Subcontracting the hunt for bin Laden

The twisted relationship between the Bush administration and Pakistan's military regime, driven by a mutual desire for survival, is undermining the war on terror.

Topics: Pakistan, Taliban,

The day after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced a new orange alert, the New York Times reported that the information leading to the alert came from the arrest in Lahore, Pakistan, three weeks earlier of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, a computer wizard linked to al-Qaida. It was later revealed that since his arrest Khan had been working as a double agent for the Pakistanis and the Americans, passing on al-Qaida leaders’ messages to its operatives and helping uncover members of the global terrorist network. Khan’s identification in the New York Times ended his usefulness in ferreting out terrorists — a tragic loss in the war on terror.

Reporters initially fingered American officials for leaking Khan’s name. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice all but acknowledged the administration’s mistake in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. The matter was then written off as another blunder caused by the fog of war.

But in fact, U.S. officials did not leak Khan’s name. The first leak of Khan’s name, according to well-informed, reliable sources in the region who spoke on condition of anonymity, came from Pakistani officials in Islamabad — who perhaps were motivated by eagerness to show off their success in arresting al-Qaida figures or, more ominously, by a desire to sabotage the penetration of al-Qaida that Khan’s arrest had made possible. A second Pakistani leak to Reuters, blaming the Americans as the source of the leak, served to absolve the Pakistanis of any responsibility in breaking up new al-Qaida cells — an important move domestically.

The Bush administration was hardly in a position to haul Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s regime over the coals for this disaster. The United States and Pakistan have a twisted relationship in the hunt for al-Qaida. Although it is ostensibly driven by the mutual desire for security, there is clearly a political element to the relationship related to the survival of both the Bush and the Musharraf governments.



Few people likely paid attention last week when former President Clinton accused the Bush administration of contracting out U.S. security and the hunt for Osama bin Laden to Pakistan in its zeal to wage war in Iraq. In an interview with Canadian television, Clinton asked, “Why did we put our No. 1 security threat in the hands of the Pakistanis, with us playing the supporting role, and put all our military resources into Iraq — which was I think at best our No. 5 security threat?” Clinton also observed, “We will never know if we could have gotten him [bin Laden] because we didn’t make it a priority.”

One consequence of the decision to subcontract the hunt for members of al-Qaida to Pakistan is that the terrorists appear to be regrouping. The Washington Post, quoting senior U.S. and Pakistani officials, reported “new evidence” on Aug. 14 that suggests “that Al-Qaeda is battered but not beaten, and that a motley collection of old hands and recent recruits has formed a nucleus in Pakistan that is pushing forward with plans for attacks in the United States.”

Despite Pakistan’s past role in propping up the repressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Bush administration — in one of its least transparent foreign alliances — continues to rely on Pakistani military and intelligence services to deliver bin Laden. Since much of the give-and-take in this relationship is covert, it is unclear exactly what is or is not taking place.

The Bush administration has defended Musharraf against charges by political and media critics that Pakistan is not doing enough in the global war against terrorism. It has consistently and conveniently ignored Pakistan’s lack of democracy under Musharraf, at a time when the administration claims to be promoting democracy in other parts of the Islamic world. Pakistan even managed to get a free pass on its role in transferring nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea. The White House undoubtedly is not keen to criticize this important subcontractor in the expectation that it will deliver politically where it counts — in the war against al-Qaida.

Musharraf’s military regime, too, seems eager, as the U.S. election season heats up, to claim credit for its “cooperation” in the U.S.-led war against terrorism. Usually reticent Pakistani officials, especially Interior Minister Faisal Hayat, have been unusually forthcoming about recent successes in arresting al-Qaida-linked terrorist suspects, including some Pakistani nationals. Hayat was even willing to hold a late-night press briefing, just hours before Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was to formally accept his party’s nomination at the Democratic Convention in Boston, to announce the arrest of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the man wanted for the 1998 terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The Musharraf regime’s current acknowledgment of al-Qaida’s presence in Pakistan is quite contrary to its earlier approach, which was to deny any links between Pakistani Islamist militants and the global terrorist network. In a July 7, 2002, article in London’s Financial Times, I wrote: “During the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance, militants from all over the Muslim world passed through Pakistan to participate in the Afghan Jihad. They were, at the time, supported by the intelligence services of the west as well as Islamic nations. Some of them created covert networks within Pakistan, taking advantage of poor law enforcement and the state’s sympathetic attitude towards pan-Islamic militancy. Now that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have been uprooted from Afghanistan, they are using their former transit station as a temporary staging ground for terrorist operations.”

