By CARLOTTA GALL
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani military continues to nurture a broad range of militant groups as part of a three-decade strategy of using proxies against its neighbors and American forces in Afghanistan, but now some of the fighters it trained are questioning that strategy, a prominent former militant commander says.
The former commander said that he was supported by the Pakistani military for 15 years as a fighter, leader and trainer of insurgents until he quit a few years ago. Well known in militant circles but accustomed to a covert existence, he gave an interview to The New York Times on the condition that his name, location and other personal details not be revealed.
Militant groups, like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen and Hizbul Mujahedeen, are run by religious leaders, with the Pakistani military providing training, strategic planning and protection. That system was still functioning, he said.
The former commander’s account belies years of assurances by Pakistan to American officials since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that it has ceased supporting militant groups in its territory. The United States has given Pakistan more than $20 billion in aid over the past decade for its help with counterterrorism operations. Still, the former commander said, Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment has not abandoned its policy of supporting the militant groups as tools in Pakistan’s dispute with India over the border territory of Kashmir and in Afghanistan to drive out American and NATO forces.
“There are two bodies running these affairs: mullahs and retired generals,” he said. He named a number of former military officials involved in the program, including former chiefs of the intelligence service and other former generals. “These people have a very big role still,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Zaheer ul-Islam Abbasi, a former intelligence officer who was convicted of attempting a coup against the government of Benazir Bhutto in 1995 and who is now dead, was one of the most active supporters of the militant groups in the years after Sept. 11, the former commander said.
He said he saw General Abbasi several times: once at a meeting of Taliban and Pakistani militant leaders in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province as they planned how to confront the American military in Afghanistan; and twice in Mir Ali, which became the center for foreign militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas, including members of Al Qaeda.
There were about 60 people at the Taliban meeting in late 2001, soon after the Taliban government fell, the former commander said. Pakistani militant leaders were present, as were the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, and Muhammad Haqqani, a member of the Haqqani network.
Several retired officials of Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, were also there, he said, including a man known as Colonel Imam but who was actually Brig. Sultan Amir, a well-known trainer and mentor of militants, and General Abbasi. The militant groups divided Afghanistan into separate areas of operations and discussed how to “trip up America,” he said.
The Pakistani military still supports the Afghan Taliban in their fight to force out American and NATO forces from Afghanistan, he said, adding that he thought they would be successful.
The ISI also still supports other Pakistani militant groups, even some of those that have turned against the government, because the military still wants to keep them as tools for use against its archrival, India, he said. The military used a strategy of divide and rule, encouraging splits in the militant groups to weaken and control them, he said.
Although the military has lost control of many of the firebrand fighters, and has little influence over the foreign fighters in the tribal areas who belong to Al Qaeda — some of whom openly oppose the Pakistani government — it was reluctant to move against them, he said. Pakistan could easily kill the notoriously vicious militant leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, but chose not to, he said. “If someone gave me 20,000 rupees, I would do it,” he said, citing a price of about $235.
“The government is not interested in eliminating them permanently,” he said. “The Pakistani military establishment has become habituated to using proxies.” He added that there were many sympathizers in the military who still supported the use of militants.
Pakistan has 12,000 to 14,000 fully trained Kashmiri fighters, scattered throughout various camps in Pakistan, and is holding them in reserve to use if needed in a war against India, he said.
Yet Pakistan has been losing the fight for Kashmir, and most Kashmiris now want independence and not to be part of Pakistan or India, he said. Since Sept. 11, Pakistan has redirected much of its attention away from Kashmir to Afghanistan, and many Kashmiri fighters are not interested in that fight and have taken up India’s offer of an amnesty to go home.
Others, like the former commander, have gotten out because of their disillusionment over the way they were being used to fight Osama bin Laden’s war, or used for the aims of a few top generals who had allied Pakistan with the United States to gain access to its military and financial aid. “There are a lot of people who do not think they are doing the right thing,” he said of the military.
“This is extremely wrong to sacrifice 16,000 people for a single person,” he said, referring to Bin Laden. “A person should sacrifice himself for 16,000 people.” He said he was using the figure of 16,000 just as an example.
“The Taliban lost a whole government for one person,” he said, again referring to Bin Laden. “And Pakistan went to war just for a few generals and now for President Zardari,” he said, referring to Asif Ali Zardari. “A real war is for a country.”
Many of the thousands of trained Pakistani fighters turned against the military because it treated them so carelessly, he said. “Pakistan used them and then, like a paper tissue, threw them away,” he said. “Look at me, I am a very well-trained fighter and I have no other option in life, except to fight and take revenge.”
Indeed, he was first trained for a year by the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba at a camp in Kunar Province, in Afghanistan, in the early 1990s. The war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan was over, and Pakistan turned to training fighters for an insurgency in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir.
He became skilled at firing Russian-made rocket-propelled grenades, and he was sent to fight, and train others, in Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. Over the years he worked with different militant groups, and he estimated that he personally trained up to 4,000 fighters.
The entire enterprise was supported by the Pakistani military and executed by Pakistani militant groups, he said. He was paid by a wing of the ISI, which is an integral part of the army.
Fighters were paid about $50 a month, he said, and commanders about $500.
But now, he said, Pakistan and the United States would be much better able to counter terrorism if they could redirect the legions of militants toward the correct path of Islam to rebuild and educate communities, he said.
“Pakistan, and especially America, needs to understand the true spirit of Islam, and they need to project the true spirit of Islam,” he said. “That would be a good strategy to stop them.”
Source: The New York Times