PAKISTAN: Playing with America
Kaushik Kapisthalam «View Bio

Pakistan has basked in the anti-terror limelight of late, following a spate of anti-terror ‘successes’ announced by Pakistani authorities.

However, some American and Western analysts believe this is all too convenient. One American expert, a veteran with decades of military and intelligence service in South Asia, said, under condition of anonymity, that Pakistan’s actions so far have been superficial at best.

Another long-term Western expert on Pakistan, also speaking without attribution, said the recent ‘crackdown,’ including the arrest of an alleged Al Qaeda ‘computer expert,’ Muhammad Noor Naeem Khan, reeks of stage management by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s premier spy agency.

This expert, who has written extensively about Islamist groups in Pakistan, points out that Khan was being watched by US intelligence agencies, and it is therefore quite possible that the ISI nabbed him before he could lead anyone to senior Al Qaeda functionaries. Evidence indicates that the ISI knew who Khan’s Al Qaeda ‘handler’ was and wanted to keep the “big fish” safe for a rainy day.

Other observers note that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has shown a penchant for figuring out the various stereotypes that Americans have on the war on terror and playing them up to his advantage. Musharraf thus turns media attention away from areas that may cast aspersions on his commitment to the war on terror, experts say.

For instance, after the failed American siege of Afghanistan’s mountainous Tora Bora cave complex, the idea that Osama Bin Laden and other top Al Qaeda figures are now hiding in caves in the lawless ‘tribal areas’ near the Afghan-Pakistan border has captured the American imagination.

Pakistani officials pursue this line for two reasons: first, to portray the Pakistani hunt for Al Qaeda as a near-impossible struggle against armed, fiercely independent tribal warriors in a treacherous terrain, and second, to shift attention away from what is going on in Pakistani cities. There is little hard evidence that there are any Al Qaeda leaders in the tribal zone.

Another claim – that the Pakistan government is unaware of what goes on in the tribal agencies – is barely credible. The Pakistani army has a big base near the tribal town of Wana, which was the scene of the biggest clash with militants in March. The Lahore-based Friday Times magazine quoted a tribal chieftain, Malik Zalim Khan, asking, “Why did the authorities not nab the so-called most-wanted men... when they were roaming around in the Wana bazaar freely?”

Pakistani journalist Iqbal Khattak, also writing for the Friday Times, quoted a tribal leader angry at the sudden government crackdown, wondering why the Pakistani army was now “hunting” Taliban leader Nek Muhammad, who until recently “often visited the Wana military base... and dined with top military commanders.”

Another Pakistani journalist, Imtiaz Gul, reported that until recently, most of these fighters were operating openly from well-populated tribal towns with the full knowledge and acquiescence of the central government.

It is also evident that Pakistani officials, led by Musharraf, have become accustomed to using well-timed Al Qaeda arrests to divert public attention – both internally and externally. A tribal offensive in March, at a time when the whole world was focusing on the Pakistan government’s role in the A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation scandal, was announced on the day US Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Islamabad.

Christopher Dickey of Newsweek magazine is one of many American journalists and analysts wondering about Pakistan’s curious ability to produce Al Qaeda arrests coinciding with Musharraf’s US visits or other significant events.

Dickey noted that it is entirely plausible that Musharraf is playing America’s terror anxiety to his advantage, adding that it is hard to believe that Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a black African, was able to hide for six years in Pakistani cities without anyone noticing him.

The coming weeks could display further evidence of Musharraf milking the war on terror. Reports from United Press International and the Asia Times hint that Pakistani officials already have in their custody some “top” Al Qaeda figures, only to announce their “capture” in mid- to late-September, timed to coincide with Musharraf’s visit to the US. This seems plausible because Musharraf is likely to face a skeptical US media during his trip and nothing would serve to change the topic better than a high-profile Al Qaeda arrest.

All this should not trivialize the heroic work done inside Pakistan by American law enforcement and intelligence officials and many sincere Pakistani officials.

But the people higher up within the US administration have certainly dropped the ball by letting Musharraf and his minions turn the war on terror into a circus.

By buying into and sometimes bolstering ridiculous and patently false claims by Pakistani officials and not questioning the dubious goings-on at a higher level in Pakistan, these officials have let Musharraf take control of the anti-terror campaign.

Unless the Americans take charge, the war on terror in Pakistan could soon turn into a total farce.

Kaushik Kapisthalam is a freelance commentator on US policy on South Asia