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Pakistan opens its door to US ops
By Syed Saleem Shahzad |
ISLAMABAD - The Pakistani Embassy in Washington has lifted all scrutiny mechanisms for granting visas to defense-related American officials. Under the new procedures, implemented two weeks ago, officials will be granted visas in 24 hours.
Previously, under pressure from the armed forces, all applications for visas by United States defense officials were passed on to Pakistan's Ministry of Defense, which in turn sent them to the directorate of Military Intelligence. After several months of scrutiny, visas were either granted or denied.
The new procedures were laid down on the direct intervention of the office of President Asif Ali Zardari to facilitate the Americans
in their quest to directly hunt down militant networks in Pakistani cities, where Washington believes major attacks in Europe are being planned and also from where the insurgency in Afghanistan is being directed. Compared with 2009, US drones have doubled their air-to-ground attacks during 2010, to more than 100 on militant sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas.
The development on visas occurred slightly before this weekend's Lisbon summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, where it emerged there was no clear end-game strategy for the mission in Afghanistan.
NATO leaders pledged to begin the process of withdrawal and handing over of authority for security to Afghan security forces from 2011, and to transfer complete control by the end of 2014, though they clarified that the date given for shifting authority to the Afghan government was not a deadline.
Between the lines, the declaration implies the continuation of the American-led war against al-Qaeda and Taliban with a new dimension from next year.
Over the past year in Afghanistan, NATO has to a large extent been fighting shadows, with the enemy hardly showing up other than to cause havoc with improvised explosive devices. The Americans now appear to want to turn the broader battlefield into a focused anti-insurgency campaign through targeted special operations. One major development in this regard is the expansion of the American embassies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, announced recently that a US$511 million contract had been awarded to Caddell Construction to build the world's largest embassy in Kabul and that a contract worth $734 million had been awarded to B L Harbert for a new US Embassy compound in Pakistan, which would virtually be an American base in Islamabad complete with an air strip - all at a cost of more than $1 billion. (See US's $1bn Islamabad home is its castle August 4, 2009.)
"A three-pronged American strategy is visible for Pakistan that clearly concerns Pakistan's security establishment," a senior security official told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity.
"The Americans increasingly want to have direct intervention and control in counter-terrorism operations and want to expand their operations from the tribal regions into the cities," the official said. He added that the US also aimed to broaden its influence through local private security contractors as well as by investing in think-tanks to motivate the Pakistani intelligentsia in favor of a regional anti-insurgency campaign.
"In this new campaign, the Americans aim to reduce the role of the Pakistani security forces and they want to directly deal with the insurgents," the official said.
This would be a third phase of the counter-insurgency operations the Americans have adopted in Pakistan since Islamabad sided with the US in the "war on terror" after September 11, 2001.
During former president General Pervez Musharraf's regime (June 2001-August 2008), broader counter-insurgency operations were essentially devised and controlled by Pakistani security agencies. The US Central Intelligence Agency did not have any input, and if it did receive a tip-off on any high-profile target, coordination with the Inter-Services Intelligence was a must.
Immediately after Musharraf stepped down as army chief and then as president in August 2008, the Americans adopted a policy of direct intervention and control through drone strikes. The Zardari government was completely on board with this and the weak military establishment in the post-Musharraf era did not have much space to oppose the drone operations.
American defense contractors were deployed to enhance the level of operations, but in the meantime the military gained strength and started to put its foot down over the largely unchecked American operations in Pakistan and tighter visa procedures were put in place.
Nonetheless, the Americans were desperate to jack up the level of their counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan. Initially, they worked some backchannels with the help of the Pakistani government to by-pass the scrutiny of military intelligence of defense-related personnel.
Asia Times Online broke the story that this year 50 foreign nationals, including officials of a private American defense contracting firm, had arrived in Pakistan even though they did not have security clearance from Pakistan's intelligence agencies. (See Peace sacrificed in shrine attack July 3, 2010.)
These people had earlier been denied visas by the Pakistani embassies they first approached, including in the US, Britain and India. However, they were apparently subsequently given visas by the embassy in Abu Dhabi and the consulate in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This was done without the prerequisite clearance from the Pakistani Ministry of Interior, the Defense Ministry and the security agencies.
"These included over a dozen US nationals who had already been denied visas by our embassy in Washington on suspicion of them having links to Blackwater Xe Services," a source told Asia Times Online, adding that the visas had been issued for periods of six months to two years, although usually visas are only given for 90 days.
The report was later confirmed officially by the Pakistani government; Pakistani security officials investigated the matter and new checks were put in place - and are now lifted.
However, Washington is convinced that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won unless its sphere is broadened into Pakistan. Pakistan's economic compulsions - it receives extensive US aid and support - were sufficient grounds to exploit and when America recently applied pressure on Islamabad to lift the visa procedures, Pakistan quietly removed them.
"This is a litmus test for the Pakistani military establishment, which does not want to give the Americans a free walk inside Pakistan." a source close to Pakistan's military quarters told Asia Times Online. "At the same time, Pakistan does not want to lose its allies in Afghanistan, which are obviously the Islamist groups. However, the battle has reached a level where the Americans can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to Pakistan's soft handling of those Islamist groups. Also, the economic quagmire in the country is deepening, and antagonizing the Americans, who are aid masters, is no option either," the source said.
However, a clash of interests between the Pakistani military establishment and Washington now appears likely. Washington understands that during winter, fighting in Afghanistan slows down and a major chunk of insurgents goes to Pakistan's cities to see their families, especially in places like Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. The Americans want to take action during this period, but the Pakistani military establishment cannot allow this to happen.
Whether Pakistan is ready to pay the cost if it tries to impede American operations is another matter as the US is already upset with Islamabad's refusal to launch operations against the powerful Haqqani network in the North Waziristan tribal area. That is, is the loss of military and economic aid an affordable option?
Pakistan has already expanded its arms procurement base, notably with China, with which it is negotiating a submarine purchase deal, beside several air-defense system deals. These military ties are expected to deepen as an alternative to American military support.
Likewise, despite American opposition, Pakistan has signed on to an Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project to help meet its energy needs.
"Iran offered Pakistan all sorts of assistance, but Pakistan could not fully exploit that. It included offers of soft loans as well as support for building the infrastructure in Pakistan that would facilitate trade routes between Iran, Pakistan and Turkey," M B Abbasi, who was recently Pakistan's ambassador to Iran, told Asia Times Online.
"It is so sad. Iran allocated 1,100 megawatts of electricity for Pakistan and assured Pakistan that it had 5,000 MW in surplus energy that it could further allocate for Pakistan, but Pakistan did not take any interest to exploit that opportunity," Abbasi said.
Asia Times Online has learned that Pakistan refused this offer of Iranian support on American pressure, but Abbasi would not comment on this.
However, the Iranian card is still available to Pakistan if the Americans push through with operations inside Pakistan, something that now looks likely with Washington having managed to by-pass the military and use the government to facilitate a free flow of security operatives into the country.