Pakistan coy as spring hunt for Osama heats up
ISLAMABAD: The snows are melting on the rugged passes of the Pak-Afghan frontier, foreign dignitaries are trooping through Islamabad and Pakistan is under pressure over the sale of nuclear secrets.
While nobody will openly admit the three scenarios are linked, rumours are swirling that pressure is building on President Pervez Musharraf to allow US troops on Pakistani soil to finish off the hunt for the world’s most elusive prey, Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden.
Visits in the past fortnight by the British and French foreign ministers, next week’s visit by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, and President Musharraf’s sudden visit to Riyadh at the weekend have triggered speculation that the pressure is on Musharraf to let foreign troops in. “I think it is part of the pre-emptive doctrine floated by George W Bush. Hunting Osama Bin Laden may be an excuse to intervene with or without permission, otherwise the doctrine is not consummated,” said former military intelligence chief retired general Hamid Gul. “I think that’s why President Musharraf rushed to Saudi Arabia to consult with the Saudis.”
Just this week US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz made the first public acknowledgement that Washington is expecting favours in return for its tolerance of President Musharraf’s pardon of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan.
“We feel it gives us more leverage,” he told the Far Eastern Economic Review news magazine. “The international community is prepared to accept his pardon of Dr AQ Khan for all he’s done, but it’s clearly a kind of IOU that, in return for that, there has to be a full accounting of everything that’s happened.” Since the spring thaw set in along the 2,500 kilometre border, US newspapers have reported that the Pentagon is redeploying crack commandoes from Iraq fresh from nailing fallen dictator Saddam Hussein to Pakistan to catch Bin Laden. His capture after two-and-a-half years eluding a manhunt by over 11,000 US and allied troops would be a massive boost to Bush’s re-election prospects in November. Task Force 121, an elite unit of US Navy Seals and Army Delta Force commandoes, is being transferred to the border region, according to the Review and New Yorker magazines.
“It’s a quid pro quo: we’re going to get our troops inside Pakistan in return for not forcing President Musharraf to deal with Dr Khan,” a former senior US intelligence official told the New Yorker magazine.
It also reported that US forces began logistical preparations in mid-February, flying in more than a dozen C-17 cargo flights to Pakistani airbases it has been using since late 2001, when they launched their campaign against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. US communications experts have been deployed to the main northwest border city Peshawar, while high-flying U2 surveillance aircraft and low-flying Predator drones watching the border 24 hours, the Review reported.
British SAS troops are also taking up positions in the border region, according to London’s Observer newspaper.
But many analysts in Pakistan believe President Musharraf does not need US pressure to intensify the hunt. It is a popular theory that the two assassination attempts against him in December have toughened his resolve to fight militants. “His life is at stake now that he’s been targeted,” said an Islamabad-based western expert. “He saw death twice so closely that perhaps he has decided to do something - he doesn’t need any special advice. Now whether stepping up the hunt means allowing US troops (in), that’s another story.” Pakistani officials insist they will never let foreign troops in.
“There is no way that any foreign armed forces can enter Pakistan,” Information Minister Sheikh Rashid said.
The Pakistanis are also coy on whether the hunt is being intensified, and on the level of their cooperation with US forces over the border. “There are no spring or summer offensives. The troops are ready to strike any moment whenever they get a credible intelligence,” military spokesman General Shaukat Sultan said. President Musharraf agrees with most of the world’s intelligence agencies that Bin Laden is hiding somewhere among the remote peaks and passes of the frontier region, supported by networks of sympathisers from conservative Pashtun tribes.
Last month the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Barno made clear that US forces were stepping up their hunt and outlined a joint “hammer and anvil” approach by US forces on the Afghan side and Pakistani forces across the border. “There’s unfinished business in this part of the world and we’re making every effort here during the coming months to close those efforts out,” Barno told reporters in a videoconference from Afghanistan. —AFP