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Why Is Pakistan The Center Of Gravity For Regional Insurgencies?

Pakistani soldiers stand guard on a mountain ridge in Pakistan's tribal district of Mohmand Hills.
Pakistani soldiers stand guard on a mountain ridge in Pakistan's tribal district of Mohmand Hills.
Pakistan recently deported five Chinese citizens, all of them Muslims. Authorities in Islamabad apparently sent these unidentified people handcuffed and blindfolded to their home region in northwestern China. Beijing had blamed Islamic extremists trained in Pakistan for the August 1 attacks in Kashghar that left 19 people dead. China claimed at least one of the attackers had ties to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which opposes Beijing's control over the western Xinjiang region, home to the Turkic Muslim Uyghur minority.

The episode highlights Pakistan's unique status as a crossroads for extremist movements active inside all its neighboring countries. While Islamabad grapples with internal instability and fights insurgencies in the tribal areas and Balochistan, it faces pressure from all is neighbors to act against the extremists fomenting violence in their respective countries.

China is considered an all-weather friend of Pakistan. The two have no territorial disputes and Beijing is a major foreign investor as well as defense and trading partner. Indeed, Islamabad looks at China as an alternative strategic partner as ties with Washington continue to deteriorate. But that relationship is threatened by Beijing's perception that the ETIM is based in Pakistani tribal areas where it gets training and support from other extremist groups to fight a jihad against the Chinese state.

Like China to its north, Pakistan always had amicable relations with its southern neighbor Iran. The two Muslim nations have no territorial dispute and share common goals in fighting ethnic Balochi separatists. But in recent years, Tehran had accused Islamabad of supporting Jundallah. Iranian complaints have gone somewhat mute since the June 2010 execution of Jundallah founder Abdul Malik Rigi. But another major Jundallah attack in southeastern Iran's Balochi territories threatens the relationship between the two countries.

The case of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is perhaps the most bizarre among the extremist groups in Pakistan. Islamabad has no border with the Central Asian Muslim republics, but it did support the rise of Islamic extremism as part of a western-supported strategy to defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The IMU, however, emerged as an extremist movement in the 1990s aiming to replace President Islam Karimov's dictatorship with an Islamic regime in Uzbekistan. However, it moved to Pakistan with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban after the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Today, the IMU is attempting to make a comeback in Central Asia from its Pakistani bases. It is contributing to the instability in northern Afghanistan and has strengthened itself among the ethnic Uzbek community in the region. However, in the words of an Uzbek RFE/RL colleague, the IMU is now a Pakistani problem because its top priority is to fight that country's military.

Afghan insurgents constitute the bulk of foreign militants in Pakistan. For the past decade, Washington and Kabul have blamed Islamabad for hosting Taliban insurgents, including remnants of the former Taliban regime sheltering in and around Quetta, capital of the southwestern Balochistan Province. Perhaps the most potent Afghan insurgent faction is a network loyal to former mujahedeen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and his sons.

The "Haqqani network" foments violence across southeastern Afghanistan from bases in North Waziristan. Islamabad's military operations have so far resisted going after the Haqqanis, who are now a major target of the CIA drone strikes. Hezb-e Islami, one of the largest mujahedeen organizations in the 1980s, split after 9/11. It has a sizable presence in the Afghan government but it is also fighting the government and the international forces from bases in Pakistan under the leadership of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

India is Pakistan's archrival in South Asia. The two have fought three major wars and accuse each other of supporting extremists and separatist movements. Pakistani support for the extremist organizations fighting in Indian-administered Kashmir gradually declined after 9/11. Some of the Kashmiri militants moved to the tribal areas to fight against the Pakistani military and linked up with Al-Qaeda. However, Laskar-e Taiba ("Army of the Pure") remains the most potent of all the groups primarily targeting India. It is blamed for the November 2008 attacks on India's commercial capital Mumbai, which killed 166 people. The episode created an international backlash against the Islamabad and deteriorated relations with New Delhi.

While it's true that Islamabad might not be responsible for the creation or sheltering of all of these movements, it does pick and choose among the extremist allowed to linger on its territory while aggressively moving against others. This irritates its neighbors both near and far. Islamabad has been under tremendous international pressure to move against these groups, especially after the May 2 killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the northwestern city of Abbottabad. Regional states and global powers, however, have to understand and address some of Pakistan's insecurities if they are to successfully dissuade its generals from going down the path of isolation and destruction.

-- Abubakar Siddique