The implications for Pakistan
Najmuddin A Shaikh
The speculation had been that if Bin Laden was alive he was still in Afghanistan or more likely in the Pakistani tribal areas bordering Eastern Afghanistan since this was the area where Al Qaeda sympathisers abounded
The broadcast by the Al Jazeera TV network from Qatar on November 12 of an audio tape reportedly recorded by Osama Bin Laden and its subsequent authentication by audio experts attracted a great deal more attention abroad than it did in Pakistan. The Pakistani media, to the virtual exclusion of everything else, focused on the domestic political manoeuvring that followed the October12 elections and its denouement. The evidence this tape provided of Osama being alive and fit enough to record a message and the inspiration and encouragement that this would provide to the surviving Al Qaeda adherents was perhaps perceived as being of consequence primarily to the states Osama threatened with retribution in the message. This perception, while understandable, reflects a complete misreading of the impact this development had on Pakistan’s allies in the campaign against terrorism and consequently on Pakistan’s current leadership. It would not be, in my view, an exaggeration to say that the eventual outcome of the five weeks long political shenanigans was heavily influenced by this tape.
In analysing this development it would be fair to say that in expert circles it had been presumed that Osama was alive, even before this tape and its authentication provided concrete evidence. On November 8, only a few days before the telecast of the tape, the French Newspaper Le Figaro carried an interview with the Interpol’s director general, Ronald Noble in which he said: “Osama Bin Laden is alive, and on the ground the hunt for him goes on as it did on the very first day”. He went on to add that “Intelligence experts all agree that right now Al Qaeda is preparing a high-profile terrorist operation, with attacks targeting not just the US but several countries at the same time.”
Since September Al Jazeera had broadcast at least three messages purporting to be from Osama which referred to such recent events as the attack on American soldiers in Kuwait and the attack on the French oil tanker off the Yemeni coast. The tape may have proved embarrassing for regional leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for some counter-terrorism experts in the West, who had expressed the view that Osama had probably died in the attacks mounted on his supposed hideouts in the Afghan mountains or of kidney failure, but in terms of the assumptions on which the campaign against terrorism was being conducted the tape made little difference.
Similarly the disclosure that the tape was handed over to the Al Jazeera correspondent in Islamabad and the subsequent speculation that Bin Laden was hiding somewhere in Pakistan was not new. An identified government spokesman was quoted by the New York Times as saying that the handing over of the tape in Pakistan did not mean that Bin Laden was in Pakistan and that the tape could have originated anywhere. An unidentified intelligence official was also quoted as acknowledging that Pakistan intelligence was investigating reports that Karachi was being used by the Al Qaeda to prepare and disseminate propaganda material and that local extremist groups were helping them in this task.
As regards Bin Laden’s whereabouts, experts had noted that he was a distinctive figure, carried a heavy price on his head, and could not hope to travel incognito from Afghanistan, where he was last sighted, to reach the remoteness of the Yemeni deserts — the only place apart from Afghanistan and its immediate environs — where he could find safe asylum. The speculation had, therefore, been that if Bin Laden was alive he was still in Afghanistan or more likely in the Pakistani tribal areas bordering Eastern Afghanistan since this was the area where Al Qaeda sympathisers abounded. Afghan intelligence experts maintained, for understandable reasons, that both Osama and Mullah Omar had found shelter not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan. Since the broadcast of the tape, Mr. Rasoul, Karzai’s National Security Adviser has asserted, in an interview to the Washington Post, “My bet is that he (Bin Laden) is in Pakistan. My feeling is he is around the border area, which is very mountainous and difficult to control.”
The Russians have also made categorical statements about Al Qaeda and Bin Laden’s Pakistan connection. Deputy Foreign Minister Lyshenko, in an interview to the Interfax news agency on November 21 said “Certain circles in Pakistan have been giving assistance to Bin Laden and his organisation.”
“This can be asserted quite definitely,” he added and then thankfully went on to say “We cannot directly accuse the Pakistani authorities of complicity.” The Russians, of course, have their own reasons for putting a particular twist on the campaign against terrorism. But the fact is that in this particular instance the Russians have merely stated what the other members of the anti-terrorism alliance have been saying either in private discussions or through careful leaks to the media.
Ironically, the fact that important Al Qaeda leaders such as Abu-Zubaydah and Ramzi-Alshibh were captured in Pakistan, and handed over to the Americans, has reinforced rather than weakening two prevailing perceptions. The first is that Al Qaeda has supporters and adherents in the general populace in Pakistan who are prepared to run risks while providing assistance and shelter to the organisation’s members. Second that while officially the Pakistan regime is cooperating in the campaign against terrorism and has provided local assistance for apprehending terrorists tracked down by American intelligence, the Government’s attitude towards the extremist supporters of the Al Qaeda is ambivalent and among the Pakistani intelligence operatives there are many with, to say the least, divided loyalties.
In September 2001 I could and did repeatedly assert that the Taliban’s supporters in Pakistan had a very small base and would not be able to mount a credible campaign against the government’s decision to cooperate with the anti-terror coalition. The situation changed radically, after the American bombing routed the Taliban, but the campaign continued to target, or so it appeared, the Pukhtoons (whether Taliban supporters or not) and also because the principal achievement in the Bonn Agreement was the disempowerment of the Pukhtoons. It was this vein of resentment that Bin Laden tried to exploit when he asked America’s allies “to remember our deaths in Khost mosques and remember the premeditated killing of our people in weddings in Afghanistan,” when considering the attack in Bali and other incidents, How rich a vein this is was established by the results of the recent Pakistani elections and, equally importantly, the massive attendance at Aimal Kasi’s funeral.
The Americans have had bitter experience of the form even relatively dormant anti-Americanism can take in the volatile Pakistani environment. In 1979, when the government of President Ziaul Haq was just beginning the process of “Islamisation”, a mere rumour of an American occupation of the Holy mosque in Saudi Arabia led to the burning of the American Embassy in Islamabad while the President of the country remained inexplicably unavailable and security forces appeared unable to protect the embassy. Today the anti-American sentiment is much more clearly evident in Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan and the Frontier. The Afghan factor is the principal one but both the perceived American indifference to the Israeli atrocities in Palestine and its campaign against Iraq have also contributed to this.
Immediately after the elections the Americans must have started asking themselves what the consequences of the elections would be for their anti-terror campaign. They had heard the office bearers of the third largest political group in the country give the following statements: “We will stop the ongoing pursuit of Taliban and Al Qaeda when we form the government.” “We will go by the rule of law. Taliban and Al Qaeda members are our brothers”. They knew that this group would form the government in the Frontier and probably in Balochistan.
They must also ask whether in these circumstances it is not unreasonable to presume that for their “bete noire” Osama Bin Laden, Pakistan is the best hiding place and the best place from which to plan further operations.
In my view, the telecast of the Bin Laden tape and the reports on where it was delivered to Al Jazeera brought these questions to the fore of public attention in the United States and elsewhere in the States. In the second part of this article I will dwell on how this public awareness along with criticism from the Democrats of the Bush Administration’s anti-terrorism drive influenced and will continue to influence American policy towards Pakistan.
The writer is a former foreign secretary and has had a long and distinguished diplomatic career. This is the first of a two-part series