A friendly strike

Print edition : February 10, 2006

The U.S. air attack on a Pakistani tribal village suspected to be harbouring Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders has landed President Pervez Musharraf in a difficult situation.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Islamabad

The scene of the January 14 air strike in Bajaur village near the Afghan border.-MOHAMMAD ZUBAIR/AP

ON January 14, within hours after United States spy planes targeted a village in the restive Waziristan tribal agency bordering Afghanistan resulting in the death of 18 people, the Pakistan Foreign Office summoned the U.S. Ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, and lodged a `protest'.

It appeared to be an out-of-the-ordinary protest, especially coming from a country listed as a frontline state in the war against terrorism. But a closer look at the wording of the press handout on the summoning of the envoy seems to suggest that it was no more than a `token protest'.

Strangely, there was no strong condemnation of the alleged violation of Pakistan's airspace and infringement of its sovereignty by the U.S. forces. It does condemn what has been termed as loss of civilian lives as a result of the `act' but is curiously silent on whether the U.S. had taken Pakistan into confidence about the strike or whether high-profile Al Qaeda operatives were present in the village that came under attack.

Is it a case of more than what meets the eye? The question assumes importance as it is supposedly the second such strike by U.S. forces inside Pakistani territory. The pre-dawn attacks in Bajaur agency were purportedly conducted at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on the basis of intelligence reports that the number two in the hierarchy of Al Qaeda, Al Zawahiri, was present in the village.

In contrast to the token protest by the Pakistan government, political parties including the pro-Musharraf ruling party at the centre, civil society and media in the country are livid over the incident.

And yet the U.S. appears unfazed. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice justified the attacks. She was quoted as telling reporters accompanying her en route to the Liberian capital of Monrovia that Washington could not deal "lightly" with Al Qaeda in Pakistan and was ready to address Islamabad's concerns. Rice said: "Pakistani forces are operating there and trying to take control and we are trying to help but I don't have anything on the specific situation (of the air strike). We will continue to work with the Pakistanis and we will try to address their concerns," she is quoted as having said.

She declined to comment on whether the attack was aimed at Zawahiri or whether he was killed in the air strike. "I think that I would just say to both the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people that we are allies in the war on terror and we have made a lot of progress by our cooperation in the war on terror," she said.

Condoleezza Rice reportedly said that the biggest threat to Pakistan was posed by Al Qaeda's attempts to "radicalise" the country and that extremist elements were occupying many parts of the nation. She pointed out that the Pakistan President had faced two assassination attempts.

The comments by Rice should be a matter of embarrassment to President Pervez Musharraf, who has been claiming for months now that the menace posed by Al Qaeda from the soil of Pakistan has been tackled. Within Pakistan, the Opposition parties have been questioning him for the full-blooded support to the U.S. in the war against terrorism.

"The protest against the U.S. air strike in Bajaur will continue," said Shahid Shamsi, spokesman for the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an alliance of six religious parties.

"We will continue to protest until all American troops are sent back from Pakistan, until Parliament is made sovereign and until an independent Election Commission is constituted," Shamsi said.

The English-language newspaper Daily Times, in an editorial headlined `Pantomime about al-Zawahiri', asked: "If the `intelligence' was faulty, whose intelligence was it?

"What the Musharraf government faces is the death of 18 [people], mostly women and children. It also faces the fallout of the intelligence botch-up - not the first when it comes to the Pakistani and American snoops."

Another leading newspaper, The News, reminded readers that eight civilians on the Afghan border were killed in another apparent U.S. missile attack earlier in January. It said in an editorial that if U.S. forces had information about Zawahiri they could have entrusted Pakistani forces with the task.

"Regardless of the Americans' willingness to share intelligence with us, it isn't part of the deal that they violate Pakistan's territory, and kill Pakistani citizens to boot," it said.

The attack has triggered angry responses from the tribal people in the belt and there were reports of street demonstrations under the aegis of the Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious organisations. The protesters targeted offices of a couple of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) run with U.S. aid.

