May 15, 2010

'The global jihadist'

Arif Nizami

Faisel Shahzad is the first "global jihadist" from Pakistan. The naturalised US citizen, thanks to his botched attempt to spread mayhem in New York's busy Time Square, has also been dubbed as the "idiot bomber" by a section of the US media.

Whether Shazad was a patsy easily manipulated and brainwashed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to do their bidding or not, consequences of his actions have far-reaching implications for Pakistan. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi's statement that US-Pakistan relations have received a setback as a result is the understatement of the year.

The incident has come as a rude shock for the Pakistani leadership, which had naively assumed that Islamabad and Washington are now in the same bed thanks to services rendered. Barely two weeks before the Time Square abortive bombing Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was beaming after a one-on-one meeting with President Obama on the sidelines of the Nuclear Summit in Washington. On the occasion the US president defended Pakistan's credentials as a responsible nuclear power in the face of hostile questions from the US media.

The prime minister on his return flight from Washington proudly boasted to media persons accompanying him that the US now considers Pakistan as part of the solution in the region rather than part of the problem. Earlier on the visit, his foreign minister was photographed engaged in banter with the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Perhaps in a state of euphoria we had overlooked the dynamics of US-Pakistan relations. In spite of the sweet talk and mollycoddling by US politicians and generals regularly visiting Islamabad, it remains a client-patron relationship predicated on Islamabad's ability to deliver in the war on terrorism. And notwithstanding the smugness of our civilian and military leadership, the relationship is so tenuous that one terror incident in the United States linked to Pakistan can upset the whole applecart.

Shorn of diplomatic niceties, Ms Hillary Clinton's recent warning that Pakistan should be prepared for (unspecified) severe consequences if it can be linked to a successful extremist attack on the US is a severe reprimand. Shahzad's testimony to his interrogators that he visited Pakistan several times in the past year and received training from the TTP in North Waziristan. corroborated by the US Attorney Eric Holder that the whole Time Square plot was intimately directed by the Pakistani Taliban, is extremely embarrassing for Islamabad.

President Obama, at a White House press conference along with visiting Afghan president Hamid Karzai, declared that Pakistan has an obsession with India. However, he acknowledged that Islamabad is trying to kick this habit by working to remove "this cancer" of extremism from its midst. The subtlety of the US president's message will not be lost on our policy makers.

Interestingly, while the US administration is playing the "bad cop," the military establishment is soft-pedalling the issue. Senior US commander general David Patraeus initially dubbed Shehzad a "lone wolf." The top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen McChrystal, who met the COAS general Kayani the other day denied that he asked him to launch a military operation in North Waziristan.

Whatever the optics, pressure on Pakistani military to launch an offensive in North Waziristan has increased manifold. The failed Time Square attack has proved beyond doubt in the eyes of the US the nexus between the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda; their training ground being North Waziristan. Islamabad's assertion to make a distinction between the TTP terrorists and the rest no longer holds valid. Hillary Clinton has gone to town hinting that part of the Pakistani military establishment is in cahoots with these elements, to the extent that some officers are aware of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts.

Another consequence of last week's botched attempt is exposing an intelligence failure of our military establishment. Until now it had claimed that Hakimullah Mashud was long dead and gone. The Time Square operation was important enough for the TTP to blow the cover of the ostensibly dead Taliban leader to claim responsibility in a recorded video. This amply demonstrates that the TTP, despite the setbacks in Swat and South Waziristan, has regrouped and reorganised. It has developed the capability to strike, albeit unsuccessfully, even at the US.

What is really worrisome for Pakistan is that relations with India or the West are hostage to acts of terrorism planned and executed by non-state actors. Conspiracy theorists claim that Shehzad is a US agent who staged the whole drama, deliberately leaving a trail to implicate Pakistan in a manner that would force the reluctant Pakistani army to launch an offensive in North Waziristan.

What they conveniently overlook is that had the device planted in Time Square gone off, it would have caused immense loss to life and property with disastrous consequences for Pakistan.

In the aftermath of the incident, drone attacks over North Waziristan have increased manifold. The presence of US troops on Pakistani soil ostensibly for training and non-combat purposes is well known. However, partly owing to US troops already being thinly spread in Afghanistan, that does not seem a likely scenario. But US air strikes on Taliban strongholds within Pakistan cannot be ruled out.

The Pakistani military is on notice like never before to launch a push in North Waziristan. As deputy chairman of the joint chiefs Lt Gen Sardar Mehmood Ali Khan put it, Pakistani forces will do it but in their own time, as it had to be done in sequence with "other battles."

Some hawkish elements in pursuit of their own agendas have suggested that the Pakistan should take on the US. They want the military to shoot down the drones and the government to block NATO supplies to Afghanistan. Keeping in mind the overwhelmingly anti-US mood of the street, this will be a popular move. However in the backdrop of the country's fragile economy and polity it will be a suicidal path to embark upon.

The recent thaw at Thimphu was also a result of President Obama's role as a quiet facilitator. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Quershi's telephone call on Tuesday to his Indian counterpart S M Krishna inviting him to talks in Islamabad on July 15 had a certain urgency and poignancy in the context of recent developments. It is a positive development that the two countries have not made terrorism as a precondition for talks. With Islamabad already under pressure, the US ambassador to New Delhi, against all diplomatic norms, did not mince his words while lecturing Islamabad on keeping US and Indian sensitivities on terrorism in mind.

Whether it is the Kashmir issue, the water issue or other bilateral problems with New Delhi, in order to avoid a two-front situation, Islamabad will have to engage in intense diplomatic activity to keep its eastern borders free of tension. The terrorist threat from within has now gone global with potentially disastrous consequences for the Pakistani state. Gen Kayani contends that so far as a threat from India is concerned, the Pakistani military has to go by the capabilities of its eastern neighbour rather than mere intentions.

In this context Afghanistan and the Taliban are seen as the strategic depth. We have to revisit this strategic paradigm with out-of-the-box thinking. For our own survival, we will have to move decisively against elements that are threatening to eat into the entrails of the state as it was envisioned by Quaid and Iqbal. Despite Pakistan's being a nuclear power, it might not be possible for long to stick to our traditional strategic thinking. Especially when we are witnessing a US-India nexus in the making.