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17 January 2006

Pakistan's very tricky balancing act

Damadola, target of the US military drone attack, is north of Peshawar and due east of Kabul, Afghanistan, just inside Pakistani territory. (Click twice for much larger detail.)

At the beginning of December, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took a Euro trip just as the Euro public was learning about secret American prisons for terrorism suspects on European soil, and a flurry of US flights to transport the terrorism suspects which used Euro airspace and air bases.

The degree to which European governments knew of, cooperated with and gave their permission for these activities was -- then and still -- unclear. The sovereign governments do not wish to reveal the extent of their cooperation to their voters, the US does not wish these matters discussed openly, but at the same time, the US does not wish itself portrayed as an outlaw pirate nation which operates overseas without the permission of its host governments.

(Last week, someone in the Swiss intelligence community apparently leaked documents about the secret prisons to the European press.)

Secretary Rice would not address or acknowledge the secret prisons directly, but she did subtly address the question of whether the US was running a rogue outlaw operation, or was acting with the permission of the European nations involved. She said

"The US has respected -- and will continue to respect -- the sovereignty of other countries."

Now this same issue -- the USA's anti-terrorism activities, and the ways our allies help us to pursue them -- rears its head again.

Having overthrown the Taliban in Afghanistan, the US and its military coalition allies are free to conduct military operations throughout Afghanistan; there may come a time when the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul expresses its wish that the Coalition cease to operate like an occupying military power, and transfer military and police operations to Afghani forces. But until then, Afghanistan is a free-fire zone for the Coalition, whose forces may conduct military operations when, where and how they like.

Afghanistan's neighbor to the east is Pakistan, and the border has historically always been porous; even in brief times of peace and stability in the region, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is a smugglers' and warlords' paradise, where neither Kabul nor Islamabad can exercise much control over these subnational cross-border military and economic activities.

One constant factor in the background is opium cultivation and trade. About 75 percent of the world's opium is grown in Afghanistan and exported and marketed through Pakistan, the profits generate a region heavily armed to protect the opium trade, and the opium lords (like similar subnational structures in Southeast Asia) strongly resist attempts by either government to assert their sovereign powers. Military victory against the deposed Taliban and al-Qaeda would, in effect, be military victory against the opium economy, and the region has depended on opium profits for centuries. There is no Plan B to replace opium with any lawful but comparably profitable economic activity.

At this instant, the communities straddling (and controlling) the porous border perceive their long-term interests lie more in offering sanctuary and assistance to the Taliban and al-Qaeda than in cooperating with the Western-led war against terror. In Afghanistan, historically the United States is just Attempted Foreign Conqueror Number Next -- like the Soviet Union and the British Empire before it. No foreign military has managed to conquer and control Afghanistan since Alexander the Great.

Beyond economic interests, the region's sympathies are simplified by religious considerations. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are Islamic fundamentalists, and the anti-terror Coalition is, essentially, a Western Christian force widely perceived as anti-Islam. The brutal Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is still very clear in recent memory, and the Taliban and al-Qaeda (with American weapons and assistance) became heroic freedom-fighters against the Soviets.

Last Friday, a pilotless American drone plane attacked the Pakistani town of Damadola with missiles, killing about thirteen Pakistani civilians, in an effort to assassinate Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second-in-command after Osama bin Ladin. (al-Zawahiri seems not to have been there, or seems to have escaped unharmed.) The attack may have been a serious political miscalculation, and may lead to a serious setback: The loss of the government of Pakistan as a strong American ally in the war on terror.

Secretary Rice's words from December echo: "The US has respected -- and will continue to respect -- the sovereignty of other countries."


Monday 16 January 2006

Musharraf's al-Qaeda
hunt crisis

By Zaffar Abbas
BBC correspondent, Islamabad

The American missile strike that killed many civilians in a Pakistani border village is the latest in a series of failed attempts by the US intelligence and military to eliminate al-Qaeda's top two men.

The attack destroyed three houses in Bajaur agency near the Afghan border -- with or without the knowledge of Islamabad.

It has strengthened the widely-held view in Pakistan that in their sheer desperation to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri the Americans have decided not to care about collateral damage.

It's a marked departure from the policy of a few years ago when the fear of civilian deaths discouraged the Americans from bombing suspected Bin Laden hideouts in and around the tribal region.

And the new policy certainly means more trouble for Pakistan's military ruler, Gen Pervez Musharraf, who is already perceived by many to be surviving mainly on American life-support.

Taleban sympathy

The first indication of trouble came when a couple of pro-government groups joined protest demonstrations to condemn the missile attack on the village of Damadola.

