Air Strikes Expose an Uneven Alliance

Gulf News, January 25, 2006

The inherent weaknesses of Pakistan’s alliance with the United States were exposed in the aftermath of the recent US air strike inside Pakistani territory. Unmanned planes, controlled by the CIA, struck Damadola village in Bajaur district in the hope of killing Al Qaida’s number 2, Ayman Al Zawahiri, who is definitely a legitimate target in the global war against terrorism that Pakistan joined as an American ally in 2001.

Instead of Al Zawahiri, the air strikes killed 18 people, at least 14 of whom were Pakistani civilians. Some reports suggest that four of those killed were tied to Al Qaida but Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, on a visit to the US, denied any knowledge of the death of significant Al Qaida members during the attacks.

Several questions have arisen as a result of the US air strike, the fourth such incident since last year. Did the US inform the Pakistan government of their decision to strike, particularly General Pervez Musharraf or the highest officials of Pakistan’s intelligence service?

If yes, why are Pakistani officials denying the fact of such communication? According to Pakistani Minister for Information, Shaikh Rashid, “We neither had any information nor any of our security agencies were involved.” But US senators Evan Bayh and Trent Lott, both of whom serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee, have said that they had “every reason to believe” senior government officials in Pakistan were told of the strikes in advance.

Pakistan officially protested the air strikes and Aziz went to the extent of publicly declaring that such strikes were unacceptable to Pakistan though he did not say how Pakistan would act to reflect its unacceptability.

Pakistan really has few options in its alliance with the US. The military regime’s covert allies, Pakistan’s religious political parties, brought out a few thousand people on the streets to demonstrate against the US violation of Pakistani sovereignty. The largest of these demonstrations comprised 10,000 people.

Public Opinion

Only a few days earlier, Musharraf had pointed out that demonstrations of a few thousand people (in that case against the building of the Kalabagh Dam) were hardly a measure of public opinion in a nation of 150 million people.

This time, however, the small demonstrations were played up in the Pakistani media to tell the US that the Musharraf-Aziz alliance could be politically threatened domestically by going out on a limb for the Americans. If Pakistan was not forewarned, why did the US consider it necessary to bypass an allied government in trying to kill a terrorist both governments have been ostensibly hunting for together?

It could simply have been an operational necessity, a function of having little time between the necessary intelligence becoming available and organising an air strike. The target was too valuable to be lost while diplomatic niceties were addressed.

But had that been the case, Pakistan could have covered for the US as it did after a similar strike in North Waziristan on December 1, 2005. Then Al Qaida bomb-maker Abu Hamza Rabia was killed by an American air strike and Pakistan’s interior minister claimed that Rabia had been killed in an explosion caused by a bomb he was making.

In the case of the Damadola strikes, however, Pakistani authorities did not try to cover up American action by suggesting an alternative explanation. Part of the reason might be that the strike was deep inside Pakistani territory and did not yield a high value Al Qaida target.

The large number of civilian deaths caused by the strike rendered a cover-up impossible. Given the fact that most leading Al Qaida figures arrested in Pakistan were arrested in major urban centres, letting a direct American strike go without fuss could have set a precedent for a future strike in, say, Karachi, Rawalpindi or Faisalabad. The three cities have been the sites for the arrest of Ramzi Bin Al Shibh, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and Abu Zubaydah respectively.

Most worrying from Pakistan’s point of view is the alternative explanation for the US decision to use its own intelligence assets in trying to kill Al Zawahiri instead of asking Pakistan to act on information received by the US.

According to this version, the US does not consider Pakistani officials able or willing to kill or arrest Osama Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri.

If that is the case, Musharraf’s focus should be on improving his regime’s performance in the war against terrorism rather than on managing American and Pakistani perceptions. After having received the economic and political benefits of alliance with the United States, Pakistan’s military regime would either have to deliver on its promises to the US or run the risk of further American actions that may not always be pre-approved by the Pakistanis.