Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

The US and Pakistan: Friend or Foe

What is the definition of an ally? That is the question many Americans have been asking themselves in the wake of the bitter comments and suspicions between the US and Pakistan which have come to light since the May 1 raid by Navy SEALs that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden. The first shocking revelation was that for the past five years, Osama bin Laden was not hiding in the tribal villages in the lawless areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border, as everyone had been told. In fact, he was hiding in plain sight, living under the noses of the Pakistan's senior military leaders in a large and highly visible fortress compound that was under constant guard and strictly isolated from all contact with the outside world.

Are we to believe that the highly efficient Pakistani security service, the ISI, wasn’t aware of its existence in the heart of one of Pakistan’s military centers, or wasn’t at least a little bit curious about who was living there? Didn’t they want to know why the residents of the compound didn’t even let little children enter to retrieve lost balls, and burned all their garbage instead of allowing it to be collected?


Now we learn that the refusal of the White House to inform Pakistani authorities of the raid in advance, or even just before it took place, was much more than the normal precautions taken in the name of “operational security,” as we had initially been told. In fact, President Obama was so worried that the Pakistani military would intervene and attack the Navy SEALs raiding bin Laden’s compound that the plan for the raid was changed just ten days before it was carried out, to include a backup team in two more helicopters hovering overhead, to help the SEALs fight their way out against the Pakistani army if they had to. Is this how allies are supposed to conduct military operations on one another’s soil?


The need for the backup military force meant that President Obama was so unsure of Pakistan’s true intentions that he could not be certain that Pakistani officials would agree to back off and allow the operation proceed, even if the White House called and asked them too.




A report by the British newspaper, The Guardian, that a decade ago, President George W. Bush and then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had reached a secret agreement to allow the US to carry out such missions against senior al Qaeda leaders on Pakistani soil, and that the agreement was renewed as recently as 2008, does not make the situation look any better.


According to the Guardian report, US leaders acknowledged that Pakistani officials would feel duty-bound by domestic politics to protest any such independent US military operations on Pakistani soil, but that both sides would agree, with a wink and a nod, to allow the US to carry them out without interference, even though the Pakistanis would complain about it publicly later.


If that report is true, and such an agreement was in place, then obviously President Obama had to be aware of it. Yet he still felt the need to make critical last minute changes in the plan for the assault on bin Laden’s compound out of fear that Pakistani troops would attack the US commandoes, and force the SEALs to fight their way out of the country.


Just the need for such a contingency plan, putting more US troops potentially in harm’s way, speaks volumes about the depth of suspicion and distrust which the US government actually has for our Pakistani “allies” in the war against terror.




Pakistan’s leaders have long been accused of playing a cynical “double game,” by making deals with both sides in the war against terror.


The Pakistanis see at least some of the Islamic terrorists as co-religionist allies in a continuing war against the country they see as their true enemy, India. The two have been fighting, on and off, ever since Great Britain gave both countries their independence in 1947.


Pakistan’s midrassa schools have long served as the prime recruiting ground for all kinds of Islamic terrorist organizations. The Pakistani military, along with its ISI intelligence service, has provided some of these groups with weapons and support in an ongoing guerilla war against India over the disputed province of Kashmir.


In the 1990’s after the Soviet army left Afghanistan in chaos, the ISI helped to organize the Taliban, and supported its efforts to take over the country in order to counter the influence of India, which backed the Afghan warlords of the Northern Alliance who opposed the Taliban.


That is why, just after the 9/11 attack, the US could not be confident that Pakistan would be willing to help it attack the Taliban in retaliation for turning over Afghanistan to bin Laden and al Qaeda for use as a giant terrorist base camp and training area.




At that time, President Bush gave Pakistani President Musharraf an ultimatum: either you are with us or against us. Help us defeat the Taliban and hunt down the al Qaeda leaders, and enjoy billions in US aid, or be prepared to be treated as an enemy of the United States. For Musharraf, the choice was a no-brainer. He needed the US money and support, but he also was determined to be cautious.


Pakistan would cooperate with the US war on terror, but that cooperation had limits. While denying it publicly, the Pakistanis maintained their relationships with their old allies in the Taliban. The Pakistanis vividly recalled that after cooperating in the clandestine US military effort during the 1980’s to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan, the US lost interest soon after the Soviets left, leaving the Pakistanis high and dry.


