Pakistan came under immense pressure at a US Senate hearing this week, as both officials and senators accused Islamabad of allowing terrorists to use its soil for planning attacks on the United States.
Two key US officials - director national intelligence and director military intelligence - told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Pakistan has allowed Taliban to operate freely from Quetta while the tribal areas have become a ‘central nervous system’ for al-Qaeda.
US lawmakers and officials also said that Lashkar-e-Taiba has the ideological commitment to replace al-Qaeda as the next major terrorist group in the world.
They said that the Pakistani establishment and intelligence agencies had taken some measures against the Lashkar recently but were not cooperating fully with the United States in dealing with this threat.
The committee was also told that the Lashkar had supporters among the Pakistanis living in the United States who could abet its efforts to carry out a terrorist attack in North America.
‘The central nervous system for the planning (of an attack on the US soil) would emanate from Fata,’ said Senator Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, during a hearing on current and future worldwide threats to the national security of the United States.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Director of US National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair.
Earlier, chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, Senator Carl Levin, set the tone for the discussion on Pakistan, claiming that the Afghan Taliban forces under Mullah Omar operate with impunity from Balochistan, crossing unhampered into Southern Afghanistan while al-Qaeda is based in Fata from which attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan itself are launched.
‘I do not underestimate the challenge that this could present to Pakistan. I have doubts, however, as to whether Pakistan has the will or the capacity to make significant changes in the near-term,’ he said.
While responding to the chairman’s remarks, Director Blair said that Pakistan is taking control of its border areas, improving governance and creating economic and educational opportunities throughout the country.
He noted that in 2008, Islamabad intensified counter-insurgency efforts but claimed that Pakistan’s record in dealing with militants had been mixed.
‘A government is losing authority in the north and the west and even in the more developed parts of the country mounting economic hardships and frustration over poor governance have given rise to greater radicalization,’ said Admiral Blair.
Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director, US Defence Intelligence Agency, noted that while ‘strategic rivalry’ with India drove Pakistan’s defence strategy, al Qaeda was using Fata to recruit and train operatives, plan and prepare regional and transnational attacks, disseminate propaganda and obtain equipment and supplies.
Gen. Maples warned that while Pakistan has taken important steps to safeguard its nuclear weapons, ‘vulnerabilities still exist.’
Quetta Shura (Taliban council in Balochistan)
Senator Levin then asked both intelligence officials if the Taliban council in Balochistan, known as the Quetta Shura, operated openly, without interference from the government.
‘It’s true that the Taliban governing bodies operate quite freely in Pakistan,’ said Admiral Blair. The Pakistan approach to handling that threat was a combination of lack of capability and desire to combat the militants.
Gen. Maples was more direct, agreeing with the senator that ‘the Quetta shura is operating openly in Quetta.’
Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba for the latest terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, the Nov. 26 terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the subway killings in London.
She claimed that despite the Lashkar’s involvement in such major attacks, Pakistan was protecting the group and refused to help the US investigate its deeds.
‘I don’t think the picture with Pakistan’s cooperation is quite as bleak as you portrayed,’ said Admiral Blair. He noted that since the Mumbai attacks Pakistan had arrested Lashkar leaders and was taking steps to prosecute them.
‘So I think that that particular trend is positive, but it has a ways to go and it’s not a simple progress,’ he said.
Senator McCaskill then claimed that the Lashkar had many sympathizers among Pakistanis living in Europe and the United States and was using them for planning attacks in these places.
‘I think on the particulars related to Pakistani-Americans and visa-waivers (Pakistanis living in European nations whose citizens do not need visas to visit the US), we’ll have to get back to you,’ said Admiral Blair.
Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, claimed that the ISI had created the Lashkar and asked if the Lashkar was filling up the operational space denied to al-Qaeda.
Admiral Blair sad the ISI or Pakistan government had changed its policy towards Lashkar-e-Taiba partially, but it had not become a force for good in Pakistan or in the region.
‘I don’t assess that it is replacing al Qaeda as a worldwide terrorist directed against Western American interests or shares the al Qaeda messianic ideology of a greater non-Islamic state,’ Blair replied.
Gen Maples said he also believed that the Pakistani government had distanced themselves from LeT and had taken some very significant action since the recent past towards the organization.
Responding to a question on the Swat peace deal, Gen. Maples said the agreement had both some pluses and minuses to it.
‘From a judicial standpoint, the application of Sharia law in some form provides a more responsive approach to the citizens in the valley,’ he said. ‘And that’s how the Pakistanis see it.’
‘If you were a woman in Pakistan, would that be unnerving to you?’ asked Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Democrat.
‘Absolutely sir it would. And it is also unnerving to us from the standpoint of what that means to other militants,’ said Gen. Maples. ‘And we’re very concerned about that.’