The Magazine

Pakistan's Jihad

In the war on terror, Islamabad is both with us and against us.

Dec 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 13 • By BILL ROGGIO and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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One result is that today the president himself is not safe. The jihadist hydra nearly killed Zardari on September 20, when a truck bomb leveled the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. Zardari had stopped off to chat with an old friend, narrowly avoiding death. The assassins were more successful with Zardari's wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was killed by jihadists in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on December 27, 2007.

All of this has important ramifications not only for India and Pakistan, but also for the United States and the rest of the free world. There is no question that Pakistan has played an instrumental role in the war on terror. President Musharraf's regime, including friendly elements within the ISI, killed or captured hundreds of al Qaeda operatives in the wake of September 11. But it is now clear that the ISI's long-term strategy for seizing power throughout South and Central Asia by sponsoring jihadist proxies remains undeterred.

Moreover, this strategy conflicts directly with American interests. Just as the ISI created the LET and its sister organizations, the ISI has also been the primary benefactor of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even as Pakistan gave the United States vital assistance in the war on terror, the ISI continued to sponsor America's enemies behind her back. There are numerous examples that can be cited.

Both NATO officers and Afghan officials have long maintained that the Taliban's Shura, or leadership council, is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta. In May 2006, Colonel Chris Vernon, then the chief of staff for Coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, told the Guardian that this was common knowledge. "The thinking piece of the Taliban is out of Quetta in Pakistan," Vernon said in an interview. "It's the major headquarters. They use it to run a series of networks in Afghanistan." Other anonymous U.S. and NATO officials backed up Vernon's statements.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai went so far as to say he knew the exact location of Taliban chieftain Mullah Omar and had passed on this information to the Pakistani government, only to have it ignored. "Mullah Omar is for sure in Quetta in Pakistan. And he knows that and I know that," Karzai told the Council on Foreign Relations in September 2006. "And we have given [President Musharraf] information. We have even given him the GPS numbers of his house, of Mullah Omar's house, and the telephone numbers."

Despite these warnings, the Taliban's leadership has remained free. The ISI has ensured their safety. But the ISI's complicity in the Taliban's and al Qaeda's terrorism goes far beyond the provision of safe haven.

Pakistani intelligence officers have been caught aiding America's foes inside Afghanistan. In December 2006, Afghan security forces captured Sayed Akbar, an ISI officer. Akbar had been tasked by Pakistani intelligence with serving as a conduit to al Qaeda, which was operating along the Afghan-Pakistani border in the Kunar region.

An aide to President Karzai told reporters that "evidence and documents [had] been seized with [Akbar] proving his destructive activities in Afghanistan." Afghan officials said Akbar confessed to conducting "illegal activities" in Afghanistan. According to Akbar, he had escorted Osama bin Laden as he traveled from Afghanistan's Nuristan province into the mountainous district of Chitral in northwestern Pakistan in 2005. While there have been numerous bin Laden sightings along the Afghan-Pakistani border, he was reported to have been sheltered in Chitral at this time. In fact, FBI agents visited Chitral in early 2006 to assess the reports.

Perhaps the most brazen example of the ISI's support for the Taliban and other terror groups operating in Afghanistan occurred in the mountainous Afghan border province of Nangarhar. Lieutenant Colonel Chris Nash, the commander of an embedded training team that advised Afghan border police, dropped a bombshell last September when his presentation on his time in Afghanistan from September 2006 to March 2007 made the rounds on the Internet.

A slide in the presentation claimed the ISI was supporting U.S. enemies fighting in Afghanistan. The slide read: "ISI involved in direct support to many enemy operations .  .  . classification prevents further discussion of this point." The support included "training, funding, [and] logistics."

Nash said multiple U.S. and Afghan intelligence reports indicated that the ISI "flew repeated helicopter missions into Afghanistan to resupply the Taliban during a fierce battle in June 2007," according to the Army Times. The ISI helicopters resupplied a "base camp" in the Tora Bora region in Nangarhar, where Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda fought pitched battles with the U.S. military and Afghan militias before retreating into Pakistan.

The camp was run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami, an insurgent group long sponsored by the ISI, as well as the Taliban and al Qaeda. "A helo flew in the valley, went over to where we knew there was a base camp, landed, [and] 15 minutes later took off," Nash said. The helicopters made three separate flights to resupply the joint insurgent force. "From NDS [Afghan intelligence] sources that we had in the opposing camp, [we know] they were offloading supplies," Nash told the Army Times. Nash explained that the resupply efforts took place over the course of three months.

The most recent and damning allegation of ISI perfidy in Afghanistan was leveled by U.S. intelligence after a suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into the outer wall of the Indian embassy in Kabul. Fifty-four people, including an Indian defense attaché, were killed in the July 7 bombing.

