Pakistan, which recently witnessed a series of suicide attacks by pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, is the most dangerous country in the world, and has become a safe haven for terrorists, a media report says.
“Unlike countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan has everything al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden could ask for: political instability, a trusted network of radical Islamists, an abundance of angry anti-Western recruits, secluded training areas and security services that don’t always do what they’re supposed to do,” says Newsweek in an investigative report being published in its upcoming issue.
Then there’s the country’s large and growing nuclear programme, it adds ominously.
The conventional story about Pakistan, it says, has been that it is an unstable nuclear power, with distant tribal areas in terrorist hands.
“What is new, and more frightening, is the extent to which Taliban and al-Qaeda elements have now turned much of the country, including some cities, into a base that gives militants more room to maneuver, both in Pakistan and beyond,” it adds.
Taliban militants, the magazine reports, now “pretty much come and go” as they please inside Pakistan. Their sick and injured get patched up in private hospitals there.
“Until I return to fight, I’ll feel safe and relaxed here,” Abdul Majadd, a Taliban commander who was badly wounded this summer during a fire fight against British troops in Afghanistan, told Newsweek after he was evacuated to Karachi for emergency care.
Guns and supplies are readily available, and in winter, when fighting dies down in Afghanistan, thousands retire to the country’s thriving madrassas to study the Koran, it says.
“Some of the brainier operatives attend courses in computer technology, video production and even English,” the Newsweek says, emphasising that far from keeping a low profile, the visiting militants attend services at local mosques, where after prayers they speak to the congregation, soliciting donations to support the war against the West.
The contrast to 2002 is striking, the report points out.
“Back then, in the first flush of President Pervez Musharraf’s crackdown on extremists, a Newsweek reporter met Agha Jan, a former senior Taliban Defence Ministry official, in an orchard outside the city of Quetta. A nervous Jan recounted how he had to change homes every two nights for fear of capture, and he fled when some local villagers approached.
Jan now has a house outside Quetta, where he lives when he’s not fighting with Taliban forces across the border in his native Zabul province.
Reporters in Peshawar, a strategic Pakistani border city some 80 Km east of the historic Khyber Pass and the Afghan border, say it’s not unusual these days to receive phone calls from visiting Taliban commanders offering interviews, or asking where to find a cheap hotel, a good restaurant or a new cell phone,” the magazine says.
Armed militants, it says, have also effectively seized control in places like the picturesque Swat Valley, where a militant leader named Mullah Fazlullah rides a black horse and commands hundreds of men under the noses of a nearby Pakistani Army division that seldom leaves its barracks.
Peshawar is perhaps the most important production and distribution center for Taliban and other Islamist material, Newsweek adds.
“The ones who plan the operations, are not necessarily in the boonies or in the sticks, they’re in cities like Quetta. Can President Pervez Musharraf pick them up? Easily,” asks Samina Ahmed, the South Asia director of the International Crisis Group in Islamabad.
Bruce Riedel, the former senior director for South Asia on the American National Security Council, points out that Pakistan’s large and growing nuclear programme is another cause for concern.
“If you were to look around the world for where al-Qaeda is going to find its bomb, it’s right in their backyard,” he told Newsweek.
Despite the US government’s assertion that Musharraf’s government has tight control over its nuclear-weapons programme, radicals would not need to steal a whole bomb in order to create havoc.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a noted nuclear physicist at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, told the news magazine that outside experts don’t really know how much highly enriched uranium Pakistan has produced in the past and how much remains in existing stocks.
“No one has a real idea about that,” he says. “That means that stuff could have gotten out. Little bits here or there. But we really don’t know.”