South Asia

Pakistan: Bin Laden death exposes complex militant ties

Policemen and paramilitary forces stand at the scene of a suicide bomb blast in Dir, northwest Pakistan April 4, 2011
Image caption Militant attacks have killed thousands of people in Pakistan over recent years

The presence of Osama Bin Laden on Pakistani soil has once again raised questions about the links between the country's security establishment and jihadi militants.

It is an issue that has long concerned Western leaders who provide Pakistan with billions of dollars of aid each year and expect, in return, full co-operation in the US war on terror.

In July last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that he could not tolerate a situation in which Pakistan was able to "look both ways" so that it could promote the export of terror.

And just last month, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm Mike Mullen went on Pakistani television and openly accused Pakistan's main intelligence agency, the ISI, of having links with a powerful tribal group believed to facilitate the movement of Taliban fighters from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

The ISI, Adm Mullen said, had a "long-standing relationship" with the Haqqani network.

The fact that such senior political and military leaders are openly voicing their suspicions about Pakistan reflects their frustration that a decade into the US war on terror, the Taliban movement in Afghanistan is strong and growing stronger.

'Unmatched record'

The biggest question just now is whether Pakistan knew Osama Bin Laden was living in its country.

Many Pakistanis familiar with the way the security establishment works think it is very likely the ISI did know.

"There is no way he could come here without the ISI's knowledge," said retired Brig Shaukat Qadir.

"You see this particular house had been raided... This house has been under suspicion all along."

Others insist that the ISI did not know and argue that its track record of catching militants proves it has no desire to hide them.

Assad Munir, another retired brigadier, was working for military intelligence and the ISI before and after 9/11.

He was based in north-west Pakistan and led the search for al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

"We got hold of the maximum people, who went to Guantanamo. I think we got hold of more than 260 people between 2001 and 2003," he said.

"We have the record. I don't think anyone else can match it."

It is a complicated situation and outsiders are often baffled by Pakistan's aggressive attitude towards some militants, and apparent tolerance of others.

Jihadis, after all, are causing havoc in Pakistan. With an average of more than one suicide bombing every week, 35,000 Pakistanis have died since 9/11.

'Countering India'

The key to understanding Pakistani policy is to appreciate the distinctions between different types of militant groups.

Some, such as the Pakistan Taliban, are attacking targets within Pakistan - including security force personnel. The Pakistan army is consequently fighting the Pakistan Taliban hard. It has lost thousands of men in doing so.

Image caption Pakistani-based militants have been accused of planning the 2008 Mumbai attacks

But other Pakistani-based groups are focused on the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan has long been preparing for an American defeat in Afghanistan and wants to have a good relationship with whatever government takes over once the Americans have left.

For Islamabad, there is a lot at stake.

Pakistan used to think of Afghanistan as a place that gave it strategic depth. A friendly government in Kabul allowed it to concentrate its military forces on the border with India.

Islamabad is highly concerned that Delhi, which has given more than $1bn of aid to Kabul in recent years, is getting a foothold in Afghanistan. Countering Indian influence in Afghanistan is a top Pakistani priority.

Since the post-Hamid Karzai government will almost certainly include elements of the Taliban, Pakistan has an interest in maintaining good relations with the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Mullah Omar has repeatedly said he does not want his part of the Taliban to attack targets inside Pakistan.

Furthermore, if Pakistan allows Punjabi militants, for example, to fight in Afghanistan then it means they cannot cause any problems at home.

But it is not just Afghanistan. There have even been cases of groups thought to have close links with the ISI launching attacks in India itself.

For example, the deaths of more than 170 people in Mumbai in November 2008 were blamed on the Pakistan-based militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Under huge international pressure, the Pakistani authorities put the founder of the organisation, Hafiz Saeed, under house arrest, but a few months later released him.

Other members of the group were taken into custody in Pakistan but none of their trials have been processed.

Abbas Nasir, a former editor of the Dawn newspaper, says there are elements of the state that want some militants to be set free.

"People have been killed, the murderers have been arrested, and then released without charge at the behest and the instigation of the security services," he said.

"They perceive India as the biggest enemy that they have. And think they need the jihad, the international jihad forces, to protect them and to reinforce their foreign policy, be it in Afghanistan or Kashmir."

'Impunity or death'

The state's lack of determination to ensure the conviction of some jihadis has also been apparent in the investigation into the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Despite strong evidence that the Taliban carried out the assassination, and the arrest of five suspects, their trials have been delayed on various pretexts.

Jihadis involved in less well-known cases also escape justice but for different reasons.

Fearing reprisals, eyewitnesses and judges are reluctant to give evidence against or to convict jihadis.

In addition, the legal system is stacked in favour of militants. For example, possession of any amount of explosives - including suicide vests - is a bailable offence.

Many police officers have stories about jihadis being let off.

Senior superintendent of police Akbar Nasir Khan, for example, once arrested a man for attacking a politician's house in Peshawar with a rocket launcher.

He arrested him, seized various weapons, and found eyewitnesses who had seen the accused with the rocket launcher.

But three months after the case went to court, the man turned up in Akbar Nasir Khan's office and suggested they have cup of tea.

The court had released him on bail on the grounds that he was not a threat to public security.

The failings of the judicial system mean that, increasingly, for street level militants, it is a case of impunity or death.

Some police officers are so frustrated by the failure of the courts to convict jihadis that they say that rather than arrest suspects they now kill them.

One police officer in Karachi told me he had killed 22 militants.

"They always say the same thing", he said, putting his finger on the middle of his forehead.

"They say don't break my body. Make it quick."