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Volume 1, No. 12 - May 2002

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The Al Qaida in Pakistan: Clandestine Guests or Strategic Trading Cards? Printer-Friendly Page


The Al Qaida in Pakistan: Clandestine Guests or Strategic Trading Cards?
Subodh Atal, Ph. D.

The Bush administration doesn’t hesitate to proclaim to whoever will listen that Pakistan is a “front-line ally” in its now stuttering global war against terror. It points to Gen. Musharraf’s cooperation in the Afghanistan war, and to his steps against Pakistani extremists. Recent events, in which Al Qaida members have been captured both on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and in cities such as Faisalabad and Lahore, appear to support this claim. Among those snared in recent raids in Faisalabad was Abu Zubaidah, one of the top operational commanders for Bin Laden.

On the other hand, evidence exists that tens of thousands of Al Qaida members and the Taliban continue to operate with impunity in Pakistan. Many have moved into Pakistan-occupied territories of Kashmir, and have been absorbed into the terrorist groups infiltrating into India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. Others continue to operate and regroup in the tribal areas adjoining Afghanistan, where they have considerable local support. While much was made of the arrest of 2000 extremists by Pakistan in January, over 70% of them have been released to date (NY Times, April 28, 2002).

The drawn out drama of the Daniel Pearl kidnapping-murder, its handling both by the Pakistani military leadership and the ISI, and the near-farce now being projected as a court trial for Sheikh Omar, also question the validity of American trust in the Pakistani establishment.

Then what is the truth? We know the realities of the close relationship between Pakistani agencies and the ISI before September 11. The ISI collaborated closely with the Al Qaida in a synergistic relationship; with the ISI and the Pakistani military facilitating Al Qaida activities and providing aid to Al Qaida hosts, the Taliban. In return, the Al Qaida provided Pakistan with warriors for the Kashmir insurgency. But what are the exact dimensions of the relationship now? Does the ISI now answer to the US, with American presence increasing inside Pakistan? Or do the Pakistani military and the ISI covertly continue support to Al Qaida?

The answer is all of the above, with many complex layers woven in. The Pakistan government is indeed cooperating with the US in bottling up the Al Qaida to ward off new attacks against American interests. However, much is expected from the US in return, and the cooperation is minimal and happens inconsistently. Every act of cooperation appears to be accompanied by American quid pro quo. In October-November 2001, Pakistan extracted billions in US and IMF aid in return for providing air bases to the US. With the Afghanistan phase now mostly over, Pakistan has moved onto another enterprise: to milk the US thirst for eradicating the Al Qaida. It continues to act as host for the Al Qaida, but has now begun to leverage them as strategic trading cards.

When did this transformation happen? How did the Pakistani military government decide to start playing a double game with its Al Qaida comrades? Between December 2001 and February of this year, Pakistan, and Musharraf himself were in an increasingly precarious position. India was threatening to respond militarily after the December 13 Parliament attack in New Delhi. The Daniel Pearl murder and the Islamabad church attack had put Musharraf in particularly poor light internationally, with the US tightening the squeeze. His dictatorship was again in the spotlight, and demands for return to democracy by the British-led Commonwealth were rising.

The arrested Sheikh Omar was another embarrassment. His extradition was being demanded by the US, and he was likely to spill the beans about the ISI- Al Qaida relationship. The Pakistan leadership appears to have made a strategic decision, perhaps during February, around the time of Musharraf’s visit to the US. It would offer enhanced cooperation to the US. In return, the US would be expected to provide support for strengthening Musharraf’s position. The Americans would have been unlikely to give concessions in return for peanuts, and high on their most wanted list was Abu Zubaidah, Bin Laden’s operations chief and the person most likely in charge of planning further attacks on Americans.

On March 28th, for the first time, Pakistan allowed American special operations personnel to act within the country. Abu Zubaidah was taken by surprise, with US forces overseeing the capture, and was soon on his way to the US. Barely a week later, Musharraf cashed the Zubaidah check. He announced on April 5th a referendum to continue in power for another five years. With this move, he delayed the possibility of return to democracy by years. With the conduct of the referendum in his military’s hands, and politicians and news media forced to fall in line, the outcome was already known.

The events surrounding Abu Zubaidah’s arrest themselves provide clues to the behind-the-scenes horse-trading that is going on. Zubaidah had been on the US radar screen once Abdul Ressam, the would-be LA airport bomber had spilled the beans on him to the FBI. After Mohammed Atef’s death last November, Zubaidah, based in Pakistan, was known to have taken his place as the operations chief of Al Qaida. In February this year, the New York Times had published extensive accounts about this Palestinian terrorist recruiter and logistics chief operating out of Pakistan. Undoubtedly, the omnipresent and resourceful Pakistani agencies, which helped snare Sheikh Omar a couple of months ago, would have known Zubaidah’s whereabouts.

