Legend has it that a senior U.S. official was asked a couple of years ago which worried him more: Iraq or Afghanistan. "Pakistan," came the immediate answer. As commander of U.S. central command, Gen. David Petraeus certainly paid plenty of attention to the shifting security situation in Pakistan, and the threat from disparate Islamist groups there.
He would mesmerize audiences with his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure groups in even more obscure corners of Pakistan, with multicolored Powerpoints. Now that he has "demoted" himself to take direct charge in Afghanistan, he will see at firsthand the cross-border terror dynamic.
Even as al Qaeda has been weakened â€“ according to U.S. officials - other groups in Pakistan have expanded their horizons: Lashkar e Taiba, the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Network to name but a few.
Previously confined to the mountainous tribal territories, the Pakistani Taliban has expanded its presence in Punjab, the countryâ€™s bread-basket and most important province. The Afghan Taliban has a long-established presence in Quetta, the volatile capital of Baluchistan. Then there are a myriad of groups comprising foreign fighters, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, made some revealing comments about this terror landscape last week. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, Adm. Mullen described Pakistan as â€śa country now very much under siege from terrorists, internally.â€ť
He should know; by his own count, he has visited Pakistan nearly 20 times since becoming chairman.
â€śIâ€™m increasingly concerned about the synergy among terrorist groups in that region and their expanding desire and planning to try to kill as many Americans as they possibly can,â€ť he said.
The picture is complicated by overlapping rivalries within Pakistan. The federal government in Islamabad has accused Punjabâ€™s state government of conniving in the Talibanâ€™s growing presence there. In the wake of the deadly bombing of a Sufi shrine in Lahore last week, Punjab officials have promised a crackdown on 17 banned groups. But some, like Lashkar e Taiba, are well-established and well-connected.
Today the Pakistani press is awash with unsourced, unverifiable but plausible reports of meetings between Osama bin Laden and other militant leaders in 2009 â€“ in which the al Qaeda leader is supposed to have called on other groups to turn their attention to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. And according to the Pakistani security forces, we can add a new name to the alphabet soup of militant groups. It is the Ghazi Force, an affiliate of the Pakistani Taliban with a specialism in high-profile suicide bombings. Itâ€™s named for Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was killed in 2007 when Pakistani commandos stormed the Lal Masjid or Red Mosque in Islamabad after it had been taken over by militants. Some of Ghaziâ€™s students are said to belong to the group.
The storming of the Red Mosque, in which about 100 people were killed, is said to have enraged Faisal Shahzad, the man who confessed to the attempted Times Square car bombing. Just one â€śMuslim soldierâ€ť as he described himself, in a new generation of radicalized militants.