Irrespective of the public posturing by Islamabad, the latest incident brings to fore the distrust between Islamabad and Washington. Since 9/11, Pakistan is supposed to be the most-trusted ally of Washington in its war in Afghanistan. But after more than four years the U.S. does not trust Pakistan in guarding its own territory.

The tribal belt has been the theatre of a guerilla war between the suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, who are sheltered there by their patrons, and the Pakistani forces, since early 2003. For the first time in its history Pakistan has deployed over 75,000 soldiers in the area to flush out Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who fled Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.

Pakistan has been under pressure from the U.S. and the government in Kabul to step up its operations in the belt. Hit-and-run operations inside Afghanistan by militants from the tribal areas have been a cause of frequent diplomatic row between Islamabad and Kabul.

Bajaur is the agency where suspected Taliban rebels shot down a Chinook helicopter killing 16 U.S. servicemen in June 2005. Zaman, whose house was destroyed in the latest incident, belonged to a group called Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi, which was outlawed by Musharraf in January 2002, after it sent thousands of volunteers to support the Taliban.

There have been enough signals to suggest that the tribal belt continues to be a safe haven for Al Qaeda and the Taliban. There are several reasons for the situation, the most important one being the use of jehad as an instrument of foreign policy by Islamabad.

After 1979, when troops of the erstwhile Soviet Union entered Afghanistan, Pakistan actively encouraged disparate elements in the name of defending Islam and armed them to the teeth with liberal help from the West. Now, faced with pressure from the same Western governments, Pakistan is trying desperately to check these elements.

The policies of the past 25 years have also led to the radicalisation of various echelons of the government and intelligence agencies. So the turnaround in policy initiated at the highest level has not trickled down to all levels. As a result, Pakistan is frequently faced with charge of being soft on the militants.

Pakistani media frequently carry reports about free movement of high-profile Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the tribal belt. A day after the U.S. attack, the English newspaper Dawn, reported that Zawahiri had been invited to Bajaur but was not present there when the planes hit three houses. "There is no indication that he (Zawahiri) was there. Probably there was an intelligence botch-up," the paper quoted an unidentified senior official as saying.

Besides Zawahiri, it said, two local clerics, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad and Maulvi Liaqat, both wanted for harbouring foreign militants, had also been invited to the feast. The clerics left the village at around 12-30 a.m. and the air strike came at around 3-15a.m. The paper, quoting a source, said the intelligence reports indicated that the Egyptian surgeon (Zawahiri) had been visiting Bajaur for about a year and security agencies had been keeping an eye on his movement over the past few months.

Another purpose of Zawahiri's visit to the village was to meet his family, the report added . "Bin Laden's deputy is married to a woman from the Mohmand tribe who, with her children, lives with her father in the border area between Bajaur and Mohmand tribal regions," the paper quoted a source as saying.

But it had been quite some time since Zawahiri visited his family or met his in-laws, the source added. Zawahiri carries a $25 million bounty on his head.

The paper said foreign militants had frequented Bajaur. Even Abu Faraj al-Libbi, said to have been the number three man in the Al Qaeda hierarchy, told interrogators that he had lived in Bajaur. An Uzbek militant was arrested from Faqir Mohammad's house in April 2005 with a laptop computer and improvised explosive devices.

The truth about the latest attack might never be known as it is essentially a matter between the Pakistani establishment and the Bush administration. The death of 18 persons would go into the all-to-familiar category of `collateral damage'. However, the image the U.S. has been assiduously trying to cultivate, that of a `caring and sensitive' superpower that takes care of the interests of its allies, has suffered a blow in Pakistan, at least in the short term. An editorial in The News said: "The earthquake won America something it needed the most in our part of the world - an opportunity to improve its image in the eyes of suspicious Pakistanis. Wary of a war on terrorism and the strident American policies in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, we love to loathe the only surviving superpower under the sun. But come earthquake and there were some hopes that the Americans might pull something out of their hat to make amends. These expectations were dashed in the ruins of a house in Bajaur agency on Friday because of something of America's own making and doing. Since Friday, the interlude around the earthquake has evaporated ever so visibly as if it had never existed in the first place."

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