August Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

“We assess that Al-Qaeda has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including a safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)…”

This one line in the widely reported US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), released in mid-July, was the initial spark in a provocative and fiery dialogue that would dominate television studios, editorial pages and drawing rooms around the world in the coming weeks. And it wasn’t good news for Pakistan.

Pakistan’s links with terrorism were, in essence, being publicly confirmed by American intelligence agencies and the White House. The view that Pakistan has been a training ground for Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, however, is nothing new, not even to the American public. Talk of this Pakistani problem ironically gained momentum during President Pervez Musharraf’s visit to the US last September when he had high-profile meetings with US President George W. Bush — and eagerly launched his memoirs. “[The Pakistan government] has done virtually nothing to disrupt the command and control of the Taliban, which is based in Pakistan,” testified Barnett Rubin, a South Asia expert, in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 21, the same day Musharraf met with congressmen in Washington, D.C. The then newly inked North Waziristan peace deal was already receiving plenty of bad press, as critics said it gave pro-Taliban fighters a free rein in the area.

There is a difference between the statements by critics like Rubin and those in the NIE, though. The former was mostly referring to the Taliban’s use of Pakistani soil as a base in their efforts to destabilise Afghanistan. The NIE, however, assesses that Al-Qaeda, too, has strengthened in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, posing not just a threat in neighbouring Afghanistan, but around the world, and particularly in the US.

As a result, this NIE pronouncement was the first incident in a series that has triggered Islamabad’s latest rude awakening: the US is unhappy with Pakistan’s anti-terror efforts and are now pointing the finger at Islamabad for their war woes in Afghanistan, and maybe even in Iraq.

But just a week earlier, there were no hints of any displeasure with Islamabad coming from the White House.

While addressing a large audience in a Cleveland hotel — just as Operation Silence was in its last hours in Islamabad — President Bush, like many times before, spoke of his approval for his Pakistani counterpart. “Musharraf is a strong ally in the war against these extremists,” he said, after taking a question from an expat Pakistani. “I like him and I appreciate him.”

The NIE allowed the Bush administration to change its tone. Within days of its release, the White House was replacing its ubiquitous pats on the back for Musharraf with threats. “There are no options that are off the table,” said Frances Townsend, the US homeland security adviser, during an interview on Fox News, in regards to hunting down Osama Bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda targets on Pakistani territory. Sure, Townsend may have slid in a few supportive comments to placate Pakistani officials, such as Pakistan is an ally and has many troops in FATA, but she had a clear message: blame Pakistan.

Al-Qaeda has rebuilt critical capabilities, specifically top operational lieutenants, its top leadership, and a safe haven, said Townsend in explaining the extremist group’s resurgence. “But the safe haven is a critical enabler to all those other things. And so the single most important thing that we are now working to act against is the safe haven.”

If the NIE was the kindling to a hot new debate on Pakistan’s role in the war on terror, then public declarations of unilateral strikes by the US on Pakistani soil were oil on the fire.

“Completely counterproductive” was how Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri characterised the potential military strikes. “Our commitment is total, but this war — or whatever you would like to call it — can only be won if we have hearts and minds on our side,” said Kasuri in an interview on CNN with Wolf Blitzer. Any unilateral military action in the area by the US, he warned, would achieve the opposite: “You will lose the war — the battle for hearts and minds.”

Townsend’s comment may have just been a tactic to pressure Pakistan into taking tougher action against militants at home. Whatever the case, within days it became clear that the US was suffering no delusions that it could snuff out extremism in Pakistan on its own. Besides military threats, economic ones were being penned in Washington as a way to get Islamabad to step up to the continuously growing menace.

On July 27, five days after Kasuri’s appearance on CNN, the US House of Representatives passed a counter-terrorism bill that included provisions stating US aid to Pakistan would now become conditional on the latter’s ability to demonstrate that it is making “all possible efforts to prevent the Taliban from operating in areas under its sovereign control.” This limitation on assistance would end when the US president certifies that the Taliban “has ceased to exist as an organisation, capable of conducting military, insurgent, or terrorist activities in Afghanistan from Pakistan.” A lot is at stake. Since 2001, Pakistan has already received roughly $10 billion in aid from the Americans.

It has been reported that the bill was effectively forced onto the Bush administration by the Democrats who have been critical of Bush for being too cosy with Musharraf. And in a way, he still is. Bush himself has not come out and directly said anything tough against his Pakistani counterpart, leaving the harsh words for his staff and other top officials. In his weekly national radio address on July 21, which immediately followed the publication of the NIE, Bush put the blame of strengthened militant outfits in Pakistan on the failed North Waziristan peace treaty, but deflected responsibility away from Musharraf. “Unfortunately, tribal leaders were unwilling and unable to go after Al-Qaeda or the Taliban.”

Across the US, focus has been on the failed North Waziristan agreement and Musharraf hasn’t been spared the criticism for allowing it to go through. But some journalists have picked up on his other dealings, specifically, his coalition with the mullahs, which has strengthened parties like the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and led to their successes in the NWFP and Balochistan assemblies. “His methodical marginalisation of the country’s mainstream parties — the Pakistan Peoples Party of Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) led by Nawaz Sharif — has forced him into alliance with the religious right,” wrote David Gardner in the Financial Times. “Before the rigged 2002 elections, support for Islamist parties had never made it into double figures. Now, they swagger across the national stage, Talibanising the country.”

Interestingly, the Pakistan debate is so hot in the US that it has morphed into a 2008 election issue. On August.1, Democratic and presidential hopeful Senator Barrack Obama said that if he were president, he would consider ordering strikes on Al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan. “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets, and President Musharraf won’t act,” said Obama, “we will.” Pakistan, added the senator, who has always opposed the war in Iraq, is the “right battlefield” in the war on terror. Criticism didn’t take long to surface, even from members of his own party. And when asked for his comment, Foreign Minister Kasuri said, “It’s a very irresponsible statement…As the election campaign in America is heating up, we would not like American candidates to fight and contest elections at our expense.”