Amid bombings, Pakistan turns to conspiracies

AP News

5/29/2011 1:58:09 PM - AP News

Facing a surge in violence after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Pakistanis are taking comfort in conspiracy theories that allege Indian or American agents _ not fellow Muslim countrymen _ are behind the attacks, especially last week's brazen assault on a naval base.

Lawmakers, media pundits, retired generals and even government officials often hint at suspicions of a "foreign hand" in the violence, despite there being no evidence and often explicit claims of responsibility by militant groups like the Pakistani Taliban.

Aired on television talk shows and in newspapers, conspiracy theories are everywhere _ underscoring the challenges facing the United States as it seeks to convince Pakistan's overwhelmingly anti-American population that it faces a shared enemy in the Taliban.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton fought back Friday against the stories flying around.

"America cannot and should not solve Pakistan's problems, that is up to Pakistan," she told reporters. "But in solving its problems, Pakistan should understand that anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories will not make problems disappear."

While tales of malign intervention by foreign powers exist in other developing countries, in Pakistan they come with a heavy price. They confuse the country as to who it is fighting and complicate efforts to defeat militants and counter their extremist ideology.

Shifting the blame away from Islamist militants and onto foreigners helps protect the powerful Pakistani army from an uncomfortable truth: its long association with militants that are now turning against the state.

Right-wing Islamists who support the Afghan Taliban and share the Pakistan Taliban's hatred of America and calls for strict Islamic law are also put in a difficult position by the terror being unleashed on the country. For them, it is easier to blame foreigners out to destabilize the country than acknowledge the slaughter carried out in the name of Islam.

No evidence is ever reported to back up the claims, but unsubstantiated rumors make it into media coverage: the bodies of suicide attackers were uncircumcised, for example, implying they were not Muslims, or Indian-made ammunition was found at the scene.

Ironically, the Pakistani Taliban share Clinton's dislike of the conspiracy theories _ but for different reasons.

"Those who are accusing us of working for anyone else's agenda should ask themselves what they are doing," Waliur Rehman, the Taliban's No. 2 commander, told The Associated Press.

"We are neither working for CIA, Mossad, RAW nor any other organization," he said, referring to the Indian spy agency. "We work to get the blessing of God."

The attack on the naval base in Karachi was one of the most brazen in more than four years of militant violence. A team of gunmen infiltrated the base, destroying two U.S-made surveillance planes and killing at least 10 people during a 16-hour standoff.

The fact that the attackers destroyed planes that are believed to be used mostly to guard against India and do not appear directly related to the war against militants has given grist to the conspiracy theorists, as has the supposed sophistication of the assailants and their weapons.

India and Pakistan have waged three wars since 1947 and exist in a state of semi-hostility. Left-wing critics accuse the army, which has ruled the country for much of its existence, of indoctrinating the country with mistrust of India to ensure that it keeps getting a large share of the country's budget.

Ruling party lawmaker Liaqat Ali Khan said it was only natural that suspicion should fall on "India if our army installations are attacked."

"My mind too goes toward RAW. India wants to demoralize the Pakistani army and a demoralized Pakistani army suits India well," he said.

One especially potent conspiracy theory is that the United States wants to seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Those who spread the story say the U.S. raid on bin Laden in an army town on May 2 was a practice run for such an operation and the latest bomb attacks are to destabilize the country so Washington has a pretext for moving in.

A Pew opinion poll released in April found that just 10 percent of Pakistanis had confidence in President Barack Obama, while 69 percent judge India to be a very serious threat _ far higher than either the Taliban (57 percent) or al-Qaida (41 percent).

That such suspicions should abound is not really surprising. Such is the unpopularity of America here, that the government has never publicly acknowledged collaborating with Washington in the fight against militants.

Militants are normally referred to as "miscreants" and there is no serious effort to discredit their extremist ideology.

"We are always telling the world about the losses and sacrifices we have sustained in the war on terror, but at the same time we never see any explanations of who is doing the killing," said Cyril Almeida, a liberal columnist. "It infinitely complicates counter-extremism efforts. They can't happen if poison is being pumped into the veins of Pakistani society."

Hamid Gul, a former head of the country's main intelligence agency and a supporter of the Afghan Taliban, is a prime conspiracy theorist. Since the bin Laden killing, he has appeared on television repeating a popular rumor: The al-Qaida leader was really killed in Afghanistan and brought to Pakistan to humiliate the country.

"My feeling is that it was all a hoax, a drama which has been crafted, and badly scripted I would say," he told an Indian TV station recently. "But they shouldn't make a scapegoat of Pakistan in this way. This is very wrong."

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Associated Press writers Ishtiaq Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Ashraf Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.