KARACHI - Reverberations continue from the attack by a US Predator drone on the village of Damadola in Pakistan's Bajur tribal area last week. The raid was designed to root out al-Qaeda operatives believed to be in the area, but larger forces are at play.
On the one hand, some call the strike, in which 18 people were killed, a calculated risk by the US in the "war on terror". Othersclaim that it was a part of President General Pervez Musharraf's delicate tightrope walk to
balance his image at home with that of the face he projects abroad as a USally.
President Shaukat Aziz, on a visit to the United States, has categorically denied on US television that Pakistan was told in advance of the raid, and also rejected US claims that a few senior al-Qaeda figures died in the attack. However, Asia Times Online has reported that Islamabad definitely knew of the attack.
Certainly, the attack in Bajur has many facets to it. On one side, it has broken the semblance of niceties and courtesies between Washington and Islamabad, at the same time conveying the United States' desperation in making significant progress against al-Qaeda.
And at least one person well versed in the labyrinthine geopolitics of the region sees the attack as a way of ratcheting up pressure on Musharraf to hand over nuclear scientist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan for direct interrogation by the US.
According to the former director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), retired Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul, Washington wants Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, to provide the smoking gun it needs to prove that Iran has a clandestine nuclear-weapons program. Khan, under virtual house arrest in Pakistan, has confessed to nuclear-proliferation activities, including dealings with Iran.
Pakistanrefuses any access to him. The issue now, therefore, is just how much further the US will go (more attacks on Pakistani territory?), and how much Pakistan will cooperate in such endeavors, given the growing groundswell of anti-US sentiment in Pakistan.
Pakistan is definitely caught between a rock and a hard place. But then so, too, is the US.
Blame it on Afghanistan
Suicide bombings in Afghanistan are now widespread. These began last winter - for the first time in the history of the country - and have escalated this cold season, allowing the resistance to show its muscle in this traditionally quiet period for militant activities.
The US has invested millions of dollars in Afghanistan to nurture loyalties among clerics, soldiers, the administration and political leaders.
It applied a technique of creating vested interests, which initially worked. However, the organized terror tactics of the Taliban have seriously undermined these efforts, and with the way in which the Afghan resistance is growing, there is a strong chance that all pro-US political developments will go back to square one.
The difficulty for the US is that the resistance uses Pakistani territory both as a haven and to obtain supplies. More than a dozen remote passes in the Pakistani-administered tribal areas link the two countries, and a wild no-man's land also provides a sanctuary for hit-and-run militants launching attacks in Afghanistan.
The United States' frustration at this situation has forced it to undertake its own raids inside Pakistan.
Pakistani intelligence agencies have been sharing intelligence with the USever since Islamabad sided with Washington in the "war on terror" after September 11, 2001, and they have never hidden the fact that the tribal areas were likely sanctuaries for the Afghan resistance, including Taliban commanders, al-Qaeda members and commanders of the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan, a key component of the resistance.
Last year, Pakistani agencies confirmed with US intelligence that there was a strong pro-Taliban movement in North Waziristan's area of Dand-i-Darpakhel, from where attacks were launched on Khost across the border. A joint team of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and the ISI conducted a raid, but except for a few foot soldiers they failed to arrest any significant figures, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani or any of his top commanders, including his son Siraj.
In sharing intelligence with the Americans, Pakistan's strategic quarters did not believe that the US would dare step into the tribal areas as traditionally they have been a death trap for invading armies. However, the US had other ideas.
Commander Nek Mohammed was the first target. Nek, a charismatic former Taliban commander, was killed in a raid near Wana, the district headquarters of South Waziristan, in June 2004. Pakistan and the US had shared all information on him, but while Pakistan wanted to strike a deal with him, the Americans saw him as a key enemy and wanted him eliminated - which they did with a laser-guided missile.
Al-Qaeda commander Hamza Rabia is a second example of US intervention in Pakistan. He was tracked and then killed by a missile fired by a US Predator in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, last year.
And now there is the incident at Bajur. The Americans had tracked the movement of militants to and from Kunar in Afghanistan, and they informed the Pakistani authorities that they would carry out action against them. USspy drones had been flying in the Bajur-Kunar area for three days prior to the attack, and had been tracked on Pakistani radar.
Security officials tell Asia Times Online that these three examples are a prelude of things to come as the US tracks more bases of the Afghan resistance in areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This region starts in Jalalabad-Torkham and ends at Kandahar-Chaman. At times it branches into areas controlled by Pakistan.
Pakistan argues that it is extremely difficult to send the military into this rugged territory, and that if US forces were allowed to operate there, the Taliban-led insurgency would be dragged into Pakistani territory.
The US appears tired of hearing this, and can be expected to take matters more into its own hands.
The Iran factor
"The Bajur attack is more political than military," said former ISI chief Gul. "On one side it carried a message that they [the Americans] would play their game of 'war on terror' on their terms, and would destroy their enemies, even on Pakistani soil. The killing of Nek Mohammed, Hamza Rabia and the current incident of Bajur are examples.
"However, there is reverse swing [an unexpected angle] in this game," said Gul. "The Americans cannot get any concrete evidence on Iran's nuclear program [that it plans to build nuclear weapons], and without such evidence they will not take the matter to the [United Nations] Security Council. They have been pressing hard on Pakistan to hand over Dr A Q Khan for interrogation because they understand that this is the only way to get evidence on Iran's nuclear program. So apparently they are trying to put Pakistan in a serious quagmire by giving it the option to either bear constant air strikes in Pakistani territory or hand over Dr Khan," Gul maintained.
"At the same time, to further strangulate Musharraf, they are once again beating the drum of democracy. Now there are clear voices from Washington in favor of democracy in Pakistan. I recall a situation in which the late Pakistani premier, Mohammed Khan Junejo, visited the US [in 1986], and when he returned, his attitude towards the late [dictator] General Zia ul-Haq changed. To me, Shaukat Aziz' [present] US visit, given the current situation, is of significance and we will have to see what secret message he brings back with him," Gul said.
Asia Times Online