Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 30 November 2020

Pakistan’s apathy in tackling terror groups is sparking concern in US

Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the militant group the Haqqani Network, who died this week. Mohammed Riaz / AP
Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the militant group the Haqqani Network, who died this week. Mohammed Riaz / AP

For a country that claims it is committed to supporting the global war against Islamist terrorism, Pakistan’s recent track record does not make for impressive reading.

The most glaring example of Islamabad’s equivocal attitude towards countering terror groups such as Al Qaeda was the embarrassment of American intelligence officials discovering the organisation’s founder and leader was living a life of indulged exile in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad in 2011.

The Pakistani authorities continued to deny any knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, even after a team of US Seals assassinated the Al Qaeda mastermind during a raid on his lair, even though all the evidence suggested he was under the protection of his backers in Pakistan’s all-powerful ISI intelligence service.

This week’s announcement of the demise of another prominent terrorist with close links to the ISI will shed further unwelcome light on the murky world of Pakistan’s double-dealing.

Apart from being a prominent Afghan warlord, Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose death was announced earlier this week, was one of the most feared Islamist terrorists of his generation, with his 5,000-strong Haqqani Network orchestrating a devastating wave of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.

In 2008, he was involved in an assassination attempt on then-president Hamid Karzai and in 2011 he masterminded a 19-hour attack on the US embassy in which 25 people died. There was a truck bomb explosion in Kabul that killed more than 150 people and an attack on the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel in the capital earlier this year which left 30 people dead.

It is generally accepted within the western intelligence community that Haqqani and his band of ruthless terrorists – The New York Times once dubbed them “the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war” – would not have been able to maintain their reign of terror had it not been for the support, tacit or otherwise, that they enjoyed from the ISI.

Certainly, the fact that the man responsible for some of the worst atrocities carried out in the long-running Afghan conflict ended up dying in his bed, most likely in the Pakistan-controlled tribal territories along the Afghan border, will raise fresh questions about Pakistani complicity in supporting terror cells.

The timing of the announcement by the Taliban, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Islamabad this week, certainly suggests the new Pakistani government headed by Imran Khan is taking seriously the cloud that continues to hang over Islamabad about its complicated relationship with groups like the Haqqani Network.

In recent years the Pakistani military has earned some plaudits for the way it has set about eradicating Al Qaeda-affiliated terror cells operating from Pakistani territory. I recall interviewing general Raheel Sharif, then head of the Pakistani army, during Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the military offensive against terror groups in the tribal territories. When I asked him specifically whether his forces would be targeting the Haqqani Network, he replied to the effect that the Pakistani military would deal with such “miscreants” without fear or favour.

But suspicions that the Pakistani authorities have been less than robust in tackling those groups with which they have enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship have surfaced in recent months with the upsurge of Taliban terrorist activity in Afghanistan.

The Trump administration, which is attempting to re-invigorate efforts to get the Taliban to enter meaningful peace talks, is becoming increasingly frustrated by Islamabad’s ambivalent attitude towards the initiative, frustration that has only increased as a result of Mr Khan’s recent election victory.

Mr Khan’s success is generally attributed to the strong backing he received from Pakistan’s military establishment, without whose support it is unlikely the charismatic former Pakistani cricket captain would have made the remarkable transformation from being a bit player on the Pakistani political scene to becoming the latest occupant of the prime minister’s office.

In opposition, Mr Khan made a name for himself with his vociferous attacks on American foreign policy and Washington’s meddling in Pakistani affairs. He even earned the moniker Taliban Khan for his apparently lenient attitude towards Islamist militants.

American concerns about what they regard as Pakistan’s unco-operative attitude towards Donald Trump’s south Asia strategy, his ambitious plan to end three decades of warfare in Afghanistan, has now resulted in Washington cancelling $300 million of aid just days before Mr Pompeo’s visit.

The Pentagon said it planned to spend the aid elsewhere and that it was taking action because of what it regarded as a lack of Pakistani support for US troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The move reflects the view of most US officials that Islamabad is simply not doing enough to clamp down on the Taliban or the Haqqani Network.

Moreover, tensions between Washington and Islamabad have deteriorated further after the Taliban’s recent, audacious assault on Ghazni, where they succeeded in overrunning parts of the city.

But the growing tension between the US and Pakistan is not good news for Mr Khan, who desperately needs American support for an International Monetary Fund bailout he requires if he is to have any chance of fulfilling his campaign promise to revive the Pakistani economy.

If Mr Khan is to succeed in persuading the Americans to back his economic programme, he will have to give them something in return. And the very least Mr Pompeo will demand is that Pakistanis take seriously the Trump administration’s plan to end the war in Afghanistan, rather than just turning a blind eye to the issue.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor

Updated: September 6, 2018 07:56 PM

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