Editor's Note: The Taliban and their al Qaeda allies are moving in dangerously close to Islamabad, the capital of nuclear-armed Pakistan. Officials there say Taliban militants have set up checkpoints and taken control over the Buner District in the North West Frontier Province - just 60 miles away. That's the closest they’ve ever been. This alone is dangrous, but coupled with increasing political conflict in Pakistan, the situation looks like it could become explosive.
On Monday Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari signed into law a peace deal for a Northwest region on the Aghan border called Swat Valley. The deal approved the strictest interpretation of Islamic law, known as Sharia Law.
Critics said the Pakistani president was caving to pressure from Taliban clerics who threatened to pull out of any peace deal on Swat Valley unless Sharia Law was approved. For anyone tracking the radicalization of Swat Valley since 9/11, the arrival of Sharia law is no surprise. The burning question now is, how safe is the US’ nuclear ally Pakistan from the threat of extremists and their military advancement?
CNN Senior Editor
Middle East affairs
Is al Qaeda operating freely and enjoying support inside our nuclear ally Pakistan? A frightening notion. But the new US strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to reinforce that view.
The US had already stepped up its attacks on the tribal regions of Pakistan since 2007 against what it called al Qaeda targets, and has reportedly launched at least five drone attacks since President Obama took office. And the newest information is even more sobering. In a background briefing with reporters last week, one official said, al Qaeda has relocated itself to Pakistan and "succeeded in regenerating itself." He said, "they're plotting against the United States. They are working with their friends and partners, the Taliban, against American interests" and they operate "within a very sophisticated syndicate of terrorist organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
A grim picture for the West, but it seems to match the rhetoric from al Qaeda’s leadership. In a March 19 audio message, Osama bin Laden mentioned the Swat valley of Pakistan as a place where Muslims are “successfully resisting America.” He said, “All intelligent people are aware of America’s combating of Islam, and its past rejection of its establishment in Somalia, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan; and here they are protesting its establishment in the Swat region of Pakistan.” This quote might suggest that bin Laden recorded his message while somewhere in the Swat region.
The U.S. has released no information about what military activity it might be conducting in the Swat region. It is clear however that this region, about 100 miles from Islamabad, and right on the border with Afghanistan, would be a safe haven for al Qaeda’s “friends and partners. ” It was taken over by the Taliban in 2008 and has been going through “Talibanization,” under which strict Islamic law is imposed. In fact, to the West's frustration, in February the Pakistani government signed an agreement with militants in the region allowing the strict Islamic law called Sharia. Since then many girls schools have been closed and restrictive rules have applied.
“The recent agreement between the Pakistani government and militants in Swat is, to put it mildly, a very bad idea for both Pakistan and the United States,” a U.S. counter-terrorism official told CNN. “It gives militants freer rein to plan and mount attacks inside Pakistan and against Coalition forces in Afghanistan.” Although the official doesn’t believe that Swat represents the center of gravity of al Qaeda’s presence in Pakistan, he says, “al-Qaeda certainly has terrorist allies in Swat.”
Since 9/11, we’ve heard repeatedly that Afghanistan is al Qaeda’s safe haven. What happened since 2001 is that al Qaeda has strengthened its position worldwide, gaining affiliates, supporters and even recruits from as far away as Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Not to mention the support it already enjoyed in countries of Southeast Asia such as the Philippines and Indonesia in addition to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The spread of extremism and fanaticism is palpable mainly with a stunning rise in suicide attacks inside Pakistan. 2009 has been particularly bloody with at least six attacks in March alone claiming the lives of hundreds and injuring scores of people. The year began with five almost simultaneous blasts that rocked Pakistan’s second largest city of Lahore in January. Then in February, at least 24 people were killed and 50 wounded in a suspected suicide bombing near a Shi'ite mosque in central Pakistan, and on the 20th a suicide bomber killed 27 people and wounded 65 in an attack on a funeral procession. March has seen the worst of the violence:
March 3d: Gunmen opened fire on the bus carrying the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team, killing at least seven Pakistani security guards along with a driver and wounding eight cricket players and an assistant coach.
March 6: A remote-controlled bomb detonated on the outskirts of Peshawar, killing seven security personnel and a civilian.
March 16: Suspected Taliban militants destroyed 15 trucks of a NATO supply convoy in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region.
March 23: A suicide bombing at an Islamabad police station killed a police officer.
March 27: Fifty people died in a mosque attack in the town of Jamrud, northwest of Pakistan.
March 30: Gunmen attacked the Lahore Police Training Academy from four sides while trainee police were doing their morning drill.
Along with al Qaeda, the Taliban are also making a comeback in Afghanistan and recently some radical groups in Pakistan have started referring to themselves as “Taliban of Pakistan.” In fact, the latest bombing of the police academy in Lahore, killing five and injuring many others, was hailed by the leader of Taliban in Pakistan, Baitullah Meshud. In an audio message, Mehsud claimed responsibility, calling it “revenge for US drone attacks on the tribal areas” of Pakistan.
Meshud also threatened to “amaze the whole world” with more attacks “inside America.” There is debate over whether he could carry out attacks in the U.S. But there is no debate that he is dangerous. Mehsud is on the U.S.’s most wanted list with a $5 million bounty on his head. The Pakistani government blames him for the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and a score of other attacks around the country since.
The U.S. has been stepping up its attacks on targets in the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan on the Afghan-Pakistan border. In his speech introducing the new strategy for the region, President Obama acknowledged the threat fundamentalist groups such as al Qaeda and Taliban continue to pose: “The terrorists within Pakistan's borders are not simply enemies of America or Afghanistan - they are a grave and urgent danger to the people of Pakistan. They've killed many Pakistani soldiers and police. They assassinated Benazir Bhutto. They've blown up buildings, derailed foreign investment, and threatened the stability of the state.”
The President also compared al Qaeda and its allies to a “cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within” - a cancer he promised to defeat.