The US-led War on Terror has entered its eighth year, yet al-Qaeda, against whom this war had essentially begun, shows no sign of defeat. In fact, the Islamist terrorist network seems to have resurged in war-ridden Afghanistan and strife-torn tribal belt of Pakistan, besides emerging as an important player in the battlefields of Iraq.
Al-Qaeda breeds on anarchic political and security environment to re-group and undertake terrorist operations. In the past few years, Pakistan’s border areas of North and South Waziristan have became one such place—a safe haven for cross-border Taliban operations against US/NATO-led forces in Afghanistan. In recent months, however, the nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Pakistan itself has come in the grip of worsening political turmoil and security quagmire—a highly uncertain situation al-Qaeda may try to exploit to realize its global terrorist ambitions.
Al-Qaeda was born almost two decades ago after the end of internationally-sponsored jihad against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Since then, it has conducted or sponsored a series of deadly terrorist attacks in the Muslim world and the West, including the most devastating one against the United States on September 11, 2001. The consequent US attack on Afghanistan not only put an end to the Taliban rule but also caused a severe blow to al-Qaeda. Its founding leader Osama bin Laden and second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri went into permanent hiding in mountains along Pak-Afghan border, and hundreds of al-Qaeda terrorists were subsequently either killed or captured. This initial success against al-Qaeda, however, did not last long. One reason behind al-Qaeda’s recent resurgence is the preference of the United States and its allies to employ force recklessly, especially in the case of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has allowed al-Qaeda to win more recruits from amongst radicalized Muslims.
Since its inception, al-Qaeda leaders have exploited politically-motivated religious sensitivities of Muslims with regard to unresolved disputes like Palestine and Kashmir, the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, and the US support to repressive “apostate” Muslim regimes/leaders. In recent statements, however, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have gone beyond merely inciting their followers to violently remove such “injustices,” calling for the demise of Capitalism and urging the world Christianity to embrace Islam.
Iraq and Afghanistan
Such grandiose global goals may be a figment of al-Qaeda’s bigoted imagination, but its growing power in Iraq, where the Islamist terrorist organization never existed prior to the 2003 US invasion, and Afghanistan, from where it virtually retreated after the 2001 US-led attack, is a ground reality.
The security quagmire resulting from the US invasion, denoted by never-ending bloody sectarian strife, has enabled al-Qaeda to establish its foothold in Iraq. In particular, the fidayeen from across Iraqi borders with Saudi Arabia and Syria have enabled the terrorist organization to continuingly regroup in the Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq and carry out terrorist operations against US-led coalition forces.
The US troops surge may have helped bring relative calm to Baghdad. However, the broader anarchic environment in Iraq, compounded by the threatened invasion of northern Iraq by Turkey in reaction to Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorism in its south-eastern region, will only help al Qaeda to strengthen its roots in Iraq.
In Afghanistan, the initial routing of al-Qaeda in the war led the command of the US Operation Enduring Freedom to declare in 2004 that al-Qaeda was no more a threat to Afghanistan. Since 2005, however, al Qaeda seems to have made a comeback in the war-torn country, as scores of carefully-calibrated, high-profile acts of suicide bombings, kidnappings, Iraqi-style beheadings, specifically targeting foreign troops, indicate.
Rampant warlordism, growing drug trafficking, NATO combat troop insufficiency, ineffective reconstruction, unrepresentative and corrupt governance are among the multitude of issues contributing to Taliban-led insurgency and al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Afghanistan.
The more al-Qaeda entrenches itself in Iraq and Afghanistan, the greater will be its capacity to conduct international terrorist operations, especially if foreign forces decide to withdraw from the two countries without addressing the respective security, political and economic problems—which have become more complicated due to wars predicated on the use of unbridled force.
Pakistan could, however, turn out to be the world’s most dangerous place, if al-Qaeda was able to make credible inroads into the state apparatus and social fabric of the nuclear-armed Islamic state. According to recent US National Intelligence Estimate, al-Qaeda and local radical Islamist groups linked to it have already established a foothold in Pakistan’s border tribal areas. In the past three years, over 80,000 troops of the Pakistan have battled al-Qaeda-linked pro-Taliban forces in North and South Waziristan, even though reluctantly and mostly under US pressure.
In the perception of al-Qaeda and its Pakistani affiliates, the government of General Pervez Musharraf committed a treachery against Muslims by abandoning the Taliban movement and the jihad in Kashmir and supporting the US-led War on Terror and starting a peace process with India. In general public perception as well, Pakistan’s fight against religious extremism and terrorism has gone down as essentially America’s or West’s war.
More importantly, however, it is General Musharraf’s consistent disregard for democratic aspirations of the people, and insistence on holding on to the post of army chief despite becoming a civilian President after getting a pliable government elected in stage-managed elections five years ago, that has enraged the masses at home.
In March this year, he sacked the increasingly assertive Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Amid growing protests by lawyers, the Chief Justice was later restored by the Court. Then, in October, with the help of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML)-Q, General Musharraf got himself re-elected. However, the legality of his re-election was questioned in the Supreme Court.
Fearing the Court’s decision might be against him, General Musharraf imposed emergency on November 3, a step that has fueled political turmoil, diverted security agencies from combating extremism towards tackling enraged civil society and political opposition, and brought widespread international condemnation of his regime. The political opposition and civil society perceives in the government’s decision to hold elections on January 9 a ploy to perpetuate the rule of the General and his political allies.
Even if General Musharraf lifts emergency under growing domestic and international pressure, the political momentum generated by a highly assertive civil society, which wants the restoration of judiciary and supremacy of democratic forces, will not wane. The country’s two mainstream political parties, the PML led by Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan only a week before the imposition of emergency was the target of a devastating terrorist bombing, seem to be ganging up with civil society against Musharraf’s rule.
However, even if the General were to quit power under increasing American or domestic pressure, the country’s structural woes preventing the emergence of a smooth civil-military working relationship might not let the political situation to stabilize anytime soon.
Pakistan’s security forces are already stretched out, and somewhat demoralized, in the fight against extremists and terrorists. Since the security operation against the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July this year, extremists have claimed the lives of several hundreds security personnel in suicide and roadside bombings. The Malakand Division, from where most of the extremists killed in the Red Mosque operation had hailed, has consequently become another area after Waziristan where security forces are currently combating pro-Taliban al-Qaeda linked forces.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the United States had expressed similar grave concerns about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons as have been expressed recently in the wake of growing politico-security turmoil in Pakistan. What had caused the US concern then was the reported revelation that two Pakistani nuclear scientists had met bin Laden weeks before the terrorist acts against the United States to explore the possibility of al-Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
Since then, Pakistan has improved its nuclear security system, centralizing nuclear control in the National Command Authority and putting the Strategic Plans Division in charge of nuclear operations and security. The government claims to have installed the same Permissive Action Link, a code-lock device that prevents unauthorized release of the weapon, as used by other nuclear powers.
Despite this, the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals cannot be guaranteed in a highly uncertain and rapidly deteriorating political and security climate currently facing the country. Not just that, as long as the tale of those within the Pakistani state apparatus who facilitated nuclear smuggling by the disgraced nuclear scientist A Q Khan remains a mystery, the international community will remain concerned about the possibility of the country’s nuclear arsenal getting into the wrong hands, be they of al-Qaeda leaders.
Given Pakistan’s tight military control over nuclear assets, the possibility of al-Qaeda acquiring them is quite remote. However, if al-Qaeda continues to gain power in turbulent Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is no reason why it will not spread its terrorist tentacles to regions beyond the Persian Gulf and South-West Asia. Full Text
The article published in German language can be accessed at www.boell.de