By B. Raman
Secret commitments by both the political and military leaderships to co-operate with the US in counter-terrorism, ritual denial of such commitments in public statements, dragging the feet in the implementation of the commitments and fresh commitments. That has been the history of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism co-operation with the US. That history continues after the death of Osama bin Laden.
The US-Pakistan counter-terrorism co-operation, which had stalled following the raid by US naval commandos into the residential hide-out of Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad in the Khyber Pakhtoonkwa province on May 2, has been re-started following a vigorous push given by Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who visited Islamabad for talks on May 15 and 16 and by Mrs.Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who followed up on Kerry’s talks during a short visit to Islamabad on May 27.
After Kerry’s visit, the two countries initiated measures to bring down the tensions, which had arisen after the Abbottabad raid. Pakistan handed over to the US the half-destroyed helicopter which the naval commandos had blown up —- but not completely— on May 2 when the pilot reportedly lost control and hit the compound wall of OBL’s residence while bringing it down. The US was worried that Pakistan might give the Chinese access to the half-destroyed chopper to enable them to study it. The handing-over of the chopper to the US authorities was one of the demands made by Kerry during his talks with the Pakistani authorities. Before Mrs. Clinton arrived, the Americans were allowed to take the half-destroyed chopper out of Pakistan.
Before the arrival of Mrs. Clinton, the Pakistani authorities also allowed a team of the CIA to jointly interrogate the three wives of OBL who were taken into custody by the Pakistani authorities after the naval commandos had left Abbottabad. Originally, the US plan was to take the wives to Afghanistan for interrogation, but this was abandoned by the US after its commandos lost a chopper. Pakistan also accepted another request of the US to allow a team from the CIA to make a detailed inspection of OBL’s residence. While the naval commandos had removed from the residence all documents, computers and computer material which they had found there, they were not able to make a detailed inspection of the house because of the short time at their disposal. They will now be able to do so though belatedly.
There were two gestures from the US side. The first was the toning down of the suspicions of possible complicity with OBL at the higher levels of the Pakistani Government — particularly the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — which enabled him to live undetected for over five years at Abbottabad and direct the command and control of Al Qaeda from there. Mrs. Clinton has now ruled out the possibility of any complicity at the senior levels, but has continued to stress the need for a thorough enquiry regarding any possible complicity at the lower levels. The Pakistani Army and the ISI do not find any difficulty in accepting this demand.
The second US gesture was to agree to downsize the clandestine presence of US intelligence and special forces personnel in Pakistan to co-ordinate the counter-terrorism co-operation with their Pakistani counterparts. The US had agreed to make a small reduction in the number of US clandestine personnel posted in Pakistan even before the Abbottabad raid. This was in response to a Pakistani demand after the January incident involving Raymond Davis, a member of the administrative staff of the US Consulate at Lahore, who had allegedly killed two Pakistanis following his car. This has now been followed up by a reported US decision to cut down its clandestine personnel further. Apparently, after the death of OBL, the US does not feel the need for the presence of a large number of clandestine staff in Pakistani territory. Its decision to accommodate the Pakistani demand for a further reduction should not affect its capability on the ground in Pakistan significantly.
Both the Pakistani and the US authorities have been embarrassed by the disclosure by “Dawn” of Karachi of some diplomatic cables obtained from Wikileaks pertaining to the years 2008 and 2009. These cables, which had been sent by Anne Patterson, the then US Ambassador to Islamabad, to the US State Department clearly showed, firstly, that the Pakistani Army had allowed a much larger US clandestine presence than admitted so far not only in the Pashtun belt, but even in the GHQ in Rawalpindi, to enhance US-Pakistan counter-terrorism co-operation, and, secondly, that not only Pakistan’s political leadership, but even its military leadership had tacitly allowed the US to operate its Drone ( pilotless aircraft) over the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) while openly criticising them as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. If the Army had tacitly agreed to instances of wanton US violation of Pakistani sovereignty in respect of the Drone strikes, is it not legitimate to suspect as many, including me, are doing, that there must have been some tacit understanding relating to the Abbottabad raid too? All this post-May 2 hysterics about the so-called violation of Pakistani sovereignty is a ritual meant to calm public opinion in Pakistan.
One of the Wikileaks cables from Anne Patterson in Islamabad to the US State Department in May 2009, as published by “Dawn”, states as follows: “We have created Intelligence Fusion cells with embedded US Special Forces with both SSG (Special Services Group) and Frontier Corps (Bala Hisar, Peshawar) with the Rover equipment ready to deploy. Through these embeds, we are assisting the Pakistanis collect and coordinate existing intelligence assets. We have not been given Pakistani military permission to accompany the Pakistani forces on deployments as yet.”
