AN ATOL EXCLUSIVE Pakistan opens its door to US ops
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - The Pakistani Embassy in Washington has lifted all scrutiny
mechanisms for granting visas to defense-related American officials. Under the
new procedures, implemented two weeks ago, officials will be granted visas in
Previously, under pressure from the armed forces, all applications for visas by
United States defense officials were passed on to Pakistan's Ministry of
Defense, which in turn sent them to the directorate of Military Intelligence.
After several months of scrutiny, visas were either granted or denied.
The new procedures were laid down on the direct intervention of the office of
President Asif Ali Zardari to facilitate the Americans
in their quest to directly hunt down militant networks in Pakistani cities,
where Washington believes major attacks in Europe are being planned and also
from where the insurgency in Afghanistan is being directed. Compared with 2009,
US drones have doubled their air-to-ground attacks during 2010, to more than
100 on militant sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas.
The development on visas occurred slightly before this weekend's Lisbon summit
of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, where it emerged there was no clear
end-game strategy for the mission in Afghanistan.
NATO leaders pledged to begin the process of withdrawal and handing over of
authority for security to Afghan security forces from 2011, and to transfer
complete control by the end of 2014, though they clarified that the date given
for shifting authority to the Afghan government was not a deadline.
Between the lines, the declaration implies the continuation of the American-led
war against al-Qaeda and Taliban with a new dimension from next year.
Over the past year in Afghanistan, NATO has to a large extent been fighting
shadows, with the enemy hardly showing up other than to cause havoc with
improvised explosive devices. The Americans now appear to want to turn the
broader battlefield into a focused anti-insurgency campaign through targeted
special operations. One major development in this regard is the expansion of
the American embassies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, announced recently that a
US$511 million contract had been awarded to Caddell Construction to build the
world's largest embassy in Kabul and that a contract worth $734 million had
been awarded to B L Harbert for a new US Embassy compound in Pakistan, which
would virtually be an American base in Islamabad complete with an air strip -
all at a cost of more than $1 billion. (See
US's $1bn Islamabad home is its castle August 4, 2009.)
"A three-pronged American strategy is visible for Pakistan that clearly
concerns Pakistan's security establishment," a senior security official told
Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity.
"The Americans increasingly want to have direct intervention and control in
counter-terrorism operations and want to expand their operations from the
tribal regions into the cities," the official said. He added that the US also
aimed to broaden its influence through local private security contractors as
well as by investing in think-tanks to motivate the Pakistani intelligentsia in
favor of a regional anti-insurgency campaign.
"In this new campaign, the Americans aim to reduce the role of the Pakistani
security forces and they want to directly deal with the insurgents," the
This would be a third phase of the counter-insurgency operations the Americans
have adopted in Pakistan since Islamabad sided with the US in the "war on
terror" after September 11, 2001.
During former president General Pervez Musharraf's regime (June 2001-August
2008), broader counter-insurgency operations were essentially devised and
controlled by Pakistani security agencies. The US Central Intelligence Agency
did not have any input, and if it did receive a tip-off on any high-profile
target, coordination with the Inter-Services Intelligence was a must.
Immediately after Musharraf stepped down as army chief and then as president in
August 2008, the Americans adopted a policy of direct intervention and control
through drone strikes. The Zardari government was completely on board with this
and the weak military establishment in the post-Musharraf era did not have much
space to oppose the drone operations.
American defense contractors were deployed to enhance the level of operations,
but in the meantime the military gained strength and started to put its foot
down over the largely unchecked American operations in Pakistan and tighter
visa procedures were put in place.
Nonetheless, the Americans were desperate to jack up the level of their
counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan. Initially, they worked some
backchannels with the help of the Pakistani government to by-pass the scrutiny
of military intelligence of defense-related personnel.
Asia Times Online broke the story that this year 50 foreign nationals,
including officials of a private American defense contracting firm, had arrived
in Pakistan even though they did not have security clearance from Pakistan's
intelligence agencies. (See
Peace sacrificed in shrine attack July 3, 2010.)
These people had earlier been denied visas by the Pakistani embassies they
first approached, including in the US, Britain and India. However, they were
apparently subsequently given visas by the embassy in Abu Dhabi and the
consulate in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This was done without the
prerequisite clearance from the Pakistani Ministry of Interior, the Defense
Ministry and the security agencies.
"These included over a dozen US nationals who had already been denied visas by
our embassy in Washington on suspicion of them having links to Blackwater [Xe
Services]," a source told Asia Times Online, adding that the visas had been
issued for periods of six months to two years, although usually visas are only
given for 90 days.
The report was later confirmed officially by the Pakistani government;
Pakistani security officials investigated the matter and new checks were put in
place - and are now lifted.
However, Washington is convinced that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won
unless its sphere is broadened into Pakistan. Pakistan's economic compulsions -
it receives extensive US aid and support - were sufficient grounds to exploit
and when America recently applied pressure on Islamabad to lift the visa
procedures, Pakistan quietly removed them.
"This is a litmus test for the Pakistani military establishment, which does not
want to give the Americans a free walk inside Pakistan." a source close to
Pakistan's military quarters told Asia Times Online. "At the same time,
Pakistan does not want to lose its allies in Afghanistan, which are obviously
the Islamist groups. However, the battle has reached a level where the
Americans can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to Pakistan's soft handling
of those Islamist groups. Also, the economic quagmire in the country is
deepening, and antagonizing the Americans, who are aid masters, is no option
either," the source said.
However, a clash of interests between the Pakistani military establishment and
Washington now appears likely. Washington understands that during winter,
fighting in Afghanistan slows down and a major chunk of insurgents goes to
Pakistan's cities to see their families, especially in places like Quetta, the
provincial capital of Balochistan. The Americans want to take action during
this period, but the Pakistani military establishment cannot allow this to
Whether Pakistan is ready to pay the cost if it tries to impede American
operations is another matter as the US is already upset with Islamabad's
refusal to launch operations against the powerful Haqqani network in the North
Waziristan tribal area. That is, is the loss of military and economic aid an
Pakistan has already expanded its arms procurement base, notably with China,
with which it is negotiating a submarine purchase deal, beside several
air-defense system deals. These military ties are expected to deepen as an
alternative to American military support.
Likewise, despite American opposition, Pakistan has signed on to an
Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project to help meet its energy needs.
"Iran offered Pakistan all sorts of assistance, but Pakistan could not fully
exploit that. It included offers of soft loans as well as support for building
the infrastructure in Pakistan that would facilitate trade routes between Iran,
Pakistan and Turkey," M B Abbasi, who was recently Pakistan's ambassador to
Iran, told Asia Times Online.
"It is so sad. Iran allocated 1,100 megawatts of electricity for Pakistan and
assured Pakistan that it had 5,000 MW in surplus energy that it could further
allocate for Pakistan, but Pakistan did not take any interest to exploit that
opportunity," Abbasi said.
Asia Times Online has learned that Pakistan refused this offer of Iranian
support on American pressure, but Abbasi would not comment on this.
However, the Iranian card is still available to Pakistan if the Americans push
through with operations inside Pakistan, something that now looks likely with
Washington having managed to by-pass the military and use the government to
facilitate a free flow of security operatives into the country.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and
author of upcoming book Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban 9/11 and Beyond
published by Pluto Press, UK. He can be reached at[email protected]