The missile attack raises new questions, both about US tactics and possible al-Qaeda related activity

Countrywide rallies were as vociferous in their condemnation of the American action as they were of the failure of the Pakistani authorities to prevent it.

And, as expected, the criticism of Pakistan's military ruler was not restricted just to the single issue of Friday's missile attack.

He was accused of everything under the sun. In some cases there were also demands for him to step down.

Much of the fuel for this latest wave of protests was provided by the lack of official details, the friction the incident caused between the American and Pakistani authorities and the mystery that surrounds the place and the people that came under attack.

Although the Bajaur tribal agency doesn't have much history of al-Qaeda-linked activities, it has long been regarded as an area where pro-Taleban elements dominate local politics.

Hundreds of local tribesmen joined a force to fight a so-called jihad (holy war) to defend Afghanistan's Islamic status after the US-led military invasion in 2001.

Damadola first attracted the media's attention early last year when the Pakistani security forces raided the house of a firebrand cleric, Maulana Faqir Mohammed, and arrested an Uzbek militant hiding there.

This was the first clear indication that some local tribesmen may have links with foreign militants, possibly with al-Qaeda.

'Serious mistake'

The missile attack raises new questions, both about US tactics and possible al-Qaeda related activity.

Locals are angry at the strike

In fact, since the attack there have been some strange and contradictory reports emanating from the village.

The destroyed houses belonged to local jewellers, who had no history of taking part in religious or tribal politics.

Analysts of Pakhtun (Pathan) society say such people are not land-owners and do not command the kind of status or respect to invite a militant leader of the stature of Ayman al-Zawahiri for dinner, as some reports have suggested.

Al-Qaeda watchers say there is a strong possibility that US intelligence made a serious mistake in trying to identify his hideout.

However, this still leaves unanswered questions about the al-Qaeda second-in-command's possible visits to this particular village, or Bajaur agency, in the past.

Empty graves

But the strangest developments surrounding the attack have been in the form of the death toll, which was locals revised downwards from 18 to 13.

President Musharraf can only hope that the next American military strike from across the border results in the death of a key al-Qaeda figure, and not civilians

Eyewitnesses have confirmed that villagers initially dug 18 (at least one account says 20) graves to bury the dead.

Later on, bodies of only 13 people (eight men and five women) were brought for burial, and the rest of the empty graves were filled with mud.

The explanation given by some local tribesmen is that first they thought that all 20 occupants of the three houses had died, and so as many graves were prepared.

But later they discovered that some were not in the house at the time of the attack.

Rumours are now going round that at least five of the dead were probably foreigners, and their bodies were taken away by a group of people, before the arrival of the media.

If that's true, then no one knows who these people were, and whether they belonged to Zawahiri's band of operatives or were security personnel.

Tide of opposition

The controversy about the Pakistani authorities being aware of the attack has also not gone away.

Protest in Islamabad

Protesters want to end Pakistan's co-operation with the US

Local Bajaur MP Maulana Haroonur Rasheed insists the Americans took Pakistani intelligence into their confidence before carrying out the missile attack.

But despite the controversy, and the street protests, most analysts are convinced that the crisis is not too big for President Musharraf to handle.

With nearly 70,000 Pakistani troops deployed to contain foreign militancy in the tribal region, his government's contribution to the so-called war on terror is too big for the Americans to ignore.

And the domestic opposition is not powerful or organised enough to launch an anti-Musharraf campaign on this single issue.

However, many believe the incident has brought to fore friction between Pakistani and US security agencies over the handling of al-Qaeda related operations in the highly sensitive tribal region.

Privately, US officials are believed to be trying to convince Pakistan that the utmost care will be taken in future to avoid civilian casualties.

But publicly they have not even admitted having carried out the attack, and are not expected to hand out any guarantees of better behaviour.

In such a situation, President Musharraf can only hope that the next American military strike from across the border results in the death of a key al-Qaeda figure, and not civilians.

Otherwise, the growing tide of domestic opposition might become quite difficult to control.

[BBC links:]

President Musharraf Looking two ways
Can Musharraf defeat extremists without western help?
Balochistan problems
Opposition bind
Asif Zardari profile
An undeclared war - Waziristan
Bin Laden's lair?

President Musharraf profile
Profile: PM Shaukat Aziz
Powerful military
Sunni-Shia schism
Militant Islamic groups
Views on Sharia

Black market bombs
The scientist who confessed

BBC Urdu Online

Pakistani government
US Department of Defense
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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