Renewed Tensions in Pak-US Counter-Terror Ties
Weekly Pulse
January 19-25, 2007
On the surface, the United States and Pakistan may be close allies in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan itself. Beneath the surface, however, their counter-terror partnership is gripped with renewed tensions. They seem to pursue dichotomous stands on fighting Afghan insurgency, especially its alleged linkage with the country’s tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.

Washington does not agree with Islamabad’s idea of fencing or mining the Durand Line or preventing alleged infiltration of the Taliban and their sympathisers across it through signing peace deals with them. On the contrary, the government of Pakistan attaches great importance with the September peace agreement it concluded with the tribal jirga in Miramshah and wants it to be emulated in the rest of the Waziristan as well as Afghanistan.

Likewise, the positions of the United States and Pakistan regarding the status of al Qaeda in Pakistan are also poles apart. The government of Pakistan thinks it has broken the back of al Qaeda in the country. The US government, on the other hand, believes that Pakistan has become the principal sanctuary for al Qaeda.

Negroponte’s Bombshell

No surprise that US intelligence chief John Negroponte last week singled out Pakistan for becoming a safe heaven for al Qaeda. In a statement before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Mr Negroponte called al Qaeda as a “terrorist organisation that poses the greatest threat to the United States” He said the al Qaeda terror network “is strengthening and building worldwide connections from its safe haven in Pakistan.”

The al Qaeda terrorists, in his words, “are cultivating stronger operational connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders’ secure hideout in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.”

The US Intelligence chief, who is likely to take over as US Deputy Secretary of State, did acknowledge that Pakistan was “a frontline partner in the war on terror” that had captured several Al Qaeda leaders. However, he added, the country “remains a major source of (Muslim) extremism and the home stop for some top terrorist leaders … Many of our most important interests intersect in Pakistan, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda maintain critical sanctuaries.”

Since 2005, Mr Negroponte has been coordinating intelligence and investigative activities of the Central Investigation Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other US intelligence entities. The Bush administration has frequently expressed its concern in the past about the existence of top al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan’s tribal region. However, never before the country has been singled out for becoming an al Qaeda safe heaven. Given that, Mr Negroponte’s remarks on the issue during the Congressional hearings deserve to be taken seriously.

Boucher’s Diplomacy

A day after Mr Negroponte made the above remarks, US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher was in Islamabad, trying to put a diplomatic cover over the renewed US concern about the growing power of al Qaeda in Pakistan.

In his statement before the media, Mr Boucher bracketed the United States with Pakistan, in stressing the need “to do more” by the two allies, since both “have been unsuccessful in eliminating terrorists.” He also said that “Pakistan has not succeeded despite signing an agreement with tribal people in North Wazirastan as terrorists are still going into Afghanistan.”

Mr Boucher disagreed that there were moderate Taliban in Afghanistan and the US government should talk to them to improve the security situation in Afghanistan. Taliban, he said, were trying to kill the Pakistanis, the Afghans and the Americans and, therefore, they could not be spared. Mr Boucher also did not comment on whether the United States supported Pakistan to fence the border and lay mines.

Since signing the Miramshah deal in September, Islamabad has been engaged in hectic international diplomacy to sell it as the most effective means not only to counter the alleged infiltration of the Taliban and their sympathisers into Afghanistan but also a workable option to contain the growing insurgency in Afghanistan itself. Neither the Afghan government, nor the NATO command fighting Afghan insurgency, nor even the United States has attached any significance to Pakistan’s new peace deal on Afghanistan.

In the last few weeks, Islamabad has also been proactively advancing the idea of fencing or mining the Afghan border to counter the alleged infiltration of militants across the Durand Line from Pakistan’s tribal region. For the purpose, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz recently visited Kabul to inform the Afghan leadership about the new idea. Again, like the peace deal option, the idea of fencing or mining seems to have no buyers.

