The Guardian: ISI supports Sipah-e-Sahaba and other sectarian and extremist organizations in Pakistan

After the Lahore attack on cricket, west’s nuclear ally fears implosion

Militant assault on cricket tourists puts sharp focus on fragile democracy at risk of disintegration and international isolation

Saeed Shah in Lahore

The Guardian, Thursday 5 March 2009

Whole provinces beyond the writ of the state, Islamist insurgents uniting for a broader fight, terror attacks conceived, plotted and exported: Pakistan was in serious danger of implosion before the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team on Tuesday brought the parlous security situation in the country to a wider international audience.

But security is not the only problem of a country which the United States now considers a greater threat than neighbouring Afghanistan. With the economy teetering, political tumult building and social conditions ripe for extremists, nuclear-armed Pakistan faces six critical threats to the rule of law and governance of the state.


The current violence started in summer 2007, when security forces routed armed militants at the Red Mosque in Islamabad. That event turned militant groups which were focused on India or Afghanistan inwards, to Pakistan itself. A campaign of suicide bombings started, in which Taliban-style extremists in the north-west, near the Afghan border, joined forces with jihadist groups based in Punjab, Pakistan’s heartland. The fatal attack on Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and the strike against Islamabad’s Marriott hotel demonstrated that insurgents were aiming high and frequently being successful.

Large parts of Pakistan have been snatched from government control. Most of the tribal area, the semi-autonomous sliver of land that runs along the Afghan border, is now firmly in the control of the Pakistani Taliban, who play host to al-Qaida commanders. Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may be hiding in the tribal territory. This week, the Guardian learned that three rival Pakistani Taliban groups had formed a united front to wage war in Afghanistan, promising further instability there.

Much of the North-West Frontier province is menaced by marauding extremists, with citizens having to form village militias to defend themselves. The vast Swat valley has been taken over by a band of Taliban guerrillas. In an attempt to bring some peace to Swat, the government agreed last month to impose Islamic law in the area. In Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest but most sparsely populated province, the threat from Afghan Taliban elements is compounded by a long-running Baluch nationalist rebellion. Punjab, by far the most populous and richest province, is also threatened by extremists in its midst. There are many jihadist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, the outfit blamed for the Mumbai attack in November.

Intelligence services

The aims of Pakistan’s premier spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), are the big question: does it still support at least some of the extremist groups?

The ISI, once heavily backed by Washington, masterminded the mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan to the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, training and financing the insurgents. The ISI then decided to use the same tactics against India, founding a series of militant groups that started a violent resistance to Indian rule in the disputed region of Kashmir. The agency also nurtured a number of sectarian outfits, such as Sipah-e-Sahaba.

Then, in the mid-1990s, the ISI helped create a new Islamic movement in Afghanistan, the Taliban, which rapidly managed to take over the country. It also spawned a copycat Pakistani Taliban movement.

The problem is that many of these militant groups, which were used to further Pakistan’s foreign policy and domestic aims, have slipped out of the ISI’s control. The groups have turned on the state itself, under the influence of al-Qaida.

The economy

The rule of President Pervez Musharraf, from 1999 to 2008, was characterised by an economic boom. But, just as elections were held in February 2008, that boom was turning to bust.

Inflation is now running at some 25%, while the currency and the stockmarket have been pummelled over the last year. Much of Pakistan’s textile industry, which had accounted for about half of its exports, is closed as a result of chronic power shortages and lack of competitiveness.

Late last year, Pakistan was forced to go on its knees to the IMF for an emergency $7.6bn bail-out, as it was threatened by imminent bankruptcy. The economic crisis means that unemployment and poverty are on the increase, the very conditions that breed extremism.

The economy and poor governance have meant a failure to provide the country with an education and health system that serves most of the population. As a result, many poor people send their children to free madrasa schools, where the education is almost exclusively religious, sometimes preaching a radical version of Islam. Millions of children have few workplace skills and knowledge only of Islam.


Pakistan’s politics has always been tumultuous, with the country under military rule for most of its 61 years of existence. The last period of army rule ended in 2008, but the new democratic dispensation has floundered.

In particular, the two main political parties, the Pakistan Peoples party, which runs the federal government, and the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, are in a state of war. Last week, Islamabad dismissed the provincial government in the all-important Punjab province, which had been run by Sharif’s party.

Sharif and a pressure group of lawyers calling for judicial independence are now going to take their opposition on to the streets. With poor governance in Islamabad and a lack of fundamental political consensus on how the country should be run, there are already rumours that the army is about to step back in.

The military

Army chief Ashfaq Kayani has repeatedly indicated that he does not want to see the army step back into the political fray, but with a government struggling to cope with the security situation, many predict that he will eventually intervene.

The army is pervasive in Pakistan, dominating the economy: there are dozens of military businesses, it is prominent in land ownership, and, of course, it is the most important political institution. When foreign leaders want to deal seriously with Pakistan, they talk to the army chief.

The army is in charge of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, making the unity and integrity of the military an international concern. The ISI also comes under the army. Politicians and ordinary Pakistanis live in fear of the military.

International allies

Since 9/11, Pakistan has been courted by the west, which suddenly realised that the country held the key to international security. Relations with India steadied somewhat after a critical stand-off in 2002. But the Mumbai attacks have drawn the two neighbours back into confrontation.

China too watches with concern at the apparent disintegration of its neighbour and close ally.

Pakistan’s western backers are impatient with its failure to deal with the militant safe havens along the Afghan border. Britain is concerned at Pakistani involvement in its own terror problems: Gordon Brown said recently that three-quarters of known British terror plots had links to Pakistan. American efforts to take matters into its own hand with attacks on Pakistani territory have frayed relations further.

But the west cannot turn on a country whose co-operation is needed for security. The fear is that isolation could push Pakistan into collapse.



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