The Pakistanis saw the long war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in the 1990’s as a proxy war with India. In strategic terms, they supported the Taliban as a way to prevent neighboring Afghanistan from falling into pro-Indian hands.




As a result, after the 9/11 attack, the Pakistanis hedged their bets. They would cooperate with the US, and be paid handsomely for it. But at the same time, they kept up their relationship with the leaders of the Taliban and other Islamic terrorist groups, such as the Haqqani network, against the day when the US might leave the region again.


That may seem to be duplicitous to the US. However, in light of Obama’s commitment to begin a withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan this summer, and to be totally out of the country by 2014, such contingency arrangements with the forces likely to fill the subsequent vacuum probably look very prudent to the Pakistanis now.


When US officials are questioned about the sincerity of Pakistan’s commitment to the war on terror, their stock answer is that more terrorists have been caught in Pakistan thanks to the cooperation of Pakistani authorities than anywhere else in the world. But there is a flip side to that answer. Terrorists are routinely caught there because it is still one of the world’s main training and recruiting grounds for terrorists. Its midrassas are still preaching radical Islam and actively recruiting young Muslims for jihad. Pakistan’s tribal border regions in the province of Waziristan are still a safe haven for the leaders of the Islamic terrorist movement, including the Taliban and al Qaeda. They are also a staging ground for Taliban attacks on US and coalition troops in nearby Afghanistan, and a source of supplies for the Afghan insurgents.


Pakistani leaders have permitted US Predator drones to identify and carry out attacks on terrorists hiding out in those tribal areas, but only under vehement protest. The increase in the frequency of those attacks, and Pakistani allegations about the collateral damage they cause to civilians living in the area, have deeply strained US-Pakistani relations.


In addition, Pakistani leaders are deeply suspicious of US ties with its arch-rival India, and that rivalry colors all of its policy moves.




President Obama himself alluded to what US officials now commonly refer to privately as Pakistan’s “double game” in an interview Sunday, when he said, “We think that there had to be some sort of support network for bin Laden inside of Pakistan. But we don’t know who or what that support network was. We don’t know whether there might have been some people inside of government, people outside of government, and that’s something that we have to investigate, and more importantly, the Pakistani government has to investigate.”


Obama did not refer to the embarrassingly visible location of bin Laden’s hideaway, in an army town less than two hour’s drive from Pakistan’s capital. He didn’t have to. The questions about Pakistan’s sincerity which it raises, are obvious.




After some more embarrassing public wrangling, it appears that Pakistani officials will make bin Laden’s three wives, who were captured at his hideout, available to the US for questioning. However, it took a public demand by Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, in a broadcast interview to get the Pakistanis to reluctantly agree.


One of the wives was shot in the leg by commandos as she tried to protect bin Laden moments before he was killed. The three women and the children were left behind in the compound when the US commandoes left after the operation was completed.


One of the wives is Yemeni, Pakistani officials have said. A copy of her passport, leaked to the local media, identifies her as Amal Ahmed Abdullfattah. She has told Pakistani investigators that she moved to the home in 2006 and never left the upper floors of the three-story compound, where bin Laden was living.


US intelligence experts are also busy analyzing the huge amount of computer data which the US Special Forces team discovered and removed from the compound after killing bin Laden. In his interviews, Donilon hinted that the data may provide evidence about who might have been helping to hide bin Laden for the past nine years. He described the huge data cache as being about the size of entire college library.


US officials are likely a little afraid of what the questioning of bin Laden’s wives and the analysis of the recovered data might reveal — that their suspicions about Pakistani government complicity in hiding bin Laden and aiding the terrorists are true. The media spotlight has now been turned upon those questions, and the answers could easily provoke a serious new crisis in US-Pakistani relations.




But as uneasy as US leaders have always been in their relationship with the Pakistanis, they have also felt that they had no choice. Without Pakistani cooperation, it would be far more difficult, and perhaps impossible, for the US to support the war effort in landlocked Afghanistan. The roads leading into the country from Pakistan are a vital supply line, and the intelligence on the terrorist networks that the US gathers from Pakistan has been crucial in the war against terror. All of that has to be weighed against the dark side of the equation. Pakistan continues to serve as a breeding ground for international Islamic terrorism, and it is giving sanctuary to other terrorist leaders and a base for their operations.


