US forces the terror issue with Pakistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - The United States had been aware of North Vietnamese sanctuaries in
Cambodia since 1966, but the US avoided attacking them due to possible adverse
international repercussions. However, as the going got tougher in Vietnam, in
1969 president Richard Nixon extended the war theater to Laos and Cambodia,
which only plunged the region in a quagmire and ultimately led to the
conclusive defeat of American interests.
Similarly, in the South Asian war theater, Washington has been aware of Taliban
and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the Pakistani tribal areas for many years, but
President George W Bush deferred to Pakistan to deal with them.
This has changed in recent months, given the Taliban's resilience in
Afghanistan, largely made possible by their bases inside
Pakistan. US Predator drones and US special forces have carried out five
attacks in September inside Pakistan's tribal areas, even though Washington is
well aware of the consequences of such cross-border action.
These include a possible revolt in Pakistan's establishment against the "war on
terror" and a spurt in anti-American sentiment, which could cost the pro-US
administration of President Asif Ali Zardari dearly.
Clearly, Washington is frustrated with the situation in Afghanistan, and it no
doubt rankles that the American "empire" is being thwarted by a bunch of
In the years following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Pakistan handed over a
number of al-Qaeda members to the US. Whether or not they were significant was
not so much the point as the arrests created a feeling in the US that the "war
on terror" was working, and funds and troops for it flowed freely.
Those arrested included Abu Zubaida, the alleged military operations commander
of al-Qaeda, in 2002. A joint Pakistan-US raid in the southern port city of
Karachi created a stir on the first anniversary of September 11, 2001, when the
alleged 20th member of Hamburg cell, Ramzi Bin Shib, was arrested. He was
unable to join his co-conspirators in the September 11 attacks in the US as he
could not get a visa for the US.
Then come Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an alleged mastermind of September 11,
followed by many others who made the headlines. Altogether, Pakistan handed
over 700 "icons of terror", but in 2007 the arrests stopped. There are several
reasons for this.
The US placed high rewards on the heads of suspects, for instance, US$25
million for Khalid Sheikh. But invariably, all but less than 1% went to the
Pakistani government, and not the people involved in the investigations and
capture, or the informants.
Further, the Pakistani courts under now deposed chief justice Chaudhary
Iftikahar began to challenge extra-judicial arrests, which put a brake on the
free-wheeling security agencies.
And last but not least, al-Qaeda members became much more cautious about moving
or living in Pakistan's cities, instead retreating to safe havens in the tribal
areas or in Afghanistan, where it was virtually impossible to track them down.
This situation was not good enough for the US, especially in a presidential
election year. The first US demand came in 2007 in president Pervez Musharraf's
But as al-Qaeda members were no longer roaming the streets of the cities, they
could not be delivered. The best Pakistan could do was provide information on
their likely locations and descriptions of them.
Pakistan and the US then agreed on intelligence-sharing, with the understanding
that the Americans, with their superior technology, would pinpoint suspects,
notify Islamabad, then attack them.
According to a top Pakistani official who was a part of the recent strategic
dialogue with the Americans, none of these understandings was documented - they
were verbal agreements between US officials and Musharraf. When Zardari's
government was reminded of such agreements by Washington, a Pakistani official
who had accompanied Musharraf confirmed them, although there were no minutes.
On this basis, the US went ahead with its drone and special forces attacks
Now, for the first time, there are efforts to institutionalize
Pakistan-American relations as well as that between the Central Intelligence
Agency and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.
There are many issues to sort out.
Pakistan keeps on giving the US information on the hideouts of Baitullah
Mehsud, the anti-Pakistan tribal warlord and self-proclaimed head of the
Tehrik-i-Taliban. But Washington wants information on Taliban figures such as
Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, as well as veteran mujahid Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar, whose arrest or killing would better boost the image of the "war on
terror" in the US.
Similarly, Pakistan has repeatedly given information on Egyptian ideologue
Sheikh Essa, who was once hit by a drone attack but only wounded, whereas the
US wants the low-down on Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri - a
much more difficult or even impossible task.
The US is not waiting around, though, and it can be expected more attacks will
be made into Pakistan, even though, in its impatience, the US is notching up
new Mai Lais - the mass murder of hundreds of unarmed citizens in Vietnam by US
Army forces on March 16, 1968.
Last week, more than 20 women and children were killed by US special forces in
a raid on Angorada in South Waziristan. The US later admitted the soldiers had
followed the wrong target.
As with the bombing of Cambodia and Laos nearly 40 years ago, the latest US
offensive could mark a decisive turning point in South Asia.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org