Pakistan's Awkward Balancing Act on Islamic Militant Groups

A man inspects damage after a bomb attack at a railway station in Bombay in July. Pakistan has denied any knowledge of local militants' links to bombings in India and Afghanistan.
A man inspects damage after a bomb attack at a railway station in Bombay in July. Pakistan has denied any knowledge of local militants' links to bombings in India and Afghanistan. (Associated Press)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 26, 2006

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- For the past five years, Pakistan has pursued a risky, two-sided policy toward Islamic militancy, positioning itself as a major ally in the Western-led war against global terrorism while reportedly allowing homegrown Muslim insurgent groups to meddle in neighboring India and Afghanistan.

Now, two high-profile cases of terrorism -- a day of gruesome, sophisticated train bombings in India in mid-July and a plot foiled this month to blow up planes leaving Britain for the United States -- have cast a new spotlight on Pakistan's ambiguous, often starkly contradictory roles as both a source and suppressor of Islamic violence, according to Pakistani and foreign experts.

Moreover, increasing evidence of links between international attacks and groups long tolerated or nurtured in Pakistan, including the Taliban and Kashmiri separatists, are making it difficult for the military-led government here to reconcile its policy of courting religious groups at home while touting its anti-terrorist credentials abroad.

"The conundrum for the military still persists," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani army general. "The question always is, should we totally ban these organizations or keep them for later use?" Although the government has "selectively" prosecuted extremist groups, he said, "at the conceptual level, it has deliberately followed an ambiguous policy."

The basic problem for Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is that he is trying to please two irreconcilable groups. Abroad, the leader of this impoverished Muslim country is frantically competing with arch-rival India, a predominantly Hindu country, for American political approval and economic ties. To that end, he has worked hard to prove himself as a staunch anti-terrorism ally.

But at home, where he hopes to win election in 2007 after eight years as a self-appointed military ruler, Musharraf needs to appease Pakistan's Islamic parties to counter strong opposition from its secular ones. He also needs to keep alive the Kashmiri and Taliban insurgencies on Pakistan's borders to counter fears within military ranks that India, which has developed close ties with the Kabul government, is pressuring its smaller rival on two flanks.

"It is clear that our current policy of stout denial fools nobody," columnist Irfan Husain wrote in the Dawn newspaper last Saturday. By allowing Islamic militant groups to flourish while seeking praise for helping to break up the plot in Britain, he said, Pakistani officials are "determined to see only one side of the coin," but "the rest of the world is bent on examining the other side very closely indeed."

Until recently, Musharraf had handled this balancing act with some success, Pakistani and foreign experts said. He formally banned several radical Islamic groups while quietly allowing them to survive. He sent thousands of troops to the Afghan border while Taliban insurgents continued to slip back and forth. Meanwhile, his security forces arrested more than 700 terrorism suspects, earning Western gratitude instead of pressure to get tougher on homegrown violence.

But this summer, a drumbeat of terrorist violence and plotting in India, Britain and Afghanistan have begun to blur the distinction between regional and international Islamic violence. Pakistan, which has a large intelligence apparatus, is now in the awkward position of denying any knowledge of local militants' links to bombings in India and Afghanistan, while claiming credit for exposing their alleged roles in the London airliner plot.

"It is ironic that our very success in thwarting plots and arresting a large number of terrorists reinforces the perception that this country is a bastion of terrorism," said Shafqat Mahmood, a former Pakistani legislator, suggesting that Islamic militancy has been permitted to flourish in Pakistan at the country's peril. "Our triumphs in the war against terror have become advertisements of our failure," he said.

In an interview last week, Riaz Mohammed Khan, Pakistan's foreign secretary, expressed indignation that India had swiftly blamed Pakistani-based groups for the train bombings, saying Pakistan had "no evidence whatsoever" of any such links and that India had ignored its repeated offers to collaborate in any investigation of the attacks, which killed more than 180 people.

Khan said his government "opposes all terrorism" and had worked diligently to expose the role of Pakistanis in the London plot. Pakistan has arrested a British national of Pakistani origin, Rashid Rauf, whom sources described as a member of a banned sectarian group, Jaish-i-Muhammed. Pakistan also placed under house arrest the former head of Lashkar-i-Taiba, another militant group blamed by India in the bombings.

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