By September, 2009, plans for joint intelligence activities had been expanded to include army headquarters. “Pakistan has begun to accept intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support from the US military for COIN (counter-insurgency) operations,” Ms Patterson wrote. “In addition … intelligence fusion centers” had been established “at the headquarters of Frontier Corps and the 11th Corps and we expect at additional sites, including GHQ and the 12th Corps in Balochistan.”
Even in April 2009, she had reported in a cable that the cell at Bala Hisar ssisted in the Pakistan military operation then taking place in Lower Dir. “US Special Operations Command Force are assisting the FC at the Intelligence Fusion Cell at FC Headquarters with imagery, target packages, and operational planning.”
A US cable also said: “The 3rd Commando Group of the Pakistan Special Services Group (SSG) exploited the weakened state of the Taliban surrounding Daggar, the main city within Buner, to secure the city early on April 29.Although reported earlier that US officials would accompany the FC deployment to Daggar, a late-night decision on April 28 by the Pakistan Military General Headquarters (GHQ) denied the joint deployment, saying the FC had all the assets needed. Embassy will work with GHQ to determine the reason for the late change and to promote integrated operation support.”
In a cable of November 2009, Ms. Patterson said: “On a brighter note, there is the possibility that operations in the northern FATA may provide additional opportunities to embed US Special Operations Forces with FC units to provide ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] support and general operational guidance. If we can expand on what we have recently been doing in Bajaur Agency … with our embeds, it would be a significant opportunity to contribute to the pursuit of the TTP (the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan).”
The cable added: “Previously, the Pakistani military leadership adamantly opposed letting us embed our special operations personnel with their military forces. The recent approval by GHQ … appears to represent a sea change in Pakistani thinking. These deployments are highly politically sensitive … Should [they] receive any coverage in the Pakistani or US media, the Pakistani military will likely stop making requests for such assistance.”
Another cable has described how, in a January 2009 meeting with Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, then CENTCOM commander Gen David Petraeus explained he “had given instructions that Special Operations Forces would be deployed regularly and constantly, and the US needed to move their soldiers in here, so they could engage productively with the Frontier Corps.” “Petraeus noted that the 11th Corps Chief of Staff Brigadier Amir was less cooperative with US forces, and Kayani took note of that.” That is, the US was complaining to Kayani about senior Pakistani officers who were not co-operative with the US and Kayani took note of such complaints.
In a post-Abbottabad assessment of the Wikileaks cables, “Dawn” has commented as follows: ” Secret internal American government cables, accessed by Dawn through WikiLeaks, provide confirmation that the US military’s drone strikes programme within Pakistan had more than just tacit acceptance of the country’s top military brass, despite public posturing to the contrary. In fact, as long ago as January 2008, the country’s military was requesting the US for greater drone back-up for its own military operations. Previously exposed diplomatic cables have already shown that Pakistan’s civilian leaders are strongly supportive – in private – of the drone strikes on alleged militant targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), even as they condemn them for general consumption. But it is not just the civilian leadership that has been following a duplicitous policy on the robotic vehicles.”
“Dawn” added: “In a meeting on January 22, 2008 with US CENTCOM Commander Admiral William J. Fallon, Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani requested the Americans to provide “continuous Predator coverage of the conflict area” in South Waziristan where the army was conducting operations against militants. The request is detailed in a ‘Secret’ cable sent by then US Ambassador Anne Patterson on February 11, 2008. Pakistan’s military has consistently denied any involvement in the covert programme run mainly by the CIA. ”
“Dawn” further said: “The American account of Gen Kayani’s request for “Predator coverage” does not make clear if mere air surveillance was being requested or missile-armed drones were being sought. Theoretically “Predator coverage” could simply mean air surveillance and not necessarily offensive support. However the reaction to the request suggests otherwise. According to the report of the meeting sent back to Washington by Patterson, Admiral Fallon “regretted that he did not have the assets to support this request” but offered trained US Marines (known as JTACs) to coordinate air strikes for Pakistani infantry forces on ground. General Kayani “demurred” on the offer, pointing out that having US soldiers on ground “would not be politically acceptable.”
In another meeting with US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen over March 3-4, 2008, Kayani was asked for his help “in approving a third Restricted Operating Zone for US aircraft over the FATA.” The request – detailed in a cable sent from the US Embassy in Islamabad on March 24 – clearly indicated that two ‘corridors’ for US drones had already been approved earlier.
