July Surprise?

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JULY 19, 2004

July Surprise?

Late last month, President Bush lost his greatest advantage in his
bid for reelection. A poll conducted by ABC News and The Washington
Post discovered that challenger John Kerry was running even with
the president on the critical question of whom voters trust to
handle the war on terrorism. Largely as a result of the
deteriorating occupation of Iraq, Bush lost what was, in April, a
seemingly prohibitive 21-point advantage on his signature issue.
But, even as the president's poll numbers were sliding, his
administration was implementing a plan to insure the public's
confidence in his hunt for Al Qaeda.This spring, the administration significantly increased its pressure
on Pakistan to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman
Al Zawahiri, or the Taliban's Mullah Mohammed Omar, all of whom are
believed to be hiding in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. A
succession of high-level American officials--from outgoing CIA
Director George Tenet to Secretary of State Colin Powell to
Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca to State Department
counterterrorism chief Cofer Black to a top CIA South Asia
official--have visited Pakistan in recent months to urge General
Pervez Musharraf's government to do more in the war on terrorism.
In April, Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Afghanistan,
publicly chided the Pakistanis for providing a "sanctuary" for Al
Qaeda and Taliban forces crossing the Afghan border. "The problem
has not been solved and needs to be solved, the sooner the better,"
he said.

This public pressure would be appropriate, even laudable, had it not
been accompanied by an unseemly private insistence that the
Pakistanis deliver these high-value targets (HVTs) before Americans
go to the polls in November. The Bush administration denies it has
geared the war on terrorism to the electoral calendar. "Our
attitude and actions have been the same since September 11 in terms
of getting high-value targets off the street, and that doesn't
change because of an election," says National Security Council
spokesman Sean McCormack. But The New Republic has learned that
Pakistani security officials have been told they must produce HVTs
by the election. According to one source in Pakistan's powerful
Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), "The Pakistani government is
really desperate and wants to flush out bin Laden and his
associates after the latest pressures from the U.S. administration
to deliver before the [upcoming] U.S. elections." Introducing
target dates for Al Qaeda captures is a new twist in U.S.-Pakistani
counterterrorism relations--according to a recently departed
intelligence official, "no timetable[s]" were discussed in 2002 or
2003--but the November election is apparently bringing a new
deadline pressure to the hunt. Another official, this one from the
Pakistani Interior Ministry, which is responsible for internal
security, explains, "The Musharraf government has a history of
rescuing the Bush administration. They now want Musharraf to bail
them out when they are facing hard times in the coming elections."
(These sources insisted on remaining anonymous. Under Pakistan's
Official Secrets Act, an official leaking information to the press
can be imprisoned for up to ten years.)

A third source, an official who works under ISI's director,
Lieutenant General Ehsan ul-Haq, informed tnr that the Pakistanis
"have been told at every level that apprehension or killing of HVTs
before [the] election is [an] absolute must." What's more, this
source claims that Bush administration officials have told their
Pakistani counterparts they have a date in mind for announcing this
achievement: "The last ten days of July deadline has been given
repeatedly by visitors to Islamabad and during [ul-Haq's] meetings
in Washington." Says McCormack: "I'm aware of no such comment." But
according to this ISI official, a White House aide told ul-Haq last
spring that "it would be best if the arrest or killing of [any] HVT
were announced on twenty-six, twenty- seven, or twenty-eight
July"--the first three days of the Democratic National Convention
in Boston.

The Bush administration has matched this public and private pressure
with enticements and implicit threats. During his March visit to
Islamabad, Powell designated Pakistan a major non-nato ally, a
status that allows its military to purchase a wider array of U.S.
weaponry. Powell pointedly refused to criticize Musharraf for
pardoning nuclear physicist A.Q. Khan--who, the previous month, had
admitted exporting nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea, and
Libya-- declaring Khan's transgressions an "internal" Pakistani
issue. In addition, the administration is pushing a five-year, $3
billion aid package for Pakistan through Congress over Democratic
concerns about the country's proliferation of nuclear technology
and lack of democratic reform.

But Powell conspicuously did not commit the United States to selling
F-16s to Pakistan, which it desperately wants in order to tilt the
regional balance of power against India. And the Pakistanis fear
that, if they don't produce an HVT, they won't get the planes.
Equally, they fear that, if they don't deliver, either Bush or a
prospective Kerry administration would turn its attention to the
apparent role of Pakistan's security establishment in facilitating
Khan's illicit proliferation network. One Pakistani general
recently in Washington confided in a journalist, "If we don't find
these guys by the election, they are going to stick this whole
nuclear mess up our asshole."

Pakistani perceptions of U.S. politics reinforce these worries. "In
Pakistan, there has been a folk belief that, whenever there's a
Republican administration in office, relations with Pakistan have
been very good," says Khalid Hasan, a U.S. correspondent for the
Lahore-based Daily Times. By contrast, there's also a "folk belief
that the Democrats are always pro-India." Recent history has
validated those beliefs. The Clinton administration inherited close
ties to Pakistan, forged a decade earlier in collaboration against
the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But, by the time Clinton left
office, the United States had tilted toward India, and Pakistan was
under U.S. sanctions for its nuclear activities. All this has given
Musharraf reason not just to respond to pressure from Bush, but to
feel invested in him--and to worry that Kerry, who called the Khan
affair a "disaster," and who has proposed tough new curbs on
nuclear proliferation, would adopt an icier line.

Bush's strategy could work. In large part because of the increased
U.S. pressure, Musharraf has, over the last several months,
significantly increased military activity in the tribal
areas--regions that enjoy considerable autonomy from Islamabad and
where, until Musharraf sided with the United States in the war on
terrorism, Pakistani soldiers had never set foot in the nation's
50-year history. Thousands of Pakistani troops fought a pitched
battle in late March against tribesmen and their Al Qaeda
affiliates in South Waziristan in hopes of capturing Zawahiri. The
fighting escalated significantly in June. Attacks on army camps in
the tribal areas brought fierce retaliation, leaving over 100
tribal and foreign militants and Pakistani soldiers dead in three
days. Last month, Pakistan killed a powerful Waziristan warlord and
Qaeda ally, Nek Mohammed, in a dramatic rocket attack that
villagers said bore American fingerprints. (They claim a U.S. spy
plane had been circling overhead.) Through these efforts, the
Pakistanis could bring in bin Laden, Mullah Omar, or Zawahiri--a
significant victory in the war on terrorism that would bolster
Bush's reputation among voters.

But there is a reason many Pakistanis and some American officials
had previously been reluctant to carry the war on terrorism into
the tribal areas. A Pakistani offensive in that region, aided by
American high-tech weaponry and perhaps Special Forces, could unite
tribal chieftains against the central government and precipitate a
border war without actually capturing any of the HVTs. Military
action in the tribal areas "has a domestic fallout, both religious
and ethnic," Pakistani Foreign Minister Mian Khursheed Mehmood
Kasuri complained to the Los Angeles Times last year. Some American
intelligence officials agree. "Pakistan just can't risk a civil war
in that area of their country. They can't afford a western border
that is unstable," says a senior intelligence official, who
anonymously authored the recent Imperial Hubris: Why the West is
Losing the War on Terror and who says he has not heard that the
current pressures on Pakistan are geared to the election. "We may be
at the point where [Musharraf] has done almost as much as he can."

Pushing Musharraf to go after Al Qaeda in the tribal areas may be a
good idea despite the risks. But, if that is the case, it was a
good idea in 2002 and 2003. Why the switch now? Top Pakistanis
think they know: This year, the president's reelection is at
stake.

Massoud Ansari reported from Karachi.

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