March 29, 2020
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A Triangle Catches Fire

The US strikes may hurt Pakistan more than the Taliban

A Triangle Catches Fire

PAKISTAN'S Afghan policy has returned to haunt it yet again, as the strategic games it set rolling along with the US in 1979 play themselves out, this time in an inverted order. The Mujahideen, propped up by Pakistan, trained and armed by the CIA, fought off the Soviet invasion then. Today, their modern descendants are one with those who see the sole remaining superpower as their biggest ideological foe.

America, stung to the quick by the Nairobi and Dares Salaam embassy bombings on August 7, responded in its patented manner—flouting international norms to fire Tomahawk missiles on suspected terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Sudan. The prime target, Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden who operates out of Afghanistan, was reported to be "safe and sound" but scores of bodies were recovered from the site, near the eastern border with Pakistan. Within hours of the strikes, Taliban chief Mulla Mohammad Omar condemned the "brazen attack" and reiterated his stand that Bin Laden wouldn't be handed over to the US.

Pakistan, set squarely in the middle of the two sides, finds itself in a tricky situation. For Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, it can only add to his political woes. Especially because a missile landed in Pakistan's NWFP village Ghulam Khan, killing a large number of civilians. Sharif is not going to hear the end of this very easily. Earlier, immediately after the August 20 missile attack, foreign minister Sartaj Aziz had pleaded innocence: "We were not aware of anything and no facilities were provided by Pakistan. We are naturally against terrorism but this kind of intrusion appears to be unfortunate". The next day, in Parliament, he shifted to a more forceful tone, saying the strikes "are a violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an Islamic country" and constitute a "matter of grave concern for the people of Pakistan." His party colleague and Senator Akram Zaki, chairman of Parliament's foreign relations committee, said the US had violated the UN charter and international law by acting unilaterally.

Prompting them, perhaps, were the howls of protest in Pakistan. Former army chief Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg termed the strikes as an "unwise decision". Ex-ISI chief Lt Gen. Hamid Gul asked for Sharif's resignation. The Pakistan Awami Ittehad, an Opposition coalition including Benazir Bhutto's PPP, announced nationwide protests. Its spokesman said: "The Pakistan government is fully involved in the operation against Kabul and either its land or waters were used by the US for its operation". Jamaat-i-Islami chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed said: "The US has invited the enmity of the Muslim world and committed a mistake". Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, formerly called the Harkat-ul-Ansar, whose camp was hit in Afghanistan, has threatened to give a "tit for tat response to the Americans." But the father of the Pakistani nuclear programme, Dr A.Q. Khan, felt that little could be done about the highly accurate missiles. "Something electronically must have gone wrong, for it to go off target. If it comes through open space and we are able to detect it, we can use our Hamza missile to down it". Defence analyst Shireen Mazari differed. Mazari called for breaking diplomatic ties with the US "for trying to teach us a lesson. It is no excuse that we were hit by mistake. It is a signal that they can attack our nuclear installations anytime."

In retrospect, the US seems to have taken few chances with its nationals. Eyebrows had been raised by its dramatic recall of hundreds of its 6,000-strong diplomatic staff and dependents in Pakistan. The order, citing a "very serious threat to US facilities and citizens", came after officials in Karachi detained a suspect in the Africa bombings, where 12 Americans were among the 257 casualties. "We are reacting to a generalised threat. These are not Pakistan-specific. We are naturally sensitive in the wake of the bombings in Nairobi and Dares Salaam," explained US ambassador to Pakistan, Thomas W. Simons Jr.

But the US was furious with the way Pakistan handled the arrest in Karachi of Arab national Mohammed Sadiq Howaida, a suspect in the embassy bombings. He had arrived from Kenya on a false Yemeni passport and allegedly "confessed" to ISI officials that he had close links with Bin Laden, and that he had participated in the Africa bombings. The information was leaked to the local press before Howaida was handed back to Kenyan and US authorities. Soon after, there were reports that two other Arabs from the group had slipped into Pakistan from Kenya had also been arrested. Someone pushed the panic button in the US state department and the charter plane evacuation from Islamabad followed.

What else had Howaida told his interrogators? Reports indicate that the Arab national had leaked information about an imminent attack on Americans in Pakistan.

Before the strike, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had extended the bait of giving "recognition" to the Taliban if they handed over Bin Laden to them. It's an offer the US has been holding out to Taliban for a long time, in vain. This is an uneasy area of diplomacy—the US has earlier scotched talk that it had been covertly supporting the Taliban. Says a US official: "Last September we said it was good that one party or faction had gained control, hoping it would lead to stability in the region, and this sentiment got translated into support for the Taliban."

AS a defiant Taliban sent out messages that Bin Laden was their honoured guest and the US was welcome to try and take him away, the pressure on Pakistan increased. It has already been branded as a hotbed for terrorists—besides having spawned the Taliban from Peshawar and being actively involved with the continued fighting in Afghanistan. At home too, there has been continued criticism for allowing a continuous flow of smuggled arms. Arms that found their way into Afghanistan and now pose a security threat to Pakistan itself. Drugs and arms have been a direct fallout of Islamabad's Afghan policy. And the increase in armed groups all over the country are now a challenge to the writ of the State.

Twice in the past, Pakistan has broken its own laws by handing over Ramzi Yousuf and Aimal Kansi—wanted for the World Trade Centre blast and for killing CIA officials, respectively—to the US before a trial at home. But Bin Laden is a different matter. Living next door to the Taliban, Pakistan can't take the chance of allowing the US to operate from here. The danger would not only come from Afghanistan but also several fundamentalists in Pakistan who hero-worship the Saudi millionaire. Prior to the strike, an official at the foreign office said the US had not asked Pakistan for any kind of assistance, facilities or support for launching a clandestine campaign inside Afghanistan to capture Bin Laden. "Simply because Pakistan was instrumental in apprehending a suspect with alleged links with Osama, it does not follow that Islam-abad would also be supportive of any US attempt (to nab Osama), if any attempt was in the offing," he added.

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