ISLAMABAD — Suspicsions of a link between a spate of recent terrorist bombings across Russia and Osama bin Laden, the Afghanistan-based Saudi dissident, promise to again draw Pakistan into the issue of global terrorism.
For years, the West has suspected bin Laden of having connections with Islamic groups in Pakistan. Providing arms and training recruits from Pakistan in the name of “jihad” (holy war) are thought to have strengthened links between bin Laden and groups in Pakistan.
Russian accusations of a link between the bombings in Russia and bin Laden include at least one direct reference to Pakistan. In recent briefings, Russian officials claimed that a meeting of terrorist groups in Pakistan last month ended with a pledge of $30 million for one of the Chechen-backed Islamic groups.
While there is still no independent confirmation of the Russian claim, the accusation is a difficult challenge for Pakistani foreign policy. For years, Pakistan has been suspected of being a host to groups involved in militant activities.
Many such groups or their predecessors were armed, trained and funded by agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency during the 1980s to bolster the fight against the occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet troops.
Once Moscow ended its involvement in the Central Asian state, Western support vanished, leaving members of the militant groups without material support, and more importantly, without a cause for which to fight.
For Pakistan, an added complication has been the support that it has extended to the decade-long insurgency in Indian controlled Kashmir. Islamabad officially denies Indian claims that it provides material support and training to the Kashmiri separatists who are fighting for independence. But Islamic groups outside the government are quick to claim that they consider it their “moral” obligation to support their Muslim brothers in Indian-controlled Kashmir, even as they deny supporting other movements.
Pakistan’s quest to protect its international image depends on its ability to tackle challenges on at least three fronts.
First, despite denials by Pakistani Islamic groups of their involvement in movements outside of India, such groups openly exhibit anti-Western sentiments. “Death to America” slogans have often been heard in recent years, as Islamic groups have openly exhibited their anger against Washington on policy matters related to the hardline Taliban Islamic government in Afghanistan.
Such activism has created an image of Pakistan as a country where militancy is on the rise and where hardline groups can express any degree of anger toward a third country. The symbolism attached to such an image portrays Pakistan as an increasingly radical country.
Second, Pakistan’s worsening internal insecurity situation, caused to a large degree by militant Islamic groups, has made it more difficult for the government to tackle the terrorism problem.
The killings of members of the minority Shiite Islamic sect at the hands of members of the Sunni militant group Sipah-e-Sahaba, which has vowed to eliminate Shiites, will only increase the likelihood of gun battles on the streets of Pakistan. While successive governments have promised to end such conflicts, little progress has been made. Consequently, the militant groups, which apparently have little fear of arrest or prosecution, have become emboldened. The danger for Pakistan is that groups that can freely operate at home eventually find causes abroad for which to fight. In the end, their activities outside Pakistani soil, especially militant ones, are bound to cause problems for Pakistan.
Finally, Pakistan’s worsening economic outlook has helped swell the ranks of militant groups. In the past 20 years, since war first broke out between advancing Soviet troops and groups of Islamic Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, thousands of young Pakistani men have joined Afghan resistance groups. Many of them belong to a religious group and are eager to participate in a holy cause within the country or abroad.
While Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a former industrialist turned politician, may pride himself on his economic vision, few signs of recovery have been seen during his two and a half years in office. Sharif’s critics say that his economic performance is largely the consequence of a failure to confront established interests that have long participated in large-scale tax evasion. While Sharif’s government strongly condemns terrorism, as it recently did in the case of the series of bomb blasts across Russia, its success in confronting mounting criticism of the country may depend on its ability to set its own house in order. While tough choices at home may be politically difficult to swallow for Pakistan, being the focus of global criticism in connection to terrorism is much harsher.
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