The US-Pakistani relationship has been strained, with much suspicion on both sides, going back to when the US used Pakistan to channel support to the mujahadeen fighters seeking to free Afghanistan from the Soviet Red Army, which invaded the country in 1979. Among those mujahadeen fighters was a lanky young Saudi named Osama bin Laden, who saw the ultimate defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan as proof that Islam could emerge victorious in a war against the infidels. It was there that he began to lay his plans to fight what he saw as the encroachment of the US and its secular culture into the Muslim heartland of the Middle East.


When the US money and support dried up after the Soviets left, Pakistan and others in the region who had cooperated in the fight to free Afghanistan from communist occupation felt abandoned and betrayed. From then on, promises of US aid have always been viewed with suspicion by Pakistani leaders, who never got over the fear that the US would abandon them again.




Support for the US war against Islamic terrorism has never been popular with the overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistani population. That is why Pakistani leaders have always sought to assert their independence from the US, even while usually bending in the face of direct US pressure, such as tacitly allowing the Predator attacks on Pakistani soil, and the secret agreement with Musharraf on raids against al Qaeda leaders.


But the Pakistanis still see themselves as fighters for Islam. That is particularly true with regard to their ongoing support for the Islamic guerillas, fighting for the independence of the Indian portion of Kashmir. The Indians call them terrorists. The Pakistanis called them freedom fighters.


When Pakistanis proudly developed their own nuclear weapons capability in the 1980’s it was widely called “the Islamic bomb.” It was seen as part of an arms race with arch-rival India, which also developed a nuclear weapons capability. But after the Pakistani bomb was developed, the father of their nuclear program, Dr. A. Q. Kahn, started an international nuclear black market peddling weapons technology to the highest bidder.


Eight years ago, when Libya revealed that it had been buying nuclear technology from Khan’s operation, Pakistan refused to allow US officials to interrogate him about who was helping him to sell nuclear weapons technology and designs to Libya, North Korea and Iran. Khan was placed under house arrest, but never prosecuted, and is still treated by his fellow Pakistanis as something of a national hero.


One American official explained the obvious reluctance of Pakistani officials to make bin Laden’s wives available for US interrogation as, “ the Khan case all over again.”




Pakistani government officials were clearly embarrassed at Obama’s decision to conduct the raid on bin Laden without telling them in advance, or seeking their cooperation. As a result, some Pakistani political leaders are demanding the resignation of their government.


Pakistan‘s recently ousted foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, called for the resignation of President Asif Ali Zardari and his prime minister, saying that the US commando raid on bin Laden’s compound without the knowledge of the Pakistani government represented a serious failure.


Government leaders are responding by issuing public threats of retaliation if the US conducts any more such assaults. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told Pakistan’s parliament on Monday, “Pakistan reserves the right to retaliate with full force.”


Gilani has also rejected accusations that Pakistan’s ISI security service was “in cahoots” with al-Qaeda as “disingenuous. . .Allegations of complicity or incompetence are absurd,” he said, adding, “we didn’t invite Osama bin Laden to Pakistan.”


ISI chief General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, is also now under some political pressure to resign in the wake of bin Laden raid. US officials suspect that the ISI may have already struck back, by revealing the identity of the CIA’s covert station chief in Islamabad to the local media, and exposing him to terrorist attack.


Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani and the army chief of staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, met over the weekend to discuss the bin Laden raid.


Last week, Kayani threatened a rethinking of all Pakistani intelligence and military cooperation with the United States if it ever again mounted an operation on Pakistani soil similar to the bin Laden raid without prior notification. How much of that is political posturing is hard to tell.


Even before the May 1 raid on bin Laden, the ISI said it was cutting cooperation with CIA to protest drone strikes against terrorist targets on Pakistani soil.




White House leaders acknowledged Pakistani complaints that the raid on bin Laden’s compound violated their national sovereignty, but expressed no regrets, and said that given the chance, the US would do it again the same way. National Security Advisor Donilon said that whether or not the Pakistanis would be notified in advance of another raid would depend on “the specifics of the operation. This really wasn’t a matter of trusting or not trusting; it was a matter of operational security.”


Donilon added that, “the messages that have come back to us from around the world, and I study this fairly closely, is that this was a just action against a man who had committed murder, not just in the United States but around the world.”




