The Middle East continues to be one of the most volatile places on Earth with terror attacks running rampant from Syria, to Iraq, to Pakistan. The attack on the airport in Karachi, Pakistan and the attacks that followed demonstrate a potential strain between the relations of the Pakistani government and their proxies, the Taliban.
To be clear, a militant group from the former Soviet Union republic of Uzbekistan has officially taken credit for the Karachi airport attacks. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), who has close ties with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, grew out of civil conflicts in the Uzbekistan region and the Tajik Civil war in the mid-1990s. The civil war pitted the Uzbekistan government, who was supported by Russia, against Islamist insurgents. Following the civil war, Tajikistan, a neighboring country of Uzbekistan where Uzbeks make up the second largest ethnicity, has been accused by regional neighbors of harboring terrorist camps. The IMU wishes, much like all similar radical Islamist groups, to establish an Islamic caliphate in Turkestan or central Asia. They wish to overthrow the government of Uzbekistan and have been involved in coordinated attacks with the Taliban against the Pakistani government.
The IMU and their splinter group, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) have settled in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan working alongside the Taliban and their more militant ally, the Haqqani network. In claiming responsibility for the Karachi airport attack, the IMU stated they were retaliating for airstrikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan. The IMU has a history of airport assaults including an attack in 2012 on Peshawar airport. They have also operated in northern Afghanistan as well, which expanded their operations in the region.
Pakistan had negotiated a cease fire between the military and Taliban forces as part of a broader peace solution. As part of the ongoing talks, the Pakistani government had requested that the United States pause their drone campaign in Pakistan, with which the United States complied. However, during the peace talks, splinter groups and associates of the Taliban reportedly continued attacks against the Pakistani government despite calls from the Taliban to desist. It is unclear if these smaller groups were initially instructed by Taliban leadership to continue attacks during the ceasefire to put additional pressure on the Pakistani government or not.
The Pakistani military has since waged a serious campaign against the Taliban thus ending the ceasefire. After the Karachi airport offensive, Pakistani military operations have intensified in the North Waziristan region, which includes the FATA and is a home base to terrorist camps. The New York Times reported that a Pakistani general, “vowed to disrupt militant sanctuaries ‘without any discrimination’ — a reference to the wide variety of militant groups, from the Taliban to Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, that are based in North Waziristan and have drawn strength from their ability to share money, manpower and ideology.”
This new military offensive indicates a possible break in covert support for the Taliban, which the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, has maintained familiar relations with for years. The ISI has used the Taliban as their proxy to carryout dirty deeds against enemies of the state and perform tasks unbecoming of a state. In fact, startling evidence uncovered by Carlotta Gall in her new book, “The Wrong Enemy,” indicates that the ISI was providing a safe haven for Osama bin Laden at the Abbottabad outpost and he even had a “desk” with the ISI (which was previously suspected but lacked evidence.)
Following the Karachi airport attack, the United States conducted its first of two drone strikes in Pakistan – the first since Christmas day of 2013. One of the strikes reportedly targeted and killed two ethnic Uzbeks. The United States has since launched additionally strikes targeting and killing members of the Haqqani network and members of the Afghan Taliban in the North Waziristan region.
John Knefel questioned in Rolling Stone this week if the US drone strikes in Pakistan against groups like the IMU are warranted. Knefel noted that the US strikes may have targeted members of the Haqqani network, who were the captors of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and are a designated terrorist organization by the United States Department of State, unlike the Taliban. Though, Knefel raises questions over legal legitimacy of the US strikes saying, “The U.S. may be targeting enemies of foreign governments, not imminent threats to the U.S.” This is important because President Obama’s lawyers have indicated that the president has constitutional authority to conduct drone strikes, even without a congressional authorization to use force, so long as targets pose an imminent threat to US security and interests. As Knefel pointed out, “one of the two strikes may have targeted Uzbek fighters, which could raise questions about whether the CIA is targeting threats to the U.S. – or enemies of the Pakistani government.”
The IMU has, however, in the past made reference to the United States in their online publication. Posts have referenced jihad against the west, including the United States and its allies, as well as the martyrdom of Osama bin Laden, according to Matthew Stein, who authored a report published by the Foreign Military Studies Office.
In terms of those threats being “imminent” or even viable, consider Stein’s analysis of IMU’s goals: “After his [IMU’s leader’s] death the IMU’s goals seemed to vanish altogether. A current lack of consistent leadership and subsequent goals has meant that the IMU is difficult to differentiate from other militant or terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan or Pakistan, particularly when the remnants of the IMU rely on others to stay operational. The IMU’s goals are now more dependent on and reflective of these other groups.” In this context, it appears that the United States may be targeting enemies of the Pakistani government as Knefel indicated.
Conversely, Stein also stated the IMU remains a threat to US interests as long as they are in Afghanistan despite previous thinking that due to the sparse activity of the IMU over their nearly twenty year history, and their near decimation in Afghanistan by United States forces, that their influence was nullified. Their threat to central Asian governments, though, is minor compared to similar groups with larger followings and more resources.
Is the United States assisting Pakistan with their offensive to rid the region of terrorists in joint action, or is the United States simply acting alone – and possibly in extralegal context? At the moment, the answer is unclear but could possibly be both. While it was reported that the recent US strikes were in coordination with the Pakistani government (who was infuriated with the US breach of their sovereignty in killing bin Laden and subsequent drone strikes), Knefel noted government officials apparently did not authorize the US to conduct them. It is highly likely the United States is trying to mitigate threats along the Pakistan-Afghan border to bolster Afghan security as the US is set to conclude combat operations at the end of 2014.
Pakistan is dealing with several groups who, while different in structure, are similar in ideology and coordinate together. The United States has “long pressed Pakistan to root out Taliban militants who have found safe haven in the lawless tribal region of North Waziristan, along the Afghan border, and used it as a staging area to launch attacks against Afghan and NATO forces in Afghanistan,” the Associated Press reported, which provides insight to US interest in joint Pakistan operations against terrorists – or at the very least, supporting Pakistan’s efforts to rid the region, Afghanistan in particular, of threats.