The fact that Pakistani officials allowed the US-led operation against Zubaidah to proceed, without tipping him off suggests that Musharraf, who had a bigger gameplan in mind, held them back. There were many reports that Bin Laden himself was in Faisalabad, and left just before the raid. These reports raise an interesting possibility. Did the ISI then help whisk away Bin Laden just before the raid, and allow only Zubaidah and his associates to be trapped? Some analysts have conjectured that Bin Laden would stay close to his operations chief, and indeed that is where he might have been until the crucial hours before Zubaidah was captured.

While the Commonwealth and India raised voices of protest against the referendum announcement, the US simply responded that the validity of the referendum was up to Pakistan’s courts and people, knowing fully well that neither had any choice. It was a stark and complete reversal from Christina Rocca’s statement in July last year in which she said the US wanted to work with Pakistan for “return of democratic institutions”. In return for this selective betrayal of its Al Qaida guests, the Pakistani military leadership is gaining confidence with tacit support from the US. This newfound confidence was on display last week, when Musharraf boasted that India was now “scared” of him.

It is likely that this strategic Musharraf-US relationship will continue given the advantages to both sides. There are many more assets in Pakistan that are worth trading with the US. These include senior Al Qaida leaders, and a long list of Taliban who’s who among them. Those assets will be safe in Pakistan as long as Musharraf doesn’t need the next level of support from the US. In return for US silence on the referendum, Pakistan also appears to have allowed military operations near the Afghanistan border. One such recent raid was on a madrassa founded by Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani. The multiple levels of betrayal and double-crossing are lucidly evident from the fact that the madrassa was completely empty when the American-led raid party swarmed in.

At the same time, it is unlikely that Musharraf will offer assets that are directly involved in the Kashmir insurgency. Thus Hafeez Mohammed Sayeed, ex-head of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar, and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen chief Fazlur Rehman are safe. So are the Al Qaida and Taliban who have moved to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) and are now getting ready to increase the temperature during the Kashmir summer.

One person though, spans this wide range of complexities that define the multi-dimensional Pakistan-Al Qaida relationship. He is the so-called British Jackal, Sheikh Omar. He was termed as a double agent upon his surrender during the Daniel Pearl episode, with Pakistan implying that he worked for the Indian intelligence. He is indeed a double agent, but the truth is that apart from the ISI, he is also answerable directly to the Al Qaida (UK’s Sunday Times, April 22). Due to his unique set of affiliations, he is one person who can neatly tie the ISI with September 11, and with the attacks on the Srinagar assembly and New Delhi Parliament buildings. Thus while Pakistan may have been pressured into rounding him up, it is not going to put him on a plane to Guantanamo Bay. In fact Musharraf has reportedly told US ambassador Wendy Chamberlin that he would rather hang Omar before he can be extradited.

It may be easy to second-guess the Bush administration, which has apparently allowed Musharraf to set up such a novel bartering system. However, the US has bigger headaches than the Al Qaida right now, and may have decided to fall in with these step-by-step concessions from Pakistan. This allows the Bush cabinet more freedom to plot the demise of its old nemesis, Saddam. Preventing the Afghanistan front from widening any further would also be an important goal due to the potential of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict transforming into a wider Mid-East war.

Where does this leave India? Despite half a million soldiers mobilized and many of them now baking in the desert summer of Rajasthan and Gujarat, it has no leverage left to defuse the impending violence export from POK in the coming months. Musharraf, with his deft business strategies, has emerged a lot stronger than he was even before September 11. American operations in Pakistan are likely to be restricted to areas near Afghanistan, from where Al Qaida members are a direct threat to US personnel, leaving the ISI free to reorganize its Kashmir assets in POK. Reports of thousands of terrorists waiting to cross from POK have been borne out by increased killings of infiltrators just inside the Indian side of the LOC, including 22 in the last two days.

India is thus back to square one, with the potential that the upcoming fall J&K elections could become irrelevant if Pakistan succeeds in its strategies of increasing violence levels. India is now in a position where, if it makes a strategic retreat, it will only embolden the ISI and its proxies. On the other hand, if it attacks Pakistan, Musharraf will term it ingratitude towards the “bold” steps he has taken against terrorism, gaining international support, and might just offer one of his expensive trading cards, perhaps a Bin Laden or a Mullah Omar, in return for US support in a conflict with India.

However, one cannot overlook another aspect of these equations: will Musharraf finally get stuck in the many intricate webs he is building? The Al Qaida members, while on the run and still beholden to their Pakistani hosts, have tasted betrayal. Instead of focusing on the US, they may turn against their double-crossing hosts, and join with the many sections of the ISI and the Pakistani military that still straddle the pre- and post-September 11 divide. After the events of March 28th, Musharraf may need to spend more energy watching his back.

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