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Pakistan's New 'Hands-Off' Agreement With al-Qaeda

Following Pakistan’s agreement with the Taliban and pullout from North Waziristan along the Afghanistan border, Wednesday was a day for political damage control for Pakistani leadership. President Pervez Musharraf traveled to Kabul assuring both Afghanistan and the United States that Pakistan still aims to confront any Taliban militant activity with military force.

Said Musharraf in Kabul, “Any militant activity will be addressed with force. No Talibanisation. No Taliban activity on our side of the border and across the border in Afghanistan.” This assurance was welcomed by both Kabul and Washington. Yet, the fear of disengagement remains, evidenced by the precedent set by Pakistan in South Waziristan.

Since a similar agreement with the Taliban in neighboring South Waziristan, cross-border attacks have been launched against coalition and Afghan forces from there as well as serving as a safe haven fallback for retreating attackers. With the leadership of North Waziristan even more fervently religiously motivated, expectations that the Taliban leadership there would ignore their promise of ending cross-border attacks is seen as not unreasonable. Nor is it seen as unreasonable that Pakistan would hesitate to react decisively as Musharraf assured in Kabul.

But the more troubling and perhaps telling detail comes in the news regarding another part of Musharraf’s deal with the Taliban of North Waziristan.

As General Sultan disavowed the characterization of his earlier statement that Usama bin Laden would be allowed to stay in Pakistan if he were “being like a peaceful citizen,” claims that his words were presented out of context, the transcript of the questions and his answers clearly reveals otherwise, and that he indeed was speaking of bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri essentially receiving an effective pardon if they adopted good behavior and were “staying like a peaceful citizen.”

It will be difficult for Pakistan to nuance away the apparent revelation that the Pakistani government has reportedly agreed that “key al-Qaeda figures will either not be arrested or those already in custody will be set free.” This includes the owner of the property where Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl was tortured and beheaded, Saud Memon. Ghulam Mustafa, regarded as the head of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, is expected to be released from secretive custody within days.

While it should be noted at this point that General Sultan is a spokesman for Pakistani policy and not the creator of it, perhaps the existence of such a ‘Hands-Off’ policy towards al-Qaeda and aligned terrorist groups explains the logic behind General Sultan’s initial comments.

The picture emerging is one of an apparent Pakistani realignment, shifting from an alliance with the United States to an open understanding with al-Qaeda and other connected Pakistani Islamic terrorist groups, perhaps in an attempt by Musharraf to extend his own survival.

Following their capitulation to Taliban demands in North Waziristan, Wednesday may have proven to be a day of damage control by Pakistan. But for Thursday and beyond, it will be incredibly difficult to satisfactorily explain the apparent revelation that Pakistan is freeing al-Qaeda-connected terrorists in their custody – custody that some contend is more protective than punitive in nature in order to keep them from falling into American hands, potentially damaging Pakistan’s position with America through their dangerous revelations.

Currently most see as remote the possibility of any overt military action by the US inside the new Islamic Emirate of Waziristan or anywhere in Pakistan proper for fear of causing an insurgent toppling of Musharraf’s secular government, currently a precarious ally in the War on Terror.

But, if Musharraf is perceived by the US as either irrevocably weak domestically or allied with al-Qaeda terrorists for self-preservation, all bets at that point may then be off.

At current, the threat posed by a Musharraf-led Pakistan – for all its thorns - is far from that of a potential Usama bin Laden-led ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’, complete with nuclear weapons. That possibility, along with a neighboring and potentially nuclear armed Islamic Republic of Iran, would prove an imminent threat and a horrifying new Axis.

Fear is a prime motivator of men. In 2001 and 2002 during the Afghanistan invasion, Musharraf clearly feared America more than he feared al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda aligned terrorist groups and became an unlikely ally in the War on Terror. If the apparent Pakistani agreement to free and ignore al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan proves true, this dynamic of fear will have clearly shifted with potentially dire consequences for America and the West in the War on Terror.

Feedback

Steve, what is the cause of this? Did Musharraf cave to powerful Islamist elements in his government? Or does he not completely control the government and these were deals made that he couldn't stop? I know that the ISI was rife with Islamist elements some years ago, but haven't followed the situation recently. Lastly, what do you know about this General Sultan fellow? Is he loyal to Musharraf?

Thank you,
Tom

It's not the government that Musharraf does not control, it's al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Waziristan and the NWFP that he does not control. No more sinister than that, really.

As to Sultan, I cannot speak to his loyalties beyond the general assumption that if he weren't loyal to Musharraf, he quite likely wouldn't have the position he does. But, that position, keep in mind, is as a spokesman. His free tongue on this was surely not a very solid career move.

Thanks, Steve. So it appears to be no more than a recognition of reality.