Pakistan’s Arrests Leave U.S. Uneasy
The trail of evidence in the British terrorism investigation is leading to an uncomfortable question for the Bush administration: Is Pakistan -- and not Iraq, Afghanistan or some other country -- the central front in the war on terrorism?
The alleged conspiracy described by British and American authorities serves as a reminder that one of the administration’s leading allies in the region is also host to some of its worst enemies. It also is igniting a debate on whether the administration’s effort to support Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has done enough to stem Islamic radicalism in a country whose citizens are among the most strongly anti-American in the world.
“This shows the need for more attention and more cooperation,” said Hassan Abbas, a terrorism expert who is a former Pakistani security official. “But it also says that some of the skepticism about Musharraf and his intelligence [agencies] and law enforcement is well-founded.”
Pakistan announced Friday that it had detained several suspects this week, including a British national considered an important figure in the alleged British plot. U.S. and British investigators say that some of the 24 people arrested in Britain, most of them British citizens of Pakistani descent, may have had ties to radical fundamentalist groups in Pakistan. Similarly, the bombers who attacked the London transit system last year had ties to Pakistani groups.
Although Musharraf has helped the Bush administration fight some terrorist organizations in his country, he has done little to halt others or bring to justice the government officials who support them. Yet the administration, already pressing Musharraf for help on a number of fronts, fears that pushing the weak leader of an unstable, nuclear-armed government too far could make matters worse.
President Bush, who has called Musharraf a “man of courage,” has given the Pakistani leader billions of dollars in aid, offered crucial political support and approved the sale of such advanced weapons as F-16 fighter jets.
In return, U.S. officials have been given many investigative leads on terrorism suspects, including members of Al Qaeda. Americans also have received help on the Pakistani-Afghan border and pledges to halt nuclear proliferation activities.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks; Ramzi Binalshibh, who managed the attack; and Abu Zubeida, Al Qaeda’s onetime operations director, were all captured in Pakistan.
“They’ve put their blood and treasure on the line in the war on terrorism,” a State Department official said Friday, referring to the Pakistani government. “They’re a partner.”
U.S. and British authorities have strongly praised the Pakistani authorities, who arrested as many as 17 suspects, for their help in the alleged plot.
But Musharraf has balked at other U.S. requests, denying access, for example, to Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who as the father of his nation’s nuclear weapons program was a key figure in the spread of nuclear know-how around the world.
And even as Musharraf has gone after terrorist groups that he believes pose a threat to his government, he has resisted efforts to crack down on other organizations that he believes serve Pakistan’s interests against rival India, or have substantial domestic support. He has not been seen as energetic in helping U.S. forces find Taliban fighters in border regions, and has refused to go after groups that support the insurgency in the disputed, Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir.
Although some of these groups may appear distinct from the Al Qaeda terrorist network, many share a web of contacts and are part of a broader terrorist infrastructure in the country, Abbas said.
Musharraf “tries to differentiate between the two kinds of groups, but you can’t,” he said.
“Some of these members of organizations that focus on Kashmir were at some stage part of Al Qaeda,” Abbas said. “These people are still at large, and they’re getting support from sympathetic government officials. And there lies the problem.”
Congress has generally supported the administration’s approach to Pakistan and Musharraf, but some U.S. lawmakers contend that tough moves are needed now more than ever.
Others contend that Pakistan needs to bring about fundamental internal change to make its society less hostile to the United States and the rest of the West.
James Dobbins, a former Bush administration envoy to Afghanistan, said that although the highest American priority has been Iraq, Pakistan should get more attention.
“Clearly, Pakistan is the central front in the war on terrorism,” said Dobbins, who heads the Rand Corp.'s national security program. “It should be the highest American priority to help Pakistan move toward a more modern and tolerant society.”
Dobbins said the administration was correct in worrying that too much pressure on the Pakistani government would be a mistake.
“It’s not so much that the administration officials are dupes or don’t understand the country,” he said. “It’s that they don’t see any feasible way to increase pressure on Musharraf without provoking unanticipated and highly counterproductive consequences.”
He predicted that while the discovery of the alleged plot in Britain “might put some strain on the relationship, it could also lead to a greater focus on how things can be improved.”
The administration is hindered by the fact that it needs Pakistan’s help in so many ways, said Stephen P. Cohen, a Brookings Institution expert on South Asia. “The Pakistanis, frankly, control the agenda.”