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    South Asia
     Jan 18, 2006

Pakistan's misplaced ire over US misfire
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Pakistan's Foreign Ministry summoned the US ambassador for an explanation and Information Minister Sheikh Rashid said the act was "highly condemnable".

But the fact is that Pakistan knew in advance of the US raid in Pakistan on Friday aimed at killing al-Qaeda's No 2, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was believed to be in the area. Instead, 18 civilians



were killed near the village of Damadola in the Bajur tribal area on the Afghan border in a raid by a US Predator drone.

Media reports claim that Zawahiri only escaped death because he did not keep a dinner date in the area that was targeted. Yet intelligence contacts tell Asia Times Online that the target was not specifically Zawahiri - it could equally have been Taliban leader Mullah Omar or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan and a key figure in the Afghan resistance.

A Western intelligence source told Asia Times Online that the US had heard of a "big meeting" in Bajur of Taliban, Pakistani and al-Qaeda leaders. "They flew three Predator drones over the area for a few days and a few hours before the strike, and that seems to be what tipped Zawahiri off," the source said.

Whether or not Zawahiri missed dinner, the US is becoming increasingly aggressive in its hunt for a major scalp in the "war on terror", so much so that it can now launch such attacks in Pakistani territory.

Intelligence cooperation
Members of a joint intelligence cell of Pakistani and US operators based in Islamabad exchange notes on a daily basis, usually at about 10pm. The parties simply swap files by hand.

The cell then provides a centralized daily monitoring report of activity in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas. On the Pakistani side, its intelligence agents report from within Pakistan, while US operatives provide information from the border provinces of Afghanistan, with emphasis on al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The cell noted that for several weeks prior to the raid in Bajur there had been an upsurge in activity in Kunar province, especially of suspected al-Qaeda members.

Previously, a corridor had been traced that started in Kunar and ended in Chitral province in Pakistan. It was suspected that al-Qaeda and the Afghan resistance used the route to travel between the two countries.

This was confirmed when Libyan Abu Faraj al-Libbi was arrested in Pakistan last May. He was incorrectly touted as being No 3 in al-Qaeda, although he had once been influential.

During interrogation, he spoke of the corridor, and joint US-Pakistan raids were conducted, to no avail. Bajur lies in this corridor, and is connected to Kunar by a mountain pass.

A recent dispatch from the US intelligence side confirmed the movement of Arab-Afghans toward Pakistan. Since the Chitral area is fully manned by the Pakistani army, it was assumed that the suspects went instead to Bajur tribal area.

These were said possibly to include "a high-profile Afghan personality" such as Mullah Omar or Hekmatyar. The dispatch clearly mentioned that if the suspects were spotted, they would be targeted immediately.

So someone clearly thought they had a target, but it was not to be. Those killed in the drone raid included locals and a few Punjabis (from central Pakistan).

The attack stirred up protests all over the country, and even the government's most important coalition partner in Sindh province and in the federal government, the pro-American and pro-India Muttahida Quami Movement, took to the streets in Karachi, along with the six-party religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA). The MMA even proclaimed that it would gather the masses in an attempt to topple the government.

It is most likely, therefore, that the government issued its protests as a way to defuse tension and save face, as it is almost inconceivable that it did not know what was happening. Given the strategic alliance between the United States and Pakistan, the US would not keep Islamabad completely in the dark in an operation such as that in Bajur, where Pakistani territory was violated.

"Even during the Bill Clinton administration, when cruise missiles only passed through Pakistani space to hit Osama bin Laden in Kandahar and Khost [after the al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Africa in 1998], Pakistan was informed well in advance," said a Pakistani official on condition of anonymity.

"So it must have been the same in this case in which the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] struck inside a Pakistani-administered tribal area. However, from the very beginning, targeting Ayman, Mullah Omar or Gulbuddin in Bajur was more a myth than an operation based on real hard facts," the official added.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Bureau Chief, Pakistan Asia Times Online. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)


US turns against Musharraf
(Jan 12, '06)

Pakistan comes out fighting (Dec 21, '05)

Taken for a ride in the 'war on terror'
(Dec 9, '05)

Pulling strings in Pakistan (Dec 1, '05)

 
 



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