Pakistan’s use of Islamic militancy as an instrument of its foreign policy, including knowingly playing host to Osama bin Laden, may now pose a looming threat to its own national security.
According to Pakistani sources, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is gaining strength in Pakistan. Altaf Hussain, the founder and leader of Muttahida Quami Movement, a Pakistani political party representing the Urdu-speaking community, said the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Al-Qaeda are merging with ISIS and may challenge Pakistan’s integrity and stability.
Six prominent members of the Pakistan Taliban have turned their allegiance away from Afghan Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Five regional Taliban commanders also affirmed their support for al-Baghdadi, who, in June, declared himself the Caliph of the Muslim world and ordered all Muslims to pledge their allegiance to him. Al-Baghdadi’s success has been largely attributed to his ability to consolidate disparate militant factions into a single fighting force.
The October 23, 2014 killing of eight Shia Muslims in the southwestern city of Quetta suggests that ISIS may be having an influence on indigenous Sunni militants in Pakistan. Abdul Khaliq Hazara, leader of the Shia Hazara Muslim community, said: “There are indications of ISIS seeking to expand its presence in Baluchistan. I suppose ISIS are [sic] looking to build up a support base here along the border with Iran, to add pressure on Iran from its eastern border [along Pakistan].”
Pakistan remains a central node in global terrorism. For forty years, Pakistan has been backing Islamic extremist groups as part of its expansionist foreign policy in Afghanistan and Central Asia and its efforts to maintain equilibrium with India. As early as the 1950s, Pakistan began inserting Islamists associated with a Pakistan-based Jamaat-e-Islami into Afghanistan.
Strategically, Pakistan may present the greatest threat to Afghan independence and the success of American policy in the region. Pakistan views Afghanistan as a client state, a security buffer against what they consider potential Indian encirclement and as a springboard to extend their own influence into the resource-rich area of Central Asia. In 1974, then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto set up a cell within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to begin managing dissident Islamists in Afghanistan. Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988) told one of his generals: “Afghanistan must be made to boil at the right temperature.”
After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan backed Pashtun Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who struggled with his main rival (Ahmad Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik from the Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan, later assassinated by al-Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks.)
In 1994, under Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan shifted its support from Hekmatyar to the Taliban, who by 1998 had consolidated their power over most of Afghanistan and provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Without doubt, Pakistan and its intelligence service have more influence over the Taliban than any other country. It provides critical safe haven and sanctuary to the groups’ leadership, advice on military and diplomatic issues, and assistance with fundraising. In 1999, Bhutto’s Minister of Interior, Nasrullah Babar, admitted it quite explicitly, pronouncing, “We created the Taliban.”
Pakistan has been playing a double game with the US appeasement on the outside, whilst covertly funding, arming, and training the Taliban in the hope that after a coalition defeat and withdrawal, they could once again be the dominant power in Afghanistan.
It is important to note that Turkey’s current situation resembles the early years of Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Taliban. ISIS is recruiting militants in Turkey. Failure to clean its own house now could lead Turkey down the path of “Pakistanization,” whereby a resident jihadist infrastructure causes Sunni extremism to ingrain itself deeply within the fabric of society. Like Pakistan, Turkey’s dilemma may be far graver than its leaders realize.
The conclusion is clear. Unless ISIS is defeated now in Syria and Iraq, it will present a far greater threat to US national security as it grows in strength, geographic presence, and access to weapons of mass destruction.
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