Influential former Obama administration advisor on South Asia, Bruce Riedel, told a Washington audience yesterday of the very real possibility that Islamic jihadists could seize control in Pakistan. News of a deadly bomb attack today at a hotel in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, the latest in a series of terrorist bombings, certainly provides deadly confirmation of the risks.
Al Qaeda and its network of Islamic terrorist groups has shifted the epicenter of the global jihad to Pakistan, home now to a “hothouse of terrorist groups unrivalled anywhere else in the world,” Riedel said. “The jihadists smell blood in the water, they think they’re on the brink of a game changer in the struggle between Al Qaeda and the rest of the world.” It’s not inevitable, nor is it imminent, but the danger of a jihadist takeover in Pakistan or of it dissolving into a chaotic failed state is very real, he said, speaking at Brookings where he is a senior fellow. Riedel recently chaired an interagency review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Obama administration; he told the audience he was not speaking for the administration.
His comments were a troubling reminder that after eight long years of U.S. led war in two different countries and a counter-terror offensive that has spanned much of the world, Al Qaeda remains a serious threat to global security. Pakistan is the second largest Muslim country in the world with the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenal. The number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan doubled between 2007 and 2008 and attacks have occurred in nearly every major Pakistani city.
Riedel said Osama bin Laden’s latest message, delivered within hours of President Obama’s address in Cairo, shows that Al Qaeda believes the battle for “hearts and minds” in the Islamic world has now been joined. The message was a “clear call” for jihad against the Pakistani state. Bin Laden portrayed the Pakistani government of Asif Ali Zardari as America’s lackey, saying the U.S. summoned Zardari to Washington earlier this spring and ordered the Pakistani military to conduct the offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley.
Not all is hopeless, Riedel said, pointing to the Pakistani military’s ongoing Swat Valley offensive, the largest operation it has launched against Islamic militants since the 9-11 terror attacks in the U.S. Perhaps the most positive development is the belated shift in Pakistani public opinion in the wake of the Taliban’s bombing campaign. Pakistanis now largely support the military’s Swat valley offensive.
While the Pakistani military’s newfound enthusiasm for battling the Taliban is certainly a net positive, Reidel said it is way too soon to say a sea change has occurred in Pakistani policy. Elements in the military and the powerful Pakistani intelligence services retain ties to a number of Islamic militant groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that carried out the attacks in Mumbai, India last November. Pakistan's leadership still follows what Riedel called a “selective” counter-terror policy, dividing “good jihadists from “bad jihadists.” The good jihad is directed at India, viewed by most Pakistanis as their mortal enemy. Problem is, the jihadists are not playing along and “staying in their lanes.” The various terrorist groups are coalescing and declaring their support for Bin Laden.
Anti-Americanism runs deep in Pakistan, Riedel said, putting severe limits on U.S. policy options. The Swat Valley offensive presents an opportunity to highlight U.S. support for the Pakistani people, he said. The Obama administration should rush financial aid and other support to the people in the Swat Valley who have been displaced by the military’s offensive.