Pakistani officials at the time denied my assertions in absolute terms. After handing over around 500 Taliban immediately after the end of the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan managed to turn over a slow trickle of al-Qaida operatives to the United States once every few months. Yet most of these early detainees, held at the U.S. prison at Guantánamo, were foot soldiers with little knowledge of al-Qaida’s wider network or its methods.

Pakistan is the only U.S. ally that does not allow the U.S. Central Command to post details of joint operations as well as costs paid to Pakistan on Centcom’s Web site. Yet Pakistan’s ability to produce al-Qaida figures at politically opportune moments has been widely noted in the U.S. media, so it is natural for skeptics to wonder whether there is a political angle to the more recent admission of local al-Qaida links and the spate of arrests of suspected terrorists in Pakistan.

Whether or not the Bush administration is using its ties with Pakistani intelligence for political purposes, the timing of Pakistan’s stepped-up anti-terrorist effort, and the high-level publicity given to it, have led to similar questions about Musharraf’s intentions in domestic politics. The general had promised to take off his military uniform by the end of the year, and Bush administration officials were hoping to use that as a fig leaf for touting the regime as having completed its “transition” to civilian, democratic rule. If Musharraf instead decides not to relinquish his role as chief of the army, he needs to demonstrate his indispensability in the war against terrorism with renewed vigor. That way he might be able to avert the criticism that would be certain to come his way for breaking his promise to give up his uniform.

The relative transparency of the U.S. political system should make it difficult for U.S. officials to be blatant about linking political agendas to a national security issue such as the war against terrorism. In an article titled “July Surprise?” in the New Republic, published several weeks before the Democratic Convention, John B. Judis, Spencer Ackerman and Massoud Ansari wrote of pressure on Pakistan by the Bush administration to produce a “high-value target” around the time of the convention to steal Kerry’s thunder. The suggestion was rejected by some as a conspiracy theory at the time, but when Pakistan announced the arrest of Ghailani, a Tanzanian, in Gujarat, Pakistan, hours before Kerry’s acceptance speech, eyebrows were raised even among those Americans who normally dismiss such conspiracy theories.

For the Bush administration to have risked playing politics with the timing of arrest of terror suspects is a disturbing enough possibility. More disturbing is the prospect that the initiative to gain political advantage from these arrests came not from the Bush administration but from the Musharraf regime. By subcontracting the hunt for bin Laden to an authoritarian ally who has a special interest in the flow of economic and military benefits resulting from this contract, the administration may be giving that ally a powerful say in America’s political agenda whose effect is to undermine the war against al-Qaida.

Musharraf’s enlistment in the war on terrorism is an extension of Pakistan’s long-established willingness to be useful to the United States for the “right price.” Pakistan’s first military ruler, Gen. (later Field Marshal) Ayub Khan (who ruled from 1958 to 1969), told U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Henry Byroade as early as 1953, “Our army can be your army if you want us.” Ever since, Pakistan’s military leadership has seen its alliance with America as its meal ticket.

Pakistan now receives $700 million annually in bilateral economic and military assistance, $84 million monthly to defer costs incurred in its anti-terrorist efforts and $1.7 billion in funds from international financial institutions, where U.S. support is crucial. Pakistan has also benefited from debt rescheduling and streamlining of remittances from overseas Pakistani workers. This significant cash inflow has enabled the government to balance its books, create an impression of economic growth and get back in the market for new weapons for the military. As in the past, the economic component of the U.S. aid package is aimed more at ensuring regime survival than at sustained economic growth or real democratic reform.

To understand the priorities of the Musharraf regime (and the Bush administration), one need only consider that while the United States has agreed to provide $30 million for madrasa (Islamic seminary) reform and $4 million for “training of parliamentarians,” Pakistan’s military is to get $350 million of the bilateral aid package of $700 million. Pakistani madrasas — which educate over 1 million students from ages 6 to 22 — are believed to be a source of Islamic jihadists because of their fundamentalist curriculum, and weaning the seminaries from religious radicalism is a major U.S. policy priority. However, the regular payments to Pakistan for costs incurred in fighting terrorism on America’s behalf (which add up to almost $1 billion per year) go almost exclusively into the budget for Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.

As long as the U.S.-Pakistan relationship remains a single-issue alliance based on the quid pro quo of changes in Pakistani policy for U.S. money, the regime in Islamabad will continue to be tempted to take its time in finding all the terrorists at large in Pakistan. After all, most subcontractors who are paid by the hour take longer to get the job done. And while this may seem like a risky scheme for Musharraf, it conforms to the past pattern of Pakistani military regimes collecting rent from the United States for providing strategic services.

Husain Haqqani is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He previously served as an advisor to former Pakistani Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and as Pakistan's ambassador to Sri Lanka.

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