Is Pakistan's support for militants backfiring?

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 27, 2010 

ISLAMABAD — Although U.S. officials accuse Pakistan of secretly supporting the Taliban and other Islamic extremist groups that are attacking Americans in Afghanistan, there also is evidence that some Pakistani militant groups have turned on their own country.

The latest is a video that emerged Tuesday of a former Pakistani military officer with longstanding ties to the Taliban who said he's being held prisoner by a militant splinter group and threatened to expose the Pakistani government's "weaknesses" if it didn't release almost 160 imprisoned militants.

Sultan Amir Tarar, known as "Colonel Imam," who helped launch the Afghan Taliban and served as a Pakistani representative to the Taliban movement, said that a splinter faction of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an offshoot of the extremist Sipah-e-Sahaba, was holding him.

Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate reportedly once patronized the larger group along with numerous other militant Islamic movements.

"You people know about my services for this country and nation. If the government does not care for me, then I will not care for it and disclose its several weaknesses," Tarar said in the three-minute video, first obtained by Pakistan's Aaj TV.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has turned against the ISI and the civilian government, kidnapped Tarar and another former Pakistani intelligence officer and committed Islamist, Khalid Khawaja, and a journalist in late March as they researched a television documentary in North Waziristan, part of Pakistan's lawless tribal area bordering Afghanistan.

Khawaja's bullet-riddled body was found in late April, and a note pinned to his corpse said he worked for the CIA and the ISI. Nothing is known of the journalist's fate.

In the video, Tarar, a 65-year-old retired brigadier general, flanked by two masked gunmen, asked the government and the ISI to meet his kidnappers' demand to free a number of prisoners held for terrorism, or his life was at risk.

"You know well about the mentality of this group. They can do anything at will. They killed Khalid Khawaja, and they may give us a more severe punishment, which would be a big loss for Pakistan," Tarar said, reading from a script.

Tarar has been an outspoken backer of the Afghan Taliban, and the movement's founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is said to have asked his captors to release him, but they appear to have had no effect.

However, Tarar opposed the Pakistani Taliban's attacks against the Pakistani state, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which initially was aimed against the country's Shiite Muslim minority, is among the most violent groups now targeting the Pakistani government.

Originally from Pakistan's heartland Punjab province, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is based in the tribal areas along with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, the main Pakistani Taliban faction.

"A lot of people you put on the medicine of jihad can easily break away from their parent," said Imtiaz Gul, the author of "The Most Dangerous Place," a book about Pakistan's tribal area. "They can work for anybody."

The ISI has backed Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan since the early 1980s, when it worked with the CIA to support the "mujahedeen" resistance to the Soviet invasion.

Tarar has said in interviews that he trained thousands of Afghan fighters to defeat the Soviet Union. The government sent him to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, where he spotted the potential of the emerging Taliban movement and helped nurture it, and he was the Pakistani representative to the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. After 2001, Tarar was forcibly retired from the military.

He told McClatchy in January that the U.S. must deal directly with Mullah Omar to negotiate an end to the war in Afghanistan.

"If a sincere message comes from the Americans, these people (the Taliban) are very big-hearted. They will listen. But if you try to divide the Taliban, you'll fail. Anyone who leaves Mullah Omar is no more Taliban. Such people are just trying to deceive," Tarar said.

The ISI says it now only maintains "contacts" with jihadists, as any spy agency would, and that it's committed to fighting all extremists.

Militant groups that don't target the Pakistani state, however, appear to operate more or less openly in Pakistan. Sipah-e-Sahaba is routinely linked to violence against minorities, including an attack last year where eight Christians in Punjab province were burned alive.

Muhammed Amir Rana, the director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an independent research organization in Islamabad, the capital, said that groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi operate in small in cells — a model used by al Qaida — and the people holding Tarar might be a cell of fewer than a dozen militants.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

ON THE WEB

Aaj TV report and video

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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