Pakistan’s Denials

For its part, Pakistan has reacted strongly to Mr Negroponte’s statement, with President Musharraf re-assuring the visiting US Assistant Secretary of State about the country’s commitment to fighting terror at home and the region. He was reported to have told Mr Boucher that security along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was a joint responsibility, and that all sides ought to enhance coordination to promote security and stability.

In fact, the day Mr Negroponte spoke out on Pakistan becoming the key sanctuary for al Qaeda, Gen Shaukat Sultan, the Inter-Services Public Relations chief, said the United States had not given Pakistan any information about the presence of Al Qaeda leaders. “We have no such information nor has any such thing been communicated to us by any US authority.”

A day later, while Mr Boucher was himself busy in Islamabad giving diplomatic cover to renewed US concerns regarding Pakistan’s performance to combat terrorism, the Foreign Office spokesperson, Tasnim Aslam, said: “It is also a fact that there are Al Qaeda elements active in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, as Mr Negroponte has said but it would be incorrect to link them to any remnants of Al Qaeda in Pakistan.” Hitting back at the US official, the spokesperson said: “When Mr Negroponte mentions the capture and killing of hundreds of Al Qaeda members since 9/11, he should acknowledge the efforts of the country that made this possible.”

Difficulties Ahead

The fact that Pakistan, as America’s frontline state against terrorism in the region since the events of September 11, 2001, has captured the largest number of al Qaeda terrorists is undeniable. The United States and Pakistan do agree on the need to establish Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs), and to mobilize resources for Fata Sustainable Development Plan.

However, it is also a fact that the same period has seen growing criticism of the country from the Afghan government, the US/Western media and think-tanks as well as the Bush administration for “not doing enough” in combating terrorism. Such criticism has in recent months or weeks centred on the government’s peace deal with the tribal jirga last September and its most recent proposal to fence and mine the Durand Line.

Pakistan has argued that the proposed fencing and the repatriation of refugees could help end both the problems. The fence could prevent cross-border movements while the repatriation would deprive the insurgents of their safe havens along the border because they use Afghan refugee camps for hiding among their compatriots.

Afghan allegations about terrorist infiltration from Pakistan’s tribal regions into Afghanistan have been consistent, and have, off and on, been backed by the NATO command as well as officials of the Bush administration. Pakistan’s consistent denials about such allegations aside, the issue indeed has had serious repercussions for the country’s internal security.

For instance, in January last year a CIA-operated drone aircraft had carried out a missile strike on Pakistan's Bajaur tribal region based on information that al Qaeda No Two Ayman al-Zawahri might be there. The strike on Damadola village did not kill Zawahri; instead, 18 villagers were massacred. Last October, around 80 men, some of them young boys, were killed in a missile attack on a madrassah in Bajaur, though this time the Pakistan military said it carried out the operation.

If the infiltration issue remains unresolved, the possibility of similar strikes, violating Pakistani sovereignty or ones claimed by the government of Pakistan, cannot be ruled out—so will be their respective repercussions for internal security of the country.

Overcoming Difficulties

In order to avoid such politically unacceptable security repercussions, the Musharraf regime has to find a way out of the existing dilemma on the infiltration issue. If not mining, over which there are international reservations as expressed recently by the visiting Canadian prime minister, fencing is an idea worth pursuing.

Afghan authorities have been a bit unreasonable in opposing this idea. It is clear that they want Pakistan not to stop the movement of Afghan refugees across the Durand Line, but, simultaneously, wish that Islamabad must stop the infiltration of Afghan insurgents.

By proposing the mining or fencing of the Durand Line, Pakistan is suggesting that Afghan refugees and insurgents should be treated together. In other words, in Pakistan’s point of view, refugee influx into Pakistan and insurgent infiltration into Afghanistan are two sides of the same coin.

Islamabad needs to express such interesting co-relationships of the continuing Afghan dilemma more vocally before the United States and other partners in the context of the War on Terror in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, it needs to be more proactive in tacking the al Qaeda threat in Pakistan, especially in the light of what has now become a widespread belief that the top al Qaeda—if not the entire terrorist network—is holed out in tribal regions of the country bordering Afghanistan.