AP Analysis: Attacks show emboldened militants

CAIRO (AP) — It has been a week of stunning advances by
Islamic militants across a belt from Iraq to Pakistan. In Iraq, jihadi
fighters rampaged through the country’s second-largest city and swept
farther south in their drive to establish an extremist enclave
stretching into Syria. Pakistan’s largest airport was paralyzed and
rocked by explosions as gunmen stormed it in a dramatic show of
strength.
More than a decade after the U.S. launched its "war on
terrorism," Islamic militant groups are bolder than ever, exploiting the
erosion or collapse of central government control in a string of
nations — Syria, Iraq and Pakistan — that are more strategically vital
than the relatively failed states where al-Qaida set up its bases in the
past: Somalia, Yemen and 1990s Afghanistan.
Most galling to
Washington, the crumbling state power has come in countries that the
United States has spent billions of dollars to try to strengthen over
the past 13 years.
Policy failings by those governments have contributed to giving militants an opening.
Iraq’s
prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has alienated the country’s Sunni
community, which feels sidelined by his Shiite-led government. That has
pushed some Sunnis into supporting the militants and undermined the
military, which includes many Sunnis.
Notably, the military and
police fell apart, abandoning their posts and arsenals of weapons, when
Islamic extremist gunmen overran the city of Mosul earlier this week,
then swept south into other Sunni-dominated areas Wednesday.
For
years, Pakistan has supported militant groups to promote its interests
in Afghanistan and against its bitter rival, neighboring India. Now it
faces a bloody insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban, an offshoot of the
Afghan Taliban that has vowed to topple a government it accuses of being
a tool of the Americans.
Islamabad’s authority has always been
tenuous in Pakistan’s rugged, tribal-dominated and underdeveloped
northwest, near the Afghan border — and for years that was where
militant groups, from al-Qaida to the Taliban, operated. Now, the
Pakistani Taliban have expanded to develop a strong presence in the
country’s largest city, Karachi, where the airport attack took place and
where police are gunned down almost daily.
The Afghan Taliban won
a diplomatic victory of its own when the U.S. freed five Taliban
detainees last month in a swap for the release of the only remaining
U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Bowe Bergdahl.
U.S. policies
have shrunk its options in all these regions. American forces left Iraq
more than two years ago without winning agreement on a longer presence
from Maliki’s government, ending Washington’s hand in security and
virtually robbing it of influence over al-Maliki. Combat troops are on
their way out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, which could have a
similar effect as the Afghan government takes the lead in fighting the
Taliban insurgency.
In Syria, the Obama administration has
resisted calls to more strongly arm and finance rebels fighting against
President Bashar Assad, in part due to fears of taking on the burden of
another war in the Mideast and inadvertently aiding Islamic radicals
rather than moderate forces. As a result, better-armed and better-funded
extremists have risen to prominence anyway.
"A common theme is
the inability of the international community … to help local actors,
local leadership to create more viable institutionally based societies,
especially on the security side," said Salman Shaikh, director of the
Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
As a result, "weak and fragile
states" have been unable to create "viable political systems of
government, a political culture which is able to manage diversity and
pluralism, and a security environment which is there to … protect
rather than to intimidate and impose order," he said.
Nothing
illustrates the potential for Islamic militants to rearrange the
region’s map more than the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the
Levant, the al-Qaida breakaway group that this week took over much of
Mosul and then swept into the Iraqi city of Tikrit, farther south.
Its
ambition to carve out an Islamic emirate bridging Syria and Iraq would
create a source of instability in the heart of the Arab world. To
celebrate the Mosul victory, the militants bulldozed a sand barrier
along the long Syrian-Iraqi desert border, a symbolic gesture of erasing
a line drawn nearly a century ago by Western powers.
Originally
al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, the group has used Syria’s civil war to vault
into something more powerful. It defied orders from al-Qaida’s central
command to expand its operations into Syria, ostensibly to topple Assad.
But it has turned mainly to conquering territory for itself, often
battling other rebels who stand in the way.
Earlier this year, it
captured the Syrian provincial capital of Raqqa, where it imposed strict
Shariah rule, carrying out executions in public squares, smashing
liquor stores and extracting "taxes" from local businesses. This month,
it waged an offensive to expand its zone, making its way toward the
Iraqi border.
On the Iraqi side, it captured the city of Fallujah
in western Anbar province in January and parts of a second city — and
has now seized the bigger prize of Mosul. Its successes have won it rich
arsenals of weapons and ammunition, as well as a reputation that has
drawn veteran jihadi fighters from as far away as North Africa and
Chechnya, and recruits from Europe willing to serve as suicide bombers.
The
Arab Spring uprisings that began in late 2010 have also given a boost
to militants, toppling autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and
Yemen, that had kept a lid on extremist groups. Since then, armed jihadi
factions have multiplied, particularly in Libya and Egypt. Chaos in
Libya opened a flood of heavy weapons that are freely smuggled to
militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Syria and elsewhere.
In a
backlash, the Middle East has seen a rise of strongmen building their
power on vows to crush extremism. Egypt’s new president, former army
chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, ousted an Islamist president and has led a
ferocious crackdown on his supporters. In Libya, a renegade general,
Khalifa Hifter, has launched a campaign against militant groups and many
of the country’s politicians have rallied around him.
And Syria’s
Assad, trying to fend off the rebellion against his rule, has wrapped
himself in the same mantle: Like el-Sissi and Hifter, he depicts himself
as mired in a war against terrorists and says the world should support
him to destroy jihadis who threaten everyone.
Pakistan presents a
host of separate, complicated issues for the United States. A nominal
ally against al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban, its military-backed
governments have bristled at U.S. pressure to fight militants in the
border regions and have railed against American drone strikes on
insurgent hideouts.
Successive governments have been reluctant to
move against Afghan Taliban and other insurgents in its border regions, a
legacy of Pakistani intelligence’s close ties to the groups.
A
dizzying array of militant groups operate in the country, carrying out
attacks on Shiites and other minorities and, in the case of the
Pakistani Taliban, outright battling the government. The military has
fought them to some extent, at the price of thousands of soldiers
killed. But the government has been unclear on whether its policy is to
negotiate with them or try to defeat them.
Over the weekend,
militant gunmen stormed Karachi’s airport and while the fighters were
ultimately killed, the attack — and another in the city afterward —
illustrated the confidence of the Pakistani Taliban, which claimed
responsibility, along with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The
Pakistani Taliban "has powerful friends that it can turn to," said
Michael Kugelman, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s senior program associate
for South and Southeast Asia. He attributed its strength to operational
ties with other militant groups, such as al-Qaida — still believed to be
holed up in the border region — and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Moreover,
the Pakistani government has never formulated a strategy to deal with
extremism, fluctuating between accommodation and force.
In a
country that touts itself as a homeland for Muslims, authorities are
reluctant to denounce an ideology championing Islam. So militants are
often viewed not as enemies but as misguided Muslims, who need to be
talked to, said Zahid Hussain, a Pakistani journalist whose book, "The
Scorpion’s Tail," tracked the rise of the country’s militants.
"The narrative is basically controlled by the radicals in Pakistan, and that is their biggest
victory," he said.
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Lee Keath is The Associated Press Middle East Enterprise Editor and has covered the region since 2005.

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Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Ryan Lucas in Beirut contributed to
this report.