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America’s Priority is Now Pakistan | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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During a meeting, a veteran American official close to the White House stated that America’s focus should be on Pakistan and “protecting the Pakistani army in particular.” He explained that the major generals in the Pakistani army are exceptional; however the problem lies with the officers as “they were trained with the Taliban and the Mujahideen during the [war against the] Soviet Union and as a result, they have close and complicated ties to them.”

“The US administration did not know how to deal with former Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf and Pakistan ended up under the presidency of Asif Ali Zardari despite everything that is known about his past.” The American politician admitted that the Pakistani-Afghan border region constitutes a major problem and that the US administration, with its various branches, is struggling to find a solution for it.

During the discussion, the official explained that Iran will come to be second in the list of priorities, especially that American, Israeli and international pressure has delayed significantly in ending Iran’s nuclear program and that disputes have occurred between Iranian officials. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to prepare for war whilst former president Hashemi Rafsanjani is calling for deliberation “even though we know that he is waging on a change in US administration and US withdrawal from Iraq so that Iran could resume its nuclear program effectively without being supervised.”

My meeting with the American politician took place two days after the terrorist attack that struck the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad and a few days before Democrat Howard Berman, Chairman of the US Congress House Committee on Foreign Affairs, decided to shelve a resolution that called for American President George W. Bush to launch a naval blockade against Iran.

The resolution’s critics saw that some of the passages in the resolution justified a blockade against Iran, and this could be considered an act of war under international law. To be fair, the Bush administration did not take a position on this resolution that was introduced last May when the price of oil reached its peak and when American generals became seriously concerned about the deteriorating situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and openly expressed their outright opposition to any military action against Iran.

Because the stability of Afghanistan, without doubt, depends on Pakistan and not Iraq, the US Central Command formed a group to devise a strategic assessment of the Middle East and Central Asia. General David Petraeus requested one hundred military, political and academic analysts to produce a strategic assessment of the situations in Pakistan and Afghanistan and wants to review the assessment before assuming his post as head of US Central Command at the end of this month. The assessment will also look at US presence in Iraq and the threats posed by Iran.

The biggest problem that the United States has faced since the beginning of the war against fanatic insurgents is Pakistan’s hesitation to confront Jihadists by force. The reason is that Islamabad does not want to marginalize the Taliban in Afghanistan because it sees the Taliban as the key to regaining influence in Afghanistan. Even after the emergence of Pakistani Taliban and its declaration of war against the Islamabad government and the fact that it asserted responsibility for the suicide operations that have left hundreds dead, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Pakistani politics continues to be based on distinguishing between rogue elements of the Taliban and those who are under its control.

This wavering Pakistani position, and the fact that some politicians in Washington believe that Pakistan is not serious about fulfilling its obligations as an ally in the war against terror, pushed Washington to take action by itself by carrying out air raids over Pakistani territory.

Washington believed that the Marriot Hotel terrorist operation would be a decisive factor and that after the bombing, the Pakistani government would decide to take real measures and confront its own “Taliban” and Jihadists who treat Pakistan as a safe haven, especially that this attack took place in an important part of the capital. The area is home to the residences of the president, the prime minister and numerous judges and it is the location of parliament, the Supreme Court, numerous television and radio stations and most ministries. Despite that security is tight in this area, Pakistani Taliban was able to carry out this large-scale operation, demonstrating a weakness in security.

It would appear that the Pakistani government is trapped; it is subjected to American pressure to take part in joint operations in the tribal border regions on one hand and subjected to internal opposition so as not to relinquish its sovereignty and allow foreign forces to fight on its territories on the other hand. However the Marriot Hotel attack, like other operations that are expected to follow, is a violation in itself of the “sovereignty” to which the government adheres.

Furthermore, the attack demonstrated that riding the Taliban’s back in order to regain [Pakistani] influence over Afghanistan could backfire on the Pakistani government and lead to the Taliban and Al Qaeda riding on the government’s back to destabilize Central Asia.

Following the Marriot Hotel attack, Pakistani forces opened fire on a US drone highlighting the level of tension and the danger of deterioration of relations between Washington and Islamabad. This took place as the new president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, addressed the UN General Assembly hinting that Pakistan needs supportive economic plans and financial opportunities more than military needs in order to confront terrorism as it is exposed to the war on terror more so than America.

There is no trust between the two sides; Pakistan has groups that protect the borders at night in their own way and their tribal loyalty is immeasurable and this pushes them to open fire on any American attempt to approach Pakistan’s borders. As for the American forces, their role enables them to respond by force if exposed to gunfire based on the idea that it is acting in self defense.

Last week, the US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the UN Charter allows the United States to defend itself against international terrorism in Pakistan if the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to deal with that threat.

Military analysts say that Pakistan has been transformed into a battlefield by the Jihadists to strike a blow against American interests before the American military prepares to attack Taliban and Al Qaeda bases on the borders. They add that the strategy that has been developed and that will be reviewed by Petraeus will be implemented at the beginning of 2009 and that coordination between the US Central Command and the Pakistani military has begun. The headquarters of the Pakistani Special Operation Taskforce is based approximately 20 kilometers away from Islamabad and recently, around 300 American officials, described as a “training advisory group,” landed here. It should be noted that in the mid-nineties, during the government of Nawaz Sharif, a unit affiliated to the CIA was also based at this facility and its mission was to track down and arrest Osama Bin Laden. This unit left Pakistan after Musharraf’s 1999 coup.

In 1998, the Marriot Hotel was the main location of the Taliban and I met a number of its members during my stay in the hotel.

Today, according to reports, the United States has bought a large plot of land close to the headquarters of the Pakistani Special Operation Task Force and US containers have been delivered to the area without the Pakistanis being allowed to inspect them. Some argue that the Americans are preparing for a major attack on the border regions against Taliban and Al Qaeda strongholds and expect that American forces will arrive there soon. Perhaps General Petraeus has preceded them with a plan similar to the one he implemented in Iraq that disbanded Al Qaeda fighters and replaced them with the Sahwa forces. In Pakistan, it is rumored that action is being taken to organize local forces in the Pashtun regions to confront the Taliban and its allies within Al Qaeda.

Nobody knows the extent to which Pakistan can go to confront the Jihadists. But it is apparent that the destruction of the Marriot Hotel demonstrated that Islamabad cannot remain on the defense nor can it impose its authority on the border regions without reducing the number of its forces on the borders with India.

As for the United States, it is in a period of transition and is facing financial and economic problems and may create two states as a result of its inability to pull the carpet from under the feet of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The situation in Pakistan might get worse before it gets better; however there will be a heavy price to pay and Pakistan is now directly under the US radar.