The Washington Post, quoting senior US and Pakistani officials, reported “new evidence” last week that suggests “that Al Qaeda is battered but not beaten, and that a motley collection of old hands and recent recruits has formed a nucleus in Pakistan that is pushing forward with plans for attacks in the United States”. General Pervez Musharraf’s regime, of course, is eager to take credit for its “cooperation” in the US-led war against terrorism. Usually reticent Pakistani officials, especially the Interior Minister, have been unusually forthcoming about recent successes in arresting Al Qaeda linked terrorist suspects, including some Pakistani nationals. The Interior Minister was even willing to hold a late night Press briefing hours before the Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was to formally accept his party’s nomination at the Democratic convention in Boston, to announce the arrest of the Al Qaeda man wanted for the 1998 terrorist bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
This recognition of an Al-Qaeda presence in Pakistan is quite contrary to the earlier approach of the military regime, which was to deny any links between Pakistani Islamist militants and the global terrorist network. The recent Pakistani statements are a personal vindication for me because I was vilified as ‘anti-Pakistan’ for suggesting an Al-Qaeda presence in the country of my birth barely two years ago. On July 7, 2002 London’s Financial Times published my article titled “Al-Qaeda’s New Enemy”, which said, among other things: “During the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance, militants from all over the Muslim world passed through Pakistan to participate in the Afghan Jihad. They were, at the time, supported by the intelligence services of the West as well as Islamic nations. Some of them created covert networks within Pakistan, taking advantage of poor law enforcement and the state’s sympathetic attitude towards pan-Islamic militancy. Now that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have been uprooted from Afghanistan, they are using their former transit station as a temporary staging ground for terrorist operations”.
I had also written in the same article, “Pakistan’s past support for Islamic militants fighting Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan region of Jammu and Kashmir is an embarrassment the military government must face. The fear of being seen to back Kashmiri militants has led to Pakistani denials about any Al-Qaeda presence in Pakistan. But having made an irreversible commitment to opposing the extremists, General Musharraf no longer needs to deny that terrorists hiding in its cities pose a threat to Pakistan and the world”.
Soon after that article appeared, friends and acquaintances linked to the establishment started harassing me and my family members with charges of my writing “such things” at the behest of anti-state elements. My patriotism was questioned in a whispering campaign among the Pakistani journalist community. But now it turns out that I was a Pakistani patriot after all, guilty only of speaking the truth at a time not of the establishment’s suiting. In the covert operations world of the Pakistani establishment, timing is everything and those failing to follow the script undermine the complex “grand strategy” for regime survival often passed off as a plan for “saving” Pakistan.
Given the less than transparent nature of existing US-Pakistan relations, it is natural for the sceptics to wonder whether there is a political angle to the recent admission of local Al-Qaeda links and the spate of arrests in Pakistan. Pakistan is the only US ally that does not allow the US Central Command to post the details of joint operations as well as costs paid to Pakistan on Centcom’s website. Pakistan’s ability to “produce” Al-Qaeda figures at politically opportune moments has been widely noted in the US media. Recently, Pakistani sources leaked the name of an alleged Al-Qaeda computer wizard arrested in Lahore and later created a fuss over the leak by suggesting that the Americans had blown over a man the Pakistanis intended to use as a double agent inside Al-Qaeda. Such antics are tolerated by the Bush administration as it waits for the big prize, the arrest or killing of Osama bin Laden, but cannot build enduring trust between Pakistan and the United States.
In the US, President Bush’s many critics have wondered aloud if Pakistani regime is obliging its ‘paymaster’ by timing arrests of terrorists to coincide with the American election schedule. In Pakistan, the timing of the stepped up anti-terrorist effort, and the high level publicity given to it, has led to questions about General Musharraf’s intentions in domestic politics. He had promised to take off his military uniform by the end of the year and the Americans were hoping to use that as a fig leaf for accepting his regime as having completed its “transition” to civilian, democratic rule. If General Musharraf does not want to relinquish charge as the Chief of Army Staff, he needs to demonstrate his indispensability in the war against terrorism with renewed vigour. That way he might be able to avert the criticism that is certain to come his way if he does not give up his uniform.
The relative transparency of the US political system makes it difficult for officials to be blatant about linking political agendas to a national security issue such as the war against terrorism. In an article in The New Republic well before the Democratic convention, Spencer Ackerman and John B. Judis spoke of pressure on Pakistan by the Bush administration to produce some ‘high value target’ around the time of the Democratic Party convention to steal Mr. Kerry’s thunder. The suggestion was rejected as a conspiracy theory at the time. When Pakistan announced the arrest of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian, from the central Punjab city of Gujrat hours before Mr. Kerry’s acceptance speech, eyebrows were raised among even those Americans who are normally sceptical of conspiracy theories. But the Bush administration faces the check of a completely free media, a vibrant opposition party, and judicial and congressional oversights. Is it possible that the initiative to gain political advantage from arrests of terrorists came not from the Bush administration but from the Musharraf regime, which is America’s ally of convenience since 9/11 and has a special interest in the flow of economic and military benefits resulting from its “cooperation” in the war against terrorism?
Pakistan signed on for the war against terrorism as an extension of its establishment’s willingness to make it useful for the US in return for “the right price”. Pakistan’s first military ruler, General (later Field Marshal) Ayub Khan, had told US Assistant Secretary of State Henry Byroade as early as 1953, “Our army can be your army if you want us” and since then the Pakistani military leadership has seen alliance with the US as its meal ticket. At the present moment, Pakistan is receiving $700 million annually in bilateral assistance, $84 million monthly to defer costs incurred on the anti-terrorist effort and $1.7 billion in funds from the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) where US support is crucial. Pakistan has also benefited from debt rescheduling and streamlining of remittances from overseas Pakistani workers. This significant cash inflow has enabled the government to balance its books, create an impression on economic growth and get back in the market for new weapons for the Pakistani military. As in the past, the economic component of the US aid package is aimed more at ensuring regime survival than sustained economic growth or real reform. To understand the priorities of the military regime, one need only note that while the US has been asked to provide $ 30 million for madrassa reform and $ 4 million for “training of Parliamentarians”, Pakistan’s military will get $ 350 million of the annual aid package. The regular payments for “costs” incurred on fighting terrorism on America’s behalf (which add up to almost $ 1 billion per year) go almost exclusively into the budget for the military and intelligence services.
As long as the US-Pakistan relationship remains a single issue alliance based on the quid pro quo of changes in Pakistani policy for US money, the regime in Islamabad will continue to be tempted to take its time in finding all the terrorists. This is a risky scheme but it conforms to the past pattern of Pakistani military regimes collecting rent from the US for Pakistan’s strategic “services”. Recently the 9/11 Commission called for a long-term US commitment to Pakistan, to ensure Pakistan’s stability and dependability as a US ally. The recommendation will bear fruit only if the US commitment is to the welfare of 150 million Pakistanis and not to the dominance of the Pakistani military-intelligence complex.
The writer is a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. He served as adviser to Pakistani Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka