(A version of this blog was published in The Australian on 11 April 2012)
Washington’s decision last week to post a US$10 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a terrorist organization accused of being behind the Mumbai attack in 2008 which killed 166 people, will not help put US-Pakistan relations back on track.
On the contrary, it will complicate matters further, both bilaterally and regionally.
This award is on par as the one offered for the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar, who is said to be hiding in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan’s province in western Pakistan.
The LeT was banned in Pakistan in 2002, but it metamorphosed into a successor organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a highly popular charity organisation. A UN Security Council committee has placed Saeed and the JuD on a list of people with links to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The Indians have demanded the arrest of Saeed for his alleged role in the Mumbai attacks. But the Pakistanis have stressed all along that there was not enough evidence to arrest him. Saeed has persistently denied any involvement in the Mumbai terrorist attacks.
It is unclear what prompt the US State Department to post this bounty on its website at this critical time when bilateral relations are in effect in a state of freeze since November 2011, when 26 Pakistani soldiers were accidentally killed by NATO planes during an operation against Taliban fighters along the border. Pakistan claims the killings were deliberate.
The Obama administration has been very keen to re-establish some sort of normalcy in its relationship with Pakistan, a critical player in the lead up to America’s and other Western nations’ departure from Afghanistan in 2014.
In retaliation for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers, Islamabad stopped all convoys which supply 30 to 50 per cent of all the non-lethal material needs of the foreign troops in Afghanistan from going through Pakistan. Washington has had to rely on a northern supply route instead, adding millions of dollars in cost.
Following the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers, the Pakistani government, supported by the military, decided to review root and branch the country’s relationship with the US. Wishing to keep some distance from the whole matter, and with the support of all major parties, the government requested a parliamentary committee to do the review and to come up with recommendations for ‘restarting’ the bilateral relationship.
The parliamentary committee has not yet finalised its report. However, one of the recommendations that is likely to be put forward is for the restoration of the supply lines to be explicitly tied to the cessation of un-manned American drone strikes against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
Washington will certainly not accept such conditions. Those drone attacks have been highly successful in killing high-valued targets, including Pakistani Taliban terrorists who have wrecked death and destruction throughout Pakistan for several years.
But the drone attacks have also caused many civilian casualties and this alone has fed an already virulent and rampant anti-Americanism. And Hafiz Saeed has exploited this for all it’s worth at large rallies throughout the country.
Saeed, who accuses the US of wanting to destroy Pakistan, is also at the forefront of protests against any resumption of the NATO supply lines. His popularity makes the pro-American government of President Zardari very uncomfortable and nervous.
According to the Pakistani interior minister, Pakistan was not told before hand that Washington was going to post a reward for the arrest of Saeed. However, to add insult to injury, this decision was announced by the visiting US Under-Secretary of Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman, on her first visit to India.
This was music to Indian ears; it was poison for the Pakistanis.
The timing of the announcement was doubly poor because it came days before President Zardari went on a private trip to India to visit a famous Sufi shrine. This was the first trip to India by a Pakistani president since 2005.
Surprisingly, the visit still went ahead and appears to have gone smoothly. Zardari had a one-to-one lunch with Indian Prime Minister Singh, as planned. Singh even accepted an invitation to visit Pakistan – where he was born pre-Partition, but only if something substantial, including on the issue of Saeed, could be achieved.
Notwithstanding these positive atmospherics, for the Pakistanis the location and timing of the American announcement simply confirms the progressive deepening of US-Indian relations since the 2006 nuclear deal Washington made with New Delhi. This is a development which would be of deep concern to Islamabad, particularly given India’s increasing involvement in Afghanistan.
Needless to say, the Pakistani government is not about to hand over Saeed. He has too many important friends in government and in the military and too many followers for that to happen. And the Americans would have known this.
So why didn’t Washington simply wait until after US-Pakistan bilateral relations had been restored to normal? The timing of this announcement simply makes life that much more difficult for the pro-American government in Islamabad to deliver what Washington needs.
So all in all, the Obama Administration will now be further away from achieving its goals in Pakistan, which include having it play a constructive role in the lead-up to the West’s smooth departure from Afghanistan in 2014.