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    South Asia
     Apr 6, 2012

US playing cat and mouse with Pakistan
By Karamatullah K Ghori

ISLAMABAD - The devil is in the timing of the April 2 United States announcement of a US$10 million bounty on the head of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, accused by the Indian government as the mastermind behind the Mumbai mayhem of November 2008 that resulted in the death of 166 people, including seven Americans, when militants stormed the city.

Saeedís religious outfit, the Jamaat-ul-Dawa (Party for Propagation), has been on Washington's list of terrorist organizations for some time; it also figures on a United Nations list of a similar classification. The Dawa is a successor to the Lashkar-e Taiba, which Saeed founded as armed militant group to fight against Indian control in Kashmir and which was banned in 2002 after being linked to an attack on India's parliament.

The news of Washington's decision to place such a hefty reward


on information leading to the arrest and conviction of Saeed - which makes him one of the priciest terrorists on Washington's "wanted list", second only to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ($25 million) - was broken to the world by Wendy Sherman, US under secretary of state, in New Delhi during an official visit to the Indian capital.

It may just be coincidence - or a case of clinical synchronization - that Saeed's bounty announcement hit the headlines at precisely the time that the Indians were disclosing to the outside world that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari would undertake a day-long "private" visit to India, on April 8, for a pilgrimage to the city of Ajmer to seek atonement for his sins at the shrine of the Sufi-saint, Khwaja Gharib Nawaz.

That's where an element of intrigue creeps into the affair and sets diplomatic pundits and their kind wondering if there's a linkage of sorts in Washington's out of the blue initiative to seek the head of a man who isn't as much in their cross-hairs as in India's because of his alleged pivotal role in the Mumbai massacre.

And he is not much in Pakistan's crosshairs either. In 2009, the Pakistani Supreme Court ordered Saeed freed after he won an appeal against being held under house arrest over possible involvement in the Mumbai attacks.

Just hours after the US State Department announced the bounty, Saeed appeared on Pakistan's Geo TV. He said he was a free man - living in Pakistan - and was ready to speak with US officials at any time.

"They called me a terrorist. But I went to the court and asked them to decide my case. India sent four dossiers against me. The case proceedings continued for six months. And the full bench of the high court decided that neither me nor my group has any connection with the Mumbai attacks or [any other] terrorist activities," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported Saeed as saying. [1]

Zardari is unpopular among many Pakistanis as he is viewed as a votary of Washington - much more than his predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf, ever was. He's despised and pilloried for carrying a brief for the US and for kowtowing to his American masters like a loyal and unquestioning surrogate at the expense of Pakistan's national interest.

The Memo-gate scandal, still going through the motions of a high-level judicial probe, has added greater mass to the lay Pakistani's suspicion that their president is a Washington tribune.

This controversy revolves around a memorandum addressed to Admiral Mike Mullen, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ostensibly seeking the help of the Barack Obama administration in the wake of the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by US forces in Pakistan last May to avert a military takeover of the civilian government in Pakistan, as well as assisting in a Washington insider takeover of the government and military apparatus. The memo is alleged to have been drafted at the behest of Zardari.

Memogate's principal character, Mansoor Ejaz, has added fuel to the fire by contending that Zardari had been tipped off by his American handlers of their stealth operation against Bin Laden. That, understandably, leaves pundits wondering if the yoking of bounty on Saeed with Zardari's "pilgrimage" to India is meant to facilitate the visit, or cast a shadow over it?

Zardari's planned call on the saint's shrine is seen by many as a nothing more than a fig-leaf; his meeting in Delhi, before he moves on to Ajmer, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will have a lot riding on it.

Zardari will be trying to pick up the pieces where Musharraf had left them, seven years ago in the tourist Mecca of Agra, in the salubrious shadows of the famous Taj Mahal. Many a pundit is looking at Zardari's "pilgrimage" diplomacy as a delayed extension of Musharraf's "Taj" diplomacy to mend ties between the fractious neighbors.

The arch-rivals were close to pulling off a major breakthrough in that 2005 meeting between Musharraf and then-premier Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which broke down at the last minute when all that remained for the two leaders to do was to cross the t's and dot the i's.

The countries have seemed serious on picking up the thread of peace with renewed vigor and purpose since last year.

Pakistan has taken a major stride on the road to reconciliation and normalcy with India with its bold decision - despite a huge backlash from right-wing religious parties - to grant "most favored nation" status to India in the interests of imparting a hefty boost to trade and economic linkages with its estranged neighbor.

Understandably, Zardari must have been sent some positive and encouraging signals from Delhi to embark on his maiden visit to India as president of Pakistan; he couldn't be taking a leap, entirely, in the dark, especially with so much suspicion surrounding his enigmatic role at the pinnacle of Pakistan's Byzantine political culture.

Pundits agree that a new visa agreement will be signed by Zardari and Manmohan in their meeting, greatly liberalizing travel for their respective nationals to each other's country. That should give a quantum boost to people-to-people contacts, always said as a key to helping normalize relations.

But soothsayers are also saying that India could be persuaded to relent on two other prickly issues - the Siachen and Sir Creek territorial disputes - on which even the fine print of an agreement has been ready for years - going back to the era when the late Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto were in power in the late 1980s.

The generals on both sides of the "great divide" who threw spanners in the works are now believed to be inclined to look beyond their noses; the Pakistani initiative on trade liberalization couldn't have come without the military general headquarters lifting its reservations and falling in line with the politicos.

The Cassandras, however, are worried that Washington's bounty on Saeed could well influence the agenda of Zardari's visit to Delhi adversely and recalibrate the Indian priority to focus mainly, if not solely, on their grouse against Pakistan for not doing enough to bring Saeed and others of his ilk to book for their crimes in Mumbai.

Grist to this apprehension has been provided by the gushing enthusiasm of Indian officialdom's vociferous welcome to the bounty move against Saeed.

Not surprisingly, the bounty has stirred a tepid, if not cool, response from Pakistan, where the general feeling is that Washington has resorted to blatant arm-twisting to force Pakistan into relenting on the tangled issue of the land transit of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supplies across its territory; that corridor has been frozen since last November when an American night raid against a military check-post in the tribal belt close to Afghanistan killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

The Pakistani parliament is still deliberating on whether the NATO facility should be restored or not. However, there's complete consensus that it should not be reopened unless an unconditional apology is forthcoming from Washington for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers.

Opting to give priority to wielding a stout stick, instead of offering carrots, Washington can only stay the hands of those in the Pakistani establishment who may want to extricate the two "allies" out of this tight corner. At the same time, such a dramatic and sensational move by the Americans would only raise the anti-American flag of the Pakistani masses even further.

Right-wing religious parties have already whipped up a mass frenzy on the issue; Saeed is in the thick of the populist anti-American movement and putting a bounty on his head is as good as showing the red rag to an enraged bull.

Zardari, a friend of the Americans, cannot insulate himself from the heat of the fire lit by his ill-advised friends; he doesn't need enemies with friends like these.

1. See here.

Karamatullah K Ghori is a former Pakistani ambassador, now a freelance columnist and commentator. He may be reached at K_K_ghori@yahoo.com

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