President Obama meets with President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the US, in the Oval Office in January 2011.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
The following ingredients should go a long way to produce a political thriller. Mr. M, a jihadist in an Asian state, has emerged as the mastermind of a terrorist attack in a neighboring country, which killed six Americans. After sifting through a vast cache of intelligence and obtaining a legal clearance, the State Department announces a $10 million bounty for information leading to his arrest and conviction. Mr. M promptly appears at a press conference and says, "I am here. America should give that reward money to me."
A State Department spokesperson explains lamely that the reward is meant for incriminating evidence against Mr. M that would stand up in court. The prime minister of M's home state condemns foreign interference in his country's internal affairs. In the midst of this imbroglio, the United States decides to release $1.18 billion in aid to the cash-strapped government of the defiant prime minister to persuade him to reopen supply lines for US and NATO forces bogged down in the hapless neighboring Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Alarmingly, this is anything but fiction or a plot for an upcoming international sitcom. It is a brief summary of the latest development in the fraught relations between the United States and Pakistan, two countries locked into an uneasy embrace since September 12, 2001.
Mr. M. is Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, a 62-year-old former academic with a tapering, hennaed beard, and the founder of the Lashkar-e Taiba (the Army of the Pure, or LeT), widely linked to several outrageously audacious terrorist attacks in India. The LeT was formed in 1987 as the military wing of the Jammat-ud Dawa religious organization (Society of the Islamic Call, or JuD) at the instigation of the Pakistani army's formidable intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The JuD owes its existence to the efforts of Saeed, who founded it in 1985 following his return to his native Lahore after two years of advanced Islamic studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, under the guidance of that country's Grand Mufti, Shaikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz.
On its formation, the LeT joined the seven-year-old anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, an armed insurgency directed and supervised by the ISI with funds and arms supplied by the CIA and the Saudis. Once the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the Army of the Pure turned its attention to a recently launched anti-Indian jihad in Indian-administered Kashmir and beyond. The terrorist attacks attributed to it range from the devastating multiple assaults in Mumbai in November 2008, which resulted in 166 deaths, including those six Americans, to a foiled attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi in December 2001, and a successful January 2010 attack on the airport in Kashmir's capital Srinagar.
In January 2002, in the wake of Washington's launching of the Global War on Terror, Pakistan formally banned the LeT, but in reality did little to curb its violent cross-border activities. Saeed remains its final authority. In a confession, offered as part of a plea bargain after his arrest in October 2009 in Chicago, David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American operative of LeT involved in planning the Mumbai carnage, said: "Hafiz Saeed had full knowledge of the Mumbai attacks and they were launched only after his approval."
In December 2008, the United Nations Security Council declared the JuD a front organization for the banned LeT. The provincial Punjab government then placed Saeed under house arrest using the Maintenance of Public Order law. But six months later, the Lahore High Court declared his confinement unconstitutional. In August 2009, Interpol issued a Red Corner Notice, essentially an international arrest warrant, against Saeed in response to Indian requests for his extradition. Saeed was again put under house arrest but in October the Lahore High Court quashed all charges against him due to lack of evidence.
It is common knowledge that Pakistani judges, fearing for their lives, generally refrain from convicting high-profile jihadists with political connections. When, in the face of compelling evidence, a judge has no option but to order the sentence enjoined by the law, he must either live under guard afterwards or leave the country. Such was the case with Judge Pervez Ali Shah who tried Mumtaz Qadri, the jihadist bodyguard who murdered Punjab's governor Salman Taseer for backing an amendment to the indiscriminately applied blasphemy law. Soon after sentencing Qadri to capital punishment last October, Shah received several death threats and was forced into self-exile.
Aware of the failures of the Pakistani authorities to convict Saeed, US agencies seemed to have checked and cross-checked the authenticity of the evidence they had collected on him before the State Department announced, on April 2nd, its reward for his arrest. This was nothing less than an implied declaration of Washington's lack of confidence in the executive and judicial organs of Pakistan.
Little wonder that Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani took umbrage, describing the US bounty as blatant interference in his country's domestic affairs. Actually, this is nothing new. It is an open secret that, in the ongoing tussle between Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and his bête noire, army chief of staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Obama administration has always backed the civilian head of state. That, in turn, has been a significant factor in Gilani's stay in office since March 2008, longer than any other prime minister in Pakistan's history.
How to Trump a Superpower
Given such strong cards, diplomatic and legal, why then did the Obama administration commit itself to releasing more than $1 billion to a government that has challenged its attempt to bring to justice an alleged mastermind of cross-border terrorism?
The answer lies in what happened at two Pakistani border posts 1.5 miles from the Afghan frontier in the early hours of November 26, 2011. NATO fighter aircraft and helicopters based in Afghanistan carried out a two-hour-long raid on these posts, killing 24 soldiers. Enraged, Pakistan's government shut the two border crossings through which the US and NATO had until then sent a significant portion of their war supplies into Afghanistan. Its officials also forced the US to vacate Shamsi air base, which was being used by the CIA as a staging area for its drone air war in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border. The drone strikes are exceedingly unpopular – one poll found 97 percent of respondents viewed them negatively—and they are vehemently condemned by a large section of the Pakistani public and its politicians.
Furthermore, the government ordered a comprehensive review of all programs, activities, and cooperation arrangements with the US and NATO. It also instructed the country's two-tier parliament to conduct a thorough review of Islamabad's relations with Washington. Having taken the moral high ground, the Pakistani government pressed its demands on the Obama administration.
An appointed Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) then deliberately moved at a snail's pace to perform the task on hand, while the Pentagon explored alternative ways of ferrying goods into Afghanistan via other countries to sustain its war there. By contrast, a vociferous campaign against the reopening of the Pakistani supply lines led by the Difa-e Pakistan Council (Defense of Pakistan), representing 40 religious and political groups, headed by Hafiz Saeed, took off. Its leaders have addressed huge rallies in major Pakistani cities. It was quick to condemn Washington's bounty on Saeed, describing it as "a nefarious attempt" to undermine the Council's drive to protect the country's sovereignty.
Meanwhile, the loss of the daily traffic of 500 trucks worth of food, fuel, and weapons from the Pakistani port of Karachi through the Torkham and Chaman border crossings into Afghanistan, though little publicized in US media, has undermined the fighting capability of US and NATO forces.