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Pakistan's Disloyal Terror War By: Kaushik Kapisthalam
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Two recent events have underlined the differences between the American attitude toward tackling terrorists and that of some of its allies. While football star Pat Tillman’s sacrifice of millions of dollars and subsequently his own life symbolized American determination to win against terrorists at all costs, it now appears that America’s “stalwart ally” Pakistan has instead chosen to base its anti-terror policy on the apocryphal quotation attributed to legendary showman P. T. Barnum - "There's a sucker born every minute."

The latest episode began on March 18, when Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf casually mentioned in an interview with CNN's Aaron Brown that it is likely that Pakistani troops have surrounded a "high value target" in the tribal "agency" of South Waziristan. Some enterprising Pakistani official leaked to the eager journalists that the person encircled could be Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number-two man of Al Qaeda. Within hours, an entire army of international and Pakistani media landed in the town nearest to the fighting, Wana, in the South Waziristan autonomous agency. After many days of confusing reports, the whole operation ended like a damp squib, with no "top terrorist" being apprehended or killed and the Pakistan Army cutting a deal with terrorists by giving them blanket amnesty. In return for this amnesty, Pakistan did not even require the terrorists to surrender their weapons or give up further attacks on Americans. In a speech to the jubilant tribal terror supporters, Gen. Safdar Hussain, the commander of the XI Corps of the Pakistan Army went as far as excoriating America for “unfairly” attacking Afghanistan after 9/11.

Throughout this operation, the various military spokesmen, including the head of the Pakistan army public relations agency, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, played the role of the Ringling Brothers to Gen. Musharraf's P. T. Barnum by issuing contradictory and comical statements about the status of the fighting. After the al-Zawahiri claim went bust, word leaked out about an Uzbek militia leader who later morphed into a Chechen guerilla. There was a claim of the presence of a mysterious Al Qaeda spy chief "Mr. Abdullah", which was akin to the NYPD looking for a "Tony" in Little Italy. The "Mr. Abdullah" later turned out to be a "local spy chief" of Al Qaeda, whatever that meant.   The Pakistanis also organized a “tribal force” to supposedly nab the terrorists. But all they ever did was to wear tribal costumes and stage a “war dance” for the cameras followed by a charge at the hills with red tags on their guns, to prevent them from shooting at each other.


Maj. Gen. Sultan also extolled the capture of many "foreign" fighters, who at first sight appeared to be elderly locals. In a report in the weekly The Friday Times, Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Gul said that after the Russian and Uzbekistan governments formally petitioned the Pakistani officials to give them access to their nationals allegedly captured, Pakistani authorities quietly backpedaled on the "foreign fighters" claim. It now turns out that the Pakistanis have released all but a handful of the captured fighters, after tacitly admitting that they were local Pashtuns, not foreigners. Unable to account for the remaining terrorists, Pakistani authorities, including the tribal area security head, Brigadier Mehmood Shah, claimed that the fighters used secret tunnels to escape the army dragnet. It later turned out that those "tunnels" were decades-old irrigation channels that had dried up due to lack of water. Gul, who later called the Pakistan Army’s “escape tunnels” claim the “lie of the century,” also quoted unnamed irrigation experts who have visited the area as saying that the irrigation channels have been well known amongst government officials for a long time.  


As a military operation, it is clear that this has been a disaster for the Pakistan Army. Nearly 10,000 well-armed Pakistani troops, supported by attack helicopters, could not even make a dent against a few hundred tribal terrorists. Some analysts interpret the tribal area operations as Musharraf's "Wag the Dog" move that went bad when the tribal fighters refused to follow the script. The Pakistani leader is usually good at arranging for spectacular arrests of "top" Al Qaeda figures timed to coincide with his visits to the US or the visits of American officials to Pakistan. This time around, this operation coincided with the visit of Secretary of State Colin Powell to Islamabad. Others see this as a possible attempt by the wily General to change the subject from the A. Q. Khan nuclear proliferation scandal. 


The other fact is that this whole operation is a red herring. The fighters threatening Afghanistan's stability are not Chechens or Uzbeks, but Pashtuns loyal to the Taliban and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and their Arab Al Qaeda allies. Western journalists have long known that the locus of these operations is not in the tribal areas but near the large Pakistani urban centers of Quetta and Peshawar. Intrepid British journalist Christina Lamb managed to interview top Taliban ministers including Maulana Abdullah Sahadi, the former deputy defense minister of the Taliban, in the Pakistani city of Quetta before she was kicked out of the country by Pakistan's spooks. Scott Baldauf of the Christian Science Monitor was not only able to speak with a Taliban commander, Maulvi Pardes Akhund, but was allowed to observe him recruit Pakistani fighters in Quetta for cross-border attacks on American troops in Afghanistan. Another one of Baldauf's reports mentioned that while he and a group of journalists were speaking with a Pakistani national legislator from Baluchistan province, which includes the city of Quetta, a local reporter's mobile phone rang. The caller happened to be a Taliban commander, and he asked the reporter to hand the phone to the Pakistani leader for a "quick chat.” Indeed, if Gen. Musharraf were serious about cracking down on the Taliban, his focus should have been Baluchistan, not the tribal areas.  


This fact is not totally lost on the US authorities. The commander of American troops in Afghanistan has publicly criticized the Pakistani amnesty charade. In a press conversation en route to the subcontinent, Secretary of State Colin Powell wondered if Pakistan could do "a better job of apprehending Taliban persons" identified by America. The US Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has also repeatedly talked about the need for Pakistan to eliminate Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuaries within its territory.  Time magazine recently quoted U.S. intelligence officials as saying that the U.S. possesses satellite photos that show Pakistani army trucks picking up Taliban troops fleeing back across the border after a failed attack. After the U.S. confronted Pakistani officials with the photographs, signs of visible Pakistani aid to the Taliban ended.   


Despite all this, the State Department and other Bush administration officials try to cover up for Gen.Musharraf by using bromides such as "The alternative is worse" or "Musharraf is doing his best.”  The sad fact is that the Pakistan's "strong cooperation" against terror is a mirage that looks good so long as one doesn't look for the specifics. But as another bromide goes, the devil is in the details. Former Reagan administration official and Afghanistan expert Dr. Elie Krakowski recently related his conversations with Pakistani officials on a radio talk show. He said that many of the Pakistanis he spoke to said that it was "very easy to con the United States" and that to satisfy the Americans all the Pakistanis had to do was make "a few arrests once in a while."  By that standard, Gen. Musharraf's actions would make even P. T. Barnum envious. We can all laugh at this, except that the joke is on us.

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