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Pakistan: Nursing Al Qaeda

Pakistan: Nursing Al Qaeda

Author: Hiranmay Karlekar
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: September 20, 2002

The arrests in Karachi of top Al Qaeda functionary, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, stated to be the mastermind of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, and of Ramzi Binalshibh, his principal aide and the prime suspect in the strikes case, are significant for their timing. So is the fact that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made it a point to issue a statement from New York congratulating the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for its "excellent work."

The arrests of the two and their 10 associates came when President Musharraf had received a rather cold reception in the United States for Pakistan's emergence as the new hub of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism after the Taliban regime's ouster in Afghanistan. The world now knows that the ISI, Islamic clergy and the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organisations like the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Harkat-ul Mujahideen (HuM), which the ISI has created for perpetrating cross-border terrorism against India, are sheltering leaders as well as rank-and-file terrorists of the Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The role of the Musharraf regime itself has come to be questioned by Western intelligence agencies and media. In an article entitled 'Analysis: Al Qaeda's Privileged Sanctuary' in the Washington Times of June 17, 2002, the distinguished American journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave wrote, "Is Pakistan taking Afghanistan's place as the new fulcrum of transnational terrorism? Intelligence sources in Washington, London, Paris and Rome agree that Al Qaeda's underground network in Pakistan is functioning with the complicity of the clergy and the intelligence agencies. President Pervez Musharraf's much publicised crackdown on Islamist extremists is a dismal failure, according to Western intelligence agencies. Pakistan's national police sources in Islamabad estimate that some 10,000 Afghan Taliban cadres and followers and about 5,000 Al Qaeda fighters are now hiding in Pakistan 'with the full support of the intelligence authorities, as well as religious and tribal groups', according to one source."

He further wrote, "The latest reports from Pakistan are ringing alarm bells throughout the Western intelligence community. Disinform-ation about US intentions is being circulated by 'midlevel' Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency operatives and some field grade army officers."

The arrests also almost coincided with President Musharraf receiving a stern warning from US President George W Bush to curb cross-border terrorism against India and not to unleash violence to scuttle the elections in Kashmir, which indicated how his stock had slipped in the US. These were also made when he had come in for sharp criticism for breaking all canons of propriety by unleashing a venomous diatribe against India in his address to the 57th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

The intensity of the criticism had subsequently forced him to explain away his intemperate rhetoric by pleading that he was an army man given to blunt talk and that his speech was the result of his desperation at India's lack of response to the "initiatives" he had taken to resolve the Kashmir issue.

The arrests enable President Musharraf to claim that, contrary to what is being said, he is fully with the US-led alliance against terrorism. If he has so far been unable to deliver to Washington's satisfaction, it has only been because of the massive odds against him in the shape of Islamic fundamentalism, sympathy for the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and hatred for the US that is widespread in Pakistan and deeply entrenched in the armed forces, the intelligence agencies and the civil administration. He, however, does his best and delivers whenever he can. Example? The arrests.

Understandably, the arrests have been projected as not being pre-planned. According to reports, the initial raid on the Karachi apartment from which these were made involved a small team of police and security agencies, and reinforcements were summoned only after it was attacked with a grenade. A three-hour battle, in which two terrorists were killed and a member of security agency personnel was injured, preceded the arrests.

There are two problems with this account. First, the Pakistani authorities, which have provided it, are by no means above lying. Second, these were reportedly made the night of September 9-10 and the morning of September 11. Why were these not announced till September 14? Were the arrests and the announcement both pre-planned to help President Musharraf?

The arrests should make the Americans wonder further as to what President Musharraf is really up to! A close look will show that he wants to keep alive whatever he can of the Al Qaeda, the Taliban and organisations like the JeM, LeT and HuM, and also keep the Ameri-cans happy. These organisations comprise trained, thoroughly indoctrinated and battle-hardened fundamentalist Islamic terrorists whom he wants to unleash on Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) as soon as US pressure for not doing so relaxes. And he can hardly be faulted for believing that it would happen sooner than later. Already, Washington's attention is shifting from the Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Afghanistan to Iraq.

He also wants to keep these organisations alive because his value to the US lies in his role in the war against terrorism. The latter has been a windfall for Pakistan, which was until then close to becoming regarded as a rogue state. It was ruled by a military dictator who had usurped power through a coup and was the main prop not only of the Al Qaeda, which had organised several terrorist attacks on the US including those on the latter's embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam on August 7, 1998, but also of the Taliban which ruled Afghanistan. Its economy was tottering and aid from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the US, the European countries and Japan had virtually stopped.

All this changed dramatically after September 11, 2001. President Musharraf, quick to see the advantages of supporting the US and the disastrous consequences of opposing it, condemned the attacks. Gradually, he ceased to be a despised dictator. President Bush told reporters in August, "My reaction about President Pervez Musharraf is that he is still tight with us in the war against terrorism, and this is our priority. However, we will work with our allies to promote democracy." He became a valued ally. Economic aid again began to be sanctioned and $ 600 million was granted to boost Pakistan's defence preparedness to support the war against terror in Afghanistan. The US is also paying to Pakistan another $ 300 million to meet the war's cost.

President Musharraf perhaps fears that America's attitude will change once the Al Qaeda and the Taliban are dealt with-as it did after the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan. Americans will then again pressure him to restore democracy. In his piece entitled "In the doghouse" in the anthology Contemporary Essays: On the Abyss (HarperCollins Publishers India), Tariq Ali quotes a retired Pakistani General as saying in 1998, "Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan. We've served our purpose and they think we can just be flushed down the toilet."

How can Pakistan keep the Al Qaeda alive without antagonising the US to the point where the latter strikes against it? By occasionally handing over to it key persons like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Ramzi Binalshibh. It will please the US and also minimise the chances of the Al Qaeda and the Taliban mounting such massive attacks on it as would make it turn on Pakistan.

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