NEW DELHI: It was the year 1996. Benazir Bhutto as prime minister of Pakistan had asked Pervez Musharraf, then her Director General of Military Operations, to rehabilitate Al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in Jalalabad from Sudan.
Bin Laden, who had shifted base to the African country after the Afghan war, had been thrown out by Khartoum after intense American pressure. Musharraf brought the Al-Qaida mastermind to Jalalabad, a city in eastern Afghanistan, and rehabilitated him.
That, a decade later, Al-Qaida should claim responsibility for Bhutto's assassination marks not just a cruel irony, it also underlines once again the risk of Frankenstein's monster turning upon the master.
This is a recurring theme with Al Qaeda.
These terrorists, collectively known by different names, including the term "Arab-Afghan Mujahideen", were originally backed by the United States in the 1980's. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979, and a little over a year later Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the fortieth President of the United States, with a former Director of Central Intelligence as his V. P.; this set the stage for a proxy war in Afghanistan, where the United States could finally do to a communist superpower a little of what had been done to us in Vietnam.
Afghanistan is land-locked, and was at the time bordered on the north by republics of the USSR, and on the west by Iran, now hostile after the Islamic revolution that had recently unseated the Shah. It was hard to reach for the US, but to the south was Pakistan, which had for some time been considered a US ally in checking Soviet ambitions in the region; together with Turkey and the Shah's Iran, Pakistan and the United States had been members of the Central Treaty Organization, or CENTO. Modeled on the successful North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and originally including Iraq (but initially not the US), CENTO, defunct by the early 1980's, had been an attempt to establish a barrier of strong nations to the Soviet Union's south -- protecting critical oil resources and shipping lanes, and linked to NATO.
As such, Pakistan, with its long and lawless border with Afghanistan, was the perfect place for the US intelligence services to establish a base for holy war against the Kremlin. Working with the Pakistanis, the US helped arm and organize the Mujahideen, which included Arabs from the Middle East, who came complete with the financial backing of petrodollars.
Since Pakistan was a sovereign nation with strong allies, the Soviets could not violate Pakistan's borders without risk. Pakistan offered a safe haven for the Afghan Mujahideen, their Arab brothers, and their sponsors. Ten years after its invasion, the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan. Ultimately, the USSR collapsed, in part because of problems in Soviet society that were caused or exacerbated by the Afghan war.
After the liberation of Afghanistan from Soviet occupation, many of the Afghani warriors retired from jihad; however, many of the Arab holy warriors stayed. With their financial backing from the Middle East, especially from Saudi Arabia, with their extensive intercourse with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and their ties to Washington, and with their love of jihad, these Arab-Afghan Mujahideen evolved into what would later be a world class problem: their members helped brutalize fighting in the Balkans from the early 1990's until the present day, and their members formed the cadre for what would later be called Al Qaeda.
Bhutto's return to Pakistan this year may have been marked with her claim to wipe out terrorism, but the fact remains that it was her interior minister, Major General (retd) Naseerullah Babar, who played a key role in raising the Taliban and consolidating Al-Qaida in Afghanistan. The reason: a desire to secure strategic depth by controlling Pakistan's western border, and to have a say in future Afghanistan affairs.
Pakistan's western border lies in the province of Balochistan, bordering not just Iran, but including much of Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, as well. Its ethnic balance was disrupted by an influx of refugees from Afghanistan, now making Pashtuns roughly equal in the province's population with the Baloch.
(By the way: with a population of over 162 million, a little more than half that of the United States, Pakistan ranks sixth in population among the world's nations, behind China, India, the United States, Indonesia and Brazil.)
Balochistan is the location of Gwadar, where a major Sino-Pakistani project is underway to develop port facilities (see The Islamic Bomb, Part 2, where I touched on this).
The present day terrorism in India, and now turning on Pakistan, can, to an important extent, be traced to that fateful decision taken by the Bhutto government.
Taliban soon became host to a menacing jihadi conglomerate — the Qaida-led International Islamic Front (IIF) — the components of which included anti-India gangs like Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, which later became Jaish-e-Mohhamed, HuJI and others.
The objective of the group was to establish Sharia rule in this important region of Asia, and it was determined to go to any length, even acquire weapons of mass destruction, to realise it.
Two things are important to keep in mind here.
First is that these Arab-Afghan Mujahideen got their start with Pakistani and US intelligence agencies, and still maintain extensive ties with Pakistan's ISI, many of whose members sympathize with their extremist agenda. Through narcotics trafficking and other organized crime activities, they are also connected to corrupt elements in the Pakistani government, as well as in the US government, as I repeatedly address in this blog.
This heroin trafficking at first was a way to further destabilize the Soviet Union, by generating an enormous social problem among the civilian population at home and among Soviet troops in Afghanistan by getting them hooked on heroin; the sale of heroin also provided a way of funding the holy war against Moscow. But, as with the Arab-Afghan Mujahideen themselves, when the war ended, the Afghanistan-based heroin trafficking lived on; it became a scourge on the world scene, attaining a life of its own, complete with its own set of rules and objectives.
And this brings me to the second thing to keep in mind: just as the heroin trafficking attained a life of its own, so did the Arab-Afghan Mujahideen movement attain its own life and life's mission -- it is no longer under the control of the ISI, and certainly not of the US intelligence community; it has become a monster, a threat to the entire world, infidel and Muslim alike.
After the collapse of Taliban post-9/11, this terror infrastructure led by bin Laden moved to Pakistan, and has added to the radicalisation which has claimed so many innocent lives, including that of the former prime minister. A look at the history of militancy in the subcontinent also brings out the fact that Islamic fundamentalism is a direct result of the efforts of hardline Sunni groups to subdue Shias, Ahmadias and others.
Fundamentalist Sunni outfits like Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), which went after Shias, enjoyed the patronage of influential sections of the Pakistan establishment.
There was an overlap of objectives, of course. Former Pakistan president General Zia-ul-Haq, follower of Deobandi sect of Sunnis, set up SSP in 1979 to not only counter the Shias but marginalised pro-democracy forces seeking an end of his brutal military regime.
Some of the radical elements of the SSP parted ways and formed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) in 1996. LeJ, which is suspected to have carried out the attack on Bhutto at the behest of Al-Qaida, is nothing but the armed wing of SSP like Jaish-e-Mohamed and HuJI which had also branched out of SSP. The connections of all jihadi groups with each other are obvious whether they are fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq or India.
This is another key point: in this context, there is no such thing as "our" Mujahideen and "their" Mujahideen. Pakistan's ISI organizes, trains, equips and supports militants who wage jihad against India in the Kashmir region. But, once in the world of jihad, these same militants are just as likely to battle Russian, Serbian, Israeli or American infidels -- until we all either convert to Islam, "pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel [ourselves] subdued", or have been sent to the eternal fires.
As I stated in Benazir Bhutto's Assassination:
Pakistan's ISI was behind this one. Al Qaeda was probably a bunch of witting dupes, and Mushy is likely a dupe-after-the-fact.
The implication here is that the ISI also has a life of its own, and that it does not necessary take orders from "President" Mushy. Many ISI people are undoubtedly very professional and dedicated to Pakistan, and follow the lawful orders of their lawfully appointed superiors. Some of those may have an issue with Mushy's seizure of power.
Regardless, in the ISI there are also rogues who are linked to jihadism and organized crime, and Bhutto, while certainly not free of curruption herself, may have been a serious threat to terrorists and narcotraffickers.