Gilani said that the Pakistani army is launching an investigation into how bin Laden had managed to hide inside a major Pakistani town for so long, but US officials have little hope that the Pakistani probe will reveal anything significant. Pakistan has been dragging its feet for more than two years on an investigation of the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, India, by a Pakistani-based group of Islamic terrorists known as Lashkar-e-Taiba, that also enjoys the support of the ISI.




That cover-up will come to an end with a trial scheduled to start on May 16 in Chicago. It will expose the role of an ISI major in the Mumbai attack which killed 166 people, including six American citizens. The Jewish victims of the attack were Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, Hy”d, who ran the Chabad house in Mumbai, Bentzion Kruman, Hy”d, Rabbi Leibish Teitelbaum, Hy”d, Yocheved Orpaz, Hy”d, and Norman Shvarzblat Rabinovich, Hy”d..


The 33-page federal indictment names “Major Iqbal,” along with three leaders of Lashkar-i-Taiba. Sajid Mir, the mastermind of the Mumbai raid, also has close links to the ISI, and remains at large along with half a dozen other suspects in the raid.


Justice Department and other federal agencies have avoided publicizing the Chicago trial, apparently on orders from the White House to avoid further embarrassing the Pakistani government.


In the May 16 federal trial, Tahawwur Rana will face charges that his Chicago-based immigration consulting firm helped carry out reconnaissance for the Mumbai raid. The indictment says that Major Iqbal paid $28,000 to Rana’s front company to scout out luxury hotels and other targets in Mumbai to be attacked by the terrorists to ensure that Americans and other Westerners would die.


The government’s star witness is David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American who has already pleaded guilty to scouting terrorist targets in India and Denmark. Headley was an informant for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration when he began his terrorist training with Lashkar in 2002. He was the man that Rana sent to Mumbai to scout the attack.




In court documents in Rana’s trial, Headley says that he worked for the ISI, Lashkar and al-Qaeda. “I also told [Rana] about my meetings with Major Iqbal, and told him how I had been asked to perform espionage work for ISI,” Headley has testified.


Headley says the ISI created the Lashkar group as a proxy army to wage a terrorist war against India, and that senior ISI provided the Lashkar terrorists with a boat, funds and technical expertise for the Mumbai strike. According to an Indian report and the FBI, Headley said that after joining Lashkar, he was recruited in 2006 by the ISI, with Major Iqbal serving as his handler.


Headley also met at least twice with the ISI’s Major Iqbal in late 2008 to help launch a Lashkar attack against a Danish newspaper in revenge for printing disrespectful cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. That attack was supposed to be in conjunction with al-Qaeda.




However, it is the fallout from the bin Laden raid which is creating pressure for the US to review its uneasy alliance with Pakistan. If US aid to Pakistan is to continue, Congress will demand a new determination as to whether it is still in our national interest to keep turning a blind eye toward their support for Islamic terrorism and their role in the sale of nuclear weapons technology to rogue regimes around the world.


American officials have long expressed their frustration at Pakistan’s refusal over the years to disclose the operations of the ISI’s S directorate, which has worked closely with bin Laden and others who came out of the mujahadeen groups which fought against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.


The new discovery that bin Laden has been hiding in plain sight in Pakistan for so many years, and the revelations from the Chicago trial only add to the suspicions about Pakistan’s true allegiances.


“It’s very, very troubling,” said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding of the Justice Department. Wolf has closely followed the Mumbai case and wants an independent study group to review South Asia policy from top to bottom.


“Keep in mind that we’ve given billions of dollars to the Pakistani government,” he said. “In light of what’s taken place with bin Laden, the whole issue raises serious problems and questions.”




Nevertheless, Donilon argued in an interview on Sunday that severing US ties to Pakistan would seriously impede the US war against terrorism. “We have had difficulty with Pakistan, as I said, but we’ve also had to work very closely with Pakistan in our counterterror efforts. More terrorists and extremists have been captured or killed in Pakistan than in any place in the world,” Donilon declared.


Another fear is that a political meltdown in Pakistan could expose its nuclear arsenal, which is believed to hold 100 weapons, to a takeover by one of the many terrorist groups active in Pakistan today. Leonard S. Spector, the director of the Washington office of the Monterey Institute’s non-proliferation center, said, “It is hard to abandon Pakistan because of the danger of the nuclear program and the need for help in counter-terrorism.”


The Washington Post contributed to this story



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