Thursday, March 20, 2014

Daily Times Editorial March 21, 2014

Damaging NYT report Carlotta Gall covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for The New York Times (NYT) from 2001 to 2013. Amongst her other accomplishments, she was deported from Pakistan for being ‘undesirable’. Now Ms Gall has written a book, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014. Excerpts from the book have been published by the NYT, some of which make sensational reading. For example, the article alleges that ex-president Pervez Musharraf and ISI chief Lt-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha knew of the presence in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden (OBL) at his sprawling compound in Abbottabad. Further, that the ISI had established a special desk to handle OBL, manned by an officer who was empowered to make his own decisions and did not report to a superior. He allegedly handled only one person: OBL. The report cites an unnamed Pakistani official alleging that the US had direct evidence implicating Pasha. The report goes on to allege that evidence found in OBL’s residence in Abbottabad showed he was in correspondence with Hafiz Saeed of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Mullah Omar of the Afghan Taliban, amongst other extremist leaders. Further allegations paint a picture of cells in the ISI working against and fighting the Taliban, while others were supporting them. OBL, the report suggests, travelled to the tribal areas for a meeting with Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the latter blamed by a Pakistani intelligence source of planning to assassinate Benazir Bhutto on her return to Pakistan in 2007 and that General Musharraf was aware of the plan. Sensational as some of these allegations and accusations are, it comes as no surprise that top intelligence officials, ISPR and the Foreign Office, not to mention sources in Pakistan’s Washington embassy, have flatly rejected the report as ‘fabricated, baseless’ and even a ‘pack of lies’. These institutions reassert that no one in Pakistan knew of OBL’s presence in Abbottabad. Ms Gall stands accused in turn by these spokespeople as interested in maligning Pakistan and its secret agencies, especially the ISI. Hafiz Saeed for his part has flatly denied ever knowing or corresponding with OBL. Mullah Omar, it seems, has left the building and is not available for comment. It may be recalled that after the 2011 Abbottabad raid by US SEALS that ended with the killing of OBL, the military and ISI were hugely embarrassed by the debacle. General Pasha attempted to take responsibility for the intelligence failure and offered to resign, but parliament granted him and all the top brass a reprieve and a clean chit of at best incompetence rather than being complicit in harbouring OBL. The resurrection of allegations of complicity in the NYT, and perhaps even more embarrassingly in the detailed account in the forthcoming book, has put everyone in authority at the time in an uncomfortable place. Perhaps only when the book is available and can be perused for any evidence the author can muster for her serious allegations will objective observers be in a position to judge the veracity of the bombshell accusations. However, irrespective of that outcome, what may be triggered even further by such accusations is the strengthening of an increasingly vocal caucus in the US Congress that refuses to accept Pakistan as a US ally, arguing for a cut off of aid to Pakistan. That argument is unlikely to be settled only on the basis of Ms Gall’s ‘revelations’. Washington has many concerns about maintaining the relationship with Islamabad going into a future that has several critical markers. One is the withdrawal of western forces from Afghanistan by the end of the year and the subsequent fallout in Afghanistan, handling which will require the cooperation of Pakistan. Pakistan’s own internal terrorism problem too is on the US’s radar, recognising as it does the risks of a nuclear-armed state under terrorist siege. US aid is an investment in the stability, prosperity and peaceful development of Pakistan, a goal considered very important given the experience of Washington taking its eye off the regional ball after 1989, which opened the door to 9/11. So, while looking forward to a good read of a book that promises thrills and spills but whose truth will only be judged on whatever evidence is produced, the US and Pakistan have already turned a corner from 2011 and the estrangement that followed to forge a relationship that hopefully looks forward, not back.

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