Who controls Pakistan’s militants?

March 9, 2009

The Pakistani state may be facing its most serious threat since its birth more than six decades ago, begging the question of who controls the militants who are expanding their influence across the country.

The question has arisen in the light of escalating violence inside Pakistan including the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team despite a call reported to have been made by the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, urging Pakistani militants to stop fighting at home and instead focus on Afghanistan.

The Guardian reported that Mullah Omar said in a letter to the commanders of the Pakistani Taliban that: “Attacks on the Pakistani security forces and killing of fellow Muslims by the militants in the tribal areas and elsewhere in Pakistan is bringing a bad name to mujahedeen and harming the war against the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.”

Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid wrote in the Globe and Mail that Mullah Omar also said in the letter that “If anybody really wants to wage jihad, he must fight the occupation forces inside Afghanistan.” The Taliban chief is presumably concerned about getting reinforcements in Afghanistan to offset the increase of U.S. forces in the country.

But his call seems to have been ignored as the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore showed. It was followed shortly after by the bombing of the mausoleum of a 17th century Pashto poet outside Peshawar.

 

So are there people operating outside the pale? The Pakistani Taliban are known to recognise Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, as their ultimate leader, although operationally they work independently.

What about the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) which is being probed for involvement in the Lahore attack? Are there some members of the banned group, which has faced some pressure after India blamed it for the Mumbai attacks, operating as freelancers, and isn’t that even more worrying?

The Dawn reported that investigators were zeroing in on the footprints of the LeT in the Lahore attack and that “sketch details of the initial probe suggest that a group of Lashkar activists who went underground and remained in hiding in Rawalpindi after the crackdown on Lashkar and the Jamaatud Dawa in December had acted on their own and carried out the attack.”

But according to this Reuters story, it seems more likely that it was a group linked to al Qaeda that carried out the attack. A government official said groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi were highest on the list of suspects.

Which raises the question of why a group with ties to al Qaeda would go ahead and carry out a such a stunning attack, only days after the Taliban chief called for a halt in order to turn the militants’ firepower on foreign forces in Afghanistan. Is it now getting to a point where groups of individuals are operating at will and of their own accord ?

[Photo of Hafiz Saeed the head of the banned Jamaat-ud-Dawa and founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba after a court appearance in Lahore, March 9, 2009, and video grab of gunmen in Lahore]

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