The Indian embassy bombing was carried out by the notorious Haqqani Network, run by former mujahedeen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj. Both Jalaluddin and Siraj have close ties with al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden.

The Haqqanis have extensive links with al Qaeda and the Taliban, and their relationship with the ISI has allowed their network to survive and thrive in its fortress stronghold of North Waziristan. The Haqqanis control large swaths of the tribal area and run a parallel administration with courts, recruiting centers, tax offices, and security forces. They have established multiple training camps and safe houses used by al Qaeda leaders and operatives, as well as by Taliban foot soldiers preparing to fight in Afghanistan.

American intelligence agencies confronted the Pakistani government with evidence of direct ISI involvement in the bombing of the Indian embassy, the New York Times reported in August. "The conclusion was based on intercepted communications between Pakistani intelligence officers and militants who carried out the attack, the officials said, providing the clearest evidence to date that Pakistani intelligence officers are actively undermining American efforts to combat militants in the region."

The ISI officers involved in the Kabul bombings were not "renegades," the New York Times reported, and the intercepts indicated that "their actions might have been authorized by superiors." U.S. intelligence officials also said "elements of Pakistan's government seemed to be directly aiding violence in Afghanistan that had included attacks on American troops" and were providing intelligence to Taliban and al Qaeda operatives on the U.S. covert air campaign targeting terror leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas. The Haqqani Network has been a prime target of these attacks; almost 60 percent of U.S. airstrikes this year have occurred in North Waziristan.

In the wake of the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, the ISI reshuffled its leadership. But the changes were most likely cosmetic. As the attacks in Mumbai illustrate, the ISI continues to sponsor terrorism. Indeed, the attacks in Mumbai were yet another wake-up call for the United States and the West.

Decades ago the ISI made a pact with the devil. There is no evidence that it can be redeemed any time soon. Given the ISI's deep roots within Pakistan's culture and its capacity to drive policy even against the wishes of the elected officials, curtailing the power of this rogue agency will be difficult at best. Indeed, the ISI is now one of the principal backers of radical Islam in the world.

The allure of Islamist extremism runs deep in Pakistan's officer corps. For many, this is an ideological war. Consider what "retired" ISI general Hamid Gul, who still exerts much influence in Pakistan, said in 2003:

God will destroy the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and wherever it will try to go from there. The Muslim world must stand united to confront the United States in its so-called War on Terrorism, which is in reality a war against Muslims. Let's destroy America wherever its troops are trapped.

The same mentality compels the ISI and its surrogates to claim territory in the name of Islam. Pakistan's jihad in India and Kashmir is not just the product of a decades-old geopolitical rivalry. For the ISI, it is part of a Manichaean struggle between the forces of Islam and the rest of the world. As Praveen Swami notes in his book, the LET's leadership has openly talked of conquering large swaths of India on behalf of Muslims. After the Kargil war of 1999, LET chieftain Hafiz Muhammad Saeed threatened, "The real war will be inside [India]." He swore his forces would "unfurl the Islamic flag on the Red Fort." As Swami explains, the Red Fort in New Delhi "has been a long-standing motif in Islamist Discourse, as old as Partition itself." It is no wonder that in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, the Indians have demanded that the Pakistanis turn Saeed over. But it is doubtful that the Pakistani military will comply.

In the current crisis, the military shows signs of closing ranks with extremist elements as fears of a conflict with India increase. Just days after the Mumbai attacks, an army corps commander described Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud as a "patriot" and said the conflict with the Taliban in the northwest was merely due to "misunderstandings." In turn, the Taliban-dominated tribes pledged to send three million fighters to the Indian frontier in the event of a conflict.

Past efforts to purge the military of officers sympathetic to or openly supportive of the extremist cause have had only limited success. Former President Pervez Musharraf conducted multiple purges of the ISI after the September 11 attacks and attempts on his own life, but they had limited effect. Recently, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, a Bhutto loyalist, tried to bring the ISI under government control, but met resistance. Within 24 hours, the announcement that the ISI would be placed under the office of the prime minister had been rescinded.

The United States is now faced with an awful truth. Pakistan is both an ally and an enemy. The attacks in Mumbai are only the latest demonstration of the tactics the ISI is willing to sponsor in its quest for power in the subcontinent and beyond. We should be mindful that ISI-sponsored terrorism is a central component of our enemies' worldwide designs. It should not come as a surprise if someday we find ISI-backed terrorists laying siege to New York or Washington, just as they lately brought carnage to Mumbai.

Bill Roggio is managing editor of the website Long War Journal and adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Thomas Joscelyn is the senior editor of the Long War Journal.