According to “Dawn”, despite the occasional disastrously misdirected attacks which have fed into the public hue and cry over civilian casualties, there is, in private, ” a seeming general acceptance by the military of the efficacy of drone strikes. In a cable dated February 19, 2009, Ambassador Patterson sent talking points to Washington ahead of a week-long visit to the US by COAS Kayani. Referring to drone strikes, she wrote: “Kayani knows full well that the strikes have been precise (creating few civilian casualties) and targeted primarily at foreign fighters in the Waziristans.”
In a cable of November 24, 2008, Patterson cautioned the State Department as follows: “As the gap between private GOP acquiescence and public condemnation for US action grows, Pakistani leaders who feel they look increasingly weak to their constituents could begin considering stronger action against the US, even though the response to date has focused largely on ritual denunciation.”
Citing US media reports, the Pakistani media reported as follows before Mrs. Clinton’s visit: Pakistan ordered the departure of up to 20 percent of the roughly 150 U.S. Special Operations forces trainers (SOFTs) in the wake of a series of differences between the two governments. Between 25 and 30 trainers were “told to leave” in the weeks before the U.S. commando raid that killed OBL, apparently in response to the Raymond Davis incident.
During Mrs. Clinton’s talks in Islamabad, according to the Pakistani media, Islamabad agreed to intensify operations against Al Qaeda and affiliated groups in its territory, while Washington softened its stance on ‘unilateral action’ against high-profile terrorist targets inside Pakistan by underscoring the importance of acting together against terrorists. While there was no joint statement, Mrs. Clinton told the media at the US Embassy: “We both recognise that there is still much more work required to be done and it is urgent. Today we discussed in even greater detail cooperation to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and to drive them from Pakistan and the region. We will do our part and we look to the government of Pakistan to take decisive steps in the days ahead. Joint action against Al Qaeda and its affiliates will make Pakistan, America and the world more safe and more secure.”
According to the Pakistani media, her media comments wavered between expression of acknowledgement of the sacrifices rendered by Pakistan in the fight against terrorism and frustration over the Taliban and other groups continuing to operate from Pakistani soil. Mrs Clinton reminded the Pakistanis that the only way forward in the relationship marred by deep mistrust over counter-terrorism efforts was to redouble efforts in the fight against terrorists. She spoke of “vicious terrorists” having found sanctuaries on Pakistani soil and Afghan militants operating from safe havens in tribal areas and said it was Islamabad’s responsibility to stop that from happening. She added: “There can be no peace, stability, no democracy, no future for Pakistan unless the violent extremists are removed.” Mrs Clinton said she had been assured of “some very specific actions” which Pakistanis would take in coming weeks. She did not give any detail.
According to ABC News of the US as quoted by the Pakistani media, the US side demanded immediate action and intelligence sharing on four leading terror names — Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Siraj Haqqani (operational commander of the Haqqani network), Ilyas Kashmiri and Atiya Abdel Rahman (Libyan operations chief of Al Qaeda, who was allegedly a key aide to bin Laden when he was hiding in Abbottabad). “Dawn” claimed that an American source confirmed the list and said that US softening on its position on unilateral action was conditional. “The message given to Pakistani leaders was loud and clear; you either cooperate with us on these four terrorists or we’ll take care of them by ourselves.”
“Dawn” further reported: “Something the sceptical Secretary found reassuring was a rare acknowledgement made by the Pakistani side at the talks that Osama bin Laden enjoyed a support network as he spent his years near the Army’s elite training centre. “Our counterparts in the (Pakistani) government were very forthcoming in saying that somebody, somewhere, was providing some kind of support, and they are carrying out an investigation and we have certainly offered to share whatever information we come across.”
In return for the promised counter-terrorism cooperation, Mrs Clinton offered “respect for and addressing” Pakistan’s concerns about the political settlement in Afghanistan. She did not elaborate, but said she was convinced that Pakistan had “legitimate” interests in the settlement of the Afghan conflict and its role was indispensable for the success of the reconciliation process. According to “Dawn”, Mrs Clinton was particularly critical of the growing anti-Americanism in Pakistan. Although she didn’t explicitly say so, it was evident from her remarks that she thought a segment of the establishment was responsible for promoting it. She said: “In solving its problems Pakistan should understand that anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories will not make its problems disappear.” According to “Dawn”, her Pakistani interlocutors complained to her that statements by US officials, leaks to media and unilateral actions were reducing the space for cooperation.
Coinciding with her visit, US media has reported that Pakistan has closed down the three joint intelligence fusion cells in Quetta and Peshawar to which there was a reference in the WikiLeaks cables.