistan appears unable to fix itself or deal with the international terror threat it created.

Pakistan is still reluctant to admit it is the cause of so many problems but the neighbors are not being very understanding. China, who supplies a lot of Pakistan’s weapons and foreign investment, has told its troublesome neighbor to fix the situation or see China go from being a helpful to a hostile neighbor. The other neighbors have had a similar reaction, but given China’s place as Pakistan’s most important ally, Pakistan can no longer ignore the problem.

Yet the Pakistani government really does not have a lot of control over the situation. That’s because its intelligence service, the ISI (Inter Service Intelligence agency) is supposed to be controlling the terrorists but is itself out of control and few politicians want to mess with the ISI. It wasn't always that way. The ISI was created in 1948 as a reaction to the inability of the IB (Intelligence Bureau, which collected intelligence on foreign countries in general) and MI (Military Intelligence, which collected intel on military matters) to work together and provide useful information for senior government officials. The ISI was supposed to take intel from IB and MI, analyze it and present it to senior government officials. But in the 1950s, the government began to use the ISI to collect intel inside Pakistan, especially on those suspected of opposing the current government. This eventually backfired, and in the 1970s, the ISI was much reduced by a civilian government. But when another coup took place in 1977 and the new military government decided that religion was the cure for what ailed the country and that ISI would be expanded to make this work. That meant encouraging Islamic clergy and groups to become even more active in politics and for Islamic terrorist groups to accept cash and other help from the government. The deal with the devil was made and there was, at least for the Islamic radicals, no going back.

What kept this nasty arrangement going for so long was the fact that until quite recently elected and military government alternated running Pakistan. Typically, the Pakistani generals seized control of the government every decade or so, when the corruption and incompetence of elected officials becomes too much for the military men to tolerate. The generals never did much better, and eventually there are elections, and the cycle continued. The generals controlled ISI and supported the pro-Islamic terrorism policy. Civilian government never had sufficient time or will to shut down ISI. The latest iteration began in 1999, when the army took over, and was voted out of power nine years later, pretty much on schedule. There followed, for the first time, another election that had one civilian government replace another. This has upset the generals considerably. Civilian governments tend to be hostile to the ISI, and apparently they are making a real effort to clear out many of the Islamic radicals in the ISI this time around. Then again, recent attempts by the government to take control of the ISI backfired when the generals said they would not allow it. Nothing is simple in Pakistan but this time is different and the ISI feels it is facing a grave threat.

The ISI grew particularly strong during the 1980s, when billions of dollars, most of it in the form of military and economic aid, arrived from the oil-rich Arab governments of the Persian Gulf. All this was to support the Afghans who were resisting a Russian invasion (in support of Afghan communists who had taken control of the government, and triggered a revolt of the tribes). The Afghan communists were atheists, and this greatly offended Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries, who feared that Russia would encourage Arab communists everywhere to rebel. So the resistance to the Russians in Afghanistan was declared a holy war which, after a fashion, it was. After about nine years of fighting the tribes, the Russians got tired of their slow progress (and more pressing problems back home, like the collapse of their economy from decades of communist mismanagement) and left in 1989.

The Soviet Union collapsed two years later, and the Afghan factions promptly fell upon each other and the civil war seemed never-ending. This upset Pakistan, which wanted to send millions of Afghan refugees back home. Few of the refugees were interested, as long as Afghans were still fighting each other. So the ISI created its own faction, the Taliban, by recruiting teachers and students from a network of religious schools that had been established (with the help of Saudi Arabian religious charities) in the 1980s. The most eager recruits were young Afghans from the refugee camps. The Taliban were fanatical, and most Afghans were willing to support them because they brought peace and rough justice. But the Taliban never conquered all of Afghanistan, especially in the north, where there were few Pushtun tribes (most Taliban were Pushtuns, from tribes in southwestern Afghanistan). The Pushtuns were about 40 percent of the population, and had always been the most prominent faction in Afghanistan (the king of Afghanistan was traditionally a Pushtun.)

