The phoney war on terror

By Christina Lamb (THE TIMES, 24/09/06):

So President Musharraf is military dictator turned tease, making us wait for his book launch in New York tomorrow for more details of the Bush administration’s crudely worded threat against Pakistan if it did not support the war on terror.

“Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age,” was the graphic warning from deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, though admittedly it came one day after September 11. Armitage has disputed the wording but the fact that such a threat had to be made (followed by a nice little package of $5 billion of aid) raises the question of whose side Pakistan is really on.

Pakistan’s chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Lieutenant-General Ehsan-ul-Haq, was in London last week talking about how no other nation has suffered so much in the service of the war on terror.

His forces deployed in the badlands that border Afghanistan have lost more than 500 soldiers — “more than the whole of the coalition combined”. Musharraf himself has narrowly escaped three assassination attempts.

Pakistan’s military intelligence, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), last month helped foil the alleged Heathrow plot to blow up transatlantic flights and the six most senior Al-Qaeda officials to be caught so far, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, were all arrested in Pakistan.

So far, so impressive. On the other hand, how come those Al-Qaeda leaders were living in Pakistan not in caves but in residential areas, even a military cantonment in Khalid’s case? American special forces searching for Osama Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri are convinced the ISI tipped off al-Zawahiri on two occasions when they got near.

Why do most would-be suicide bombers regard Pakistan as a finishing school? And while military planners in Washington focus on Tehran’s nuclear programme, remember where the Iranians acquired their uranium enrichment capability.

No country has done more for nuclear proliferation to rogue states than Pakistan through Abdul Qadeer Khan, the godfather of its own bomb. Khan was even using army planes to transport the parts.

In 2003 I spent a week with American troops from the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan at a godforsaken firebase called Shkin on the border with Pakistan. Every day fighters would come and take potshots at the Americans then run back across the invisible border. The soldiers could do nothing because Pakistan refused to allow hot pursuit.

For those of us who have followed Pakistan for some time, it’s a familiar story. Remember General Zia ul-Haq, the short military dictator with the big teeth who seized power in 1977? He, like Musharraf, spent two years as an international pariah. When the Soviet army crossed the Oxus into Afghanistan in 1979, he suddenly became the West’s most crucial ally.

Because US support to the Afghans was a covert operation, it was channelled through the ISI. But what the West ignored then, and again after 9/11, was that the ISI had its own agenda. Under Zia the army had been Islamicised and the ISI made sure most aid and arms went to its favourite fundamentalist warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, even though he openly preached anti-Americanism.

It was the ISI’s idea in the mid-1980s to ship in young Arabs, including Mr Bin Laden, and train them to fight. When the Russians left, and the West overnight abandoned Afghanistan (and slashed aid to Pakistan), the ISI supported the creation of the Taliban.

After 9/11, Musharraf had little option but to join the war on terror. Even if the Pakistani leader was genuinely committed, the ISI saw no reason to stop supporting those same Afghans they had been helping for more than two decades.

Besides, these training camps had become useful for providing militants to fight in Indian-held Kashmir, Pakistan’s single most important policy objective. So whenever Musharraf has come under pressure from Washington, he has banned jihadi groups and watched them reform under new names. Or he has agreed to regulate madrasahs, the Islamist schools, then done nothing.

In almost five years since the fall of the Taliban in Kabul, not a single Taliban leader or commander has been arrested in Pakistan. Yet they operate openly from there, particularly around the town of Quetta, long known as Taliban Central.

“Is Pakistan playing a malevolent role by supplying training?” asked a diplomat involved in drawing up our Afghan policy. “Well, we haven’t found a smoking gun. It seems Musharraf is guilty of the sin of omission.” He pointed out that with 2.5m Afghan refugees still in camps in Pakistan, there is a plentiful source of fighters, and with 650 crossing points, the border is impossible to monitor.

Whether Islamabad is simply turning a blind eye to training and recruitment inside its own borders or actively involved, the West’s failure to see Pakistan as the real battleground of the war on terror is undoubtedly one of the reasons the Taliban have re-emerged as such a threat.

For obvious reasons, most leaders wait till they are no longer in office to release their memoirs. Musharraf’s choice of title is intriguing. In the Line of Fire was a Hollywood movie starring Clint Eastwood as a veteran secret service agent haunted by his failure many years earlier to save President John F Kennedy from assassination.

Is the general trying to tell us something?