Although a military junta was again running Pakistan when September 11, 2001 came along, the president of the country, an army general (Pervez Musharraf), sided with the United States, and turned against the Taliban. But many in the ISI continued to support the Taliban, and the army was too dependent on the ISI (for domestic intelligence, and to control Islamic militants that were attacking India, especially in Kashmir) to crack down on this treason.

Al Qaeda took this betrayal badly, and declared war on the Pakistani government. The ISI was used to seek out and kill or capture most of the hostile al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. But the ISI insured that Islamic terrorists who remained neutral were generally left alone. The ISI thwarted government efforts to have the army clear the al Qaeda out of the border areas (populated largely by Pushtun tribes, there being twice as many Pushtuns in Pakistan as there are in Afghanistan). But now, in one sense, it's September 11, 2001 all over again. The U.S. has told Pakistan that it is fed up with getting screwed around by the ISI, and if Pakistan doesn't clean out the ISI, and shut down Islamic terrorists along the Afghan border, NATO, U.S. and Afghan troops will cross the border and do it. On May 2nd, 2011 the U.S. did just that, to kill Osama bin Laden, much to the consternation of the ISI. This was a turning point for Pakistan as the bin Laden raid, although roundly condemned by Pakistani nationalists, did expose the ISI and military leaders as liars. Bin Laden has spent over five years living within sight of the Pakistani military academy and surrounded by retired and active duty officers and their families. This hurt the ISI and the military more than the generals like to admit.  

While al Qaeda has become the most well- known international terrorist organization it was not the most successful. That title goes to less well known regional terrorist organizations. The most successful of these has been Pakistani Islamic terror group Lashkar I Toiba (LeT). While al Qaeda has been reduced to a franchising operation, LeT is a real organization with separate departments for recruiting, fund raising, training and operations. The LeT is, like the Taliban is a creation of the Pakistani ISI. The ISI has long been a power unto itself, with its own agenda and many members who support Islamic radicalism. In 2008, the civilian government sought to disband the political wing of the ISI. This section was believed be largely responsible for Pakistani support of Islamic, or simply Pakistani, terrorist operations in Afghanistan and India, as well as support for Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan itself. The political wing has also served as a domestic spying operation whenever the military was running the country (which is more than half the time.) That effort failed, as did several previous attempts to reform this espionage agency.

Only some parts of the Pakistani government back these terrorists, as most Pakistanis realize that too much Pakistani based Islamic terrorism inside India could trigger a major war with India. Since both nations now have nuclear weapons, this could get very ugly. The Islamic terrorists don't care, as they are on a Mission From God, and whatever happens is God's Will.

It’s interesting that many LeT leaders come from the same middle class neighborhoods that produce many of the army and ISI officers that back Islamic terrorism. The connections between ISI and Islamic terror groups are numerous and this intelligence organization has become a major threat to Pakistani democracy and Pakistan itself.

Foreign countries have tried to work with the ISI. The U.S. gave Pakistan's main intelligence agency; ISI tens of millions dollars for rewards since September 11, 2001. The U.S. money was paid as rewards for the capture or killing of wanted Islamic terrorists. The live ones were turned over to the United States. Pakistan says it captured over 800 of these terrorists, but the actual number is believed to be greater. The U.S. did not look closely at exactly who got the reward money. This backfired, as have efforts by other nations to work with ISI to control Islamic terrorist groups in Pakistan. It is now generally recognized that ISI is the enemy as much as the Taliban, al Qaeda, LeT or any number of other Islamic terrorist groups operating out of Pakistan. Many Pakistanis are turning against the ISI and the army. Despite all that the ISI remains intact and still allied with numerous Islamic terrorist groups. Four decades of government support for Islamic radicalism has resulted in a large minority of Pakistanis still supporting Islamic terrorists. But it’s no longer just India or the United States complaining about the murderous work of the ISI and their Islamic terrorist clients. All the neighbors, including Iran and China, are complaining and soon Pakistan will have to decide what is more important; survival or support for Islamic terrorism. 


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