The Bajaur Attack: Abiding Distrust and Hot Pursuits

More than two weeks after the attack two key issues remained unresolved; US apology for undermining Pakistani sovereignty and preventing such attacks in the future. Pakistan was not informed of the attack until after it took place. Reportedly General Musharraf was told after it had taken place.

The first formal reaction came from the Information Minister said the attack was "highly condemnable" but also that Pakistan had been " for a long time striving to rid all tribal areas of foreign intruders who have been responsible for all the misery and violence in the region." He emphasized that "It is also the responsibility of the people of the areas to fully cooperate with the Government in flushing out the foreign militants so that complete peace prevails in the areas, ensuring speedy development for which the Government has allocated vast resources." Significantly five days after the highly offensive US attack General Musharraf chose to not refer to it in his January 18 national address.

As the response net of official reactions widened contradictory statements began emerging. Especially over the issue of whether any foreigners were killed or whether dead bodies disappeared. Unnamed sources from intelligence agencies were claiming three or four members of al-Qaeda were killed. Later that was denied. In fact as recent as last week in Davos General Musharraf said dead bodies did disappear.

In New York the Prime Minister said there was no confirmation of foreigners being killed in the attack. A categorical statement from Islamabad regarding prior knowledge about the attack also came late in the day. Only after the Pakistani and the US press kept wondering if Pakistan did actually know.

Intriguingly neither the government of Pakistan nor the main Opposition party the PPP sought apology or compensation from the Bush Administration. Only the MMA and the PML-N did, but in their public statements alone.

For example in the formal forum of the Pakistan Senate the entire political spectrum of Pakistan has been more careful. On January 25 a unanimous resolution was adopted by the Senate which condemned the attack, loss of innocent lives" and "violation of the sovereignty…" The resolution stressed that "maintenance of security inside the territory of Pakistan is the responsibility of Pakistani authorities…such intrusion in not acceptable under any circumstances."

Yet it did not blame the US or ask for an apology. Instead it twice underscored the "importance of friendly cooperative relations" between Pakistan and the US. The entire opposition including the MMA supported the resolution, which stressed that the two countries "utilize the available institutional mechanisms for better coordination in the context of efforts against terrorism".

The government’s staggered response has included complaint about its sovereignty being undermined, its national interest being undermined, mild condemnation of the attack, gradual denial that Pakistan knew of the attack and regret over the loss of life. Not once has the President, Prime Minister or the PPPP chairperson demanded US apology or compensation. Instead they have all underscored the need to deal with the problem of " foreign terrorists on Pakistani soil." More recently in Davos, Musharraf balanced out his criticism of the attack as he said that "While we condemn this attack, there are foreigners in Pakistan….any interference in force by any country is violation of sovereignty, but so is the presence of foreigners on our soil."

The strong public anger against the attacks has been reflected in the media and through street protests raises basic questions regarding a government’s responsibility towards it citizens. If the US is conducting anti-terrorism operations to protect its citizens the primary obligation that the Pakistani government has is towards its own citizens. Is it doing so ? Or in fact its participation in the US "war on terrorism" is compromising the security of its own citizens ? A people already going through psychological convulsions in a highly volatile and polarized international context and at the hands of a State that has clumsily switched its ideological moorings, will only be outraged by such an attack. It killed women and children too.

But this public condemnation is not finding expression in policy moves. Why ? Because the government knows Washington’s concerns, complaints and future campaigns. Here in Washington they ‘mean business.’ They maintain heightened talibaan activity initiated from the talibaan sanctuaries inside Pakistan, the picking up of "Arab chatter in Pakistan’s tribal belt, the increase in the number of US soldiers killed inside Afghanistan through "cross-border attacks" and the re-emergence of banned religious groups in earthquake hit areas means the Pakistan government is not doing enough to "dismantle them. In fact, the reemergence of banned groups in the earthquake rehabilitation work means they are there and intact and can regroup any time and carry operations in J & K.

With this list of complaints General Musharraf’s assertions that there is "no country has done as much as we have in countering terrorism," and that Pakistan fought terrorism militarily and shared critical information with other countries and helped save many lives, is unlikely to dent Washington’s skepticism regarding Pakistan’s intentions.

More hot pursuits will follow the January 13 one. There has been no apology. No mention either of compensating the families of the 18 civilian killed by the attacks. Instead the US Senator McCain categorically stated there could be more such attacks to nab "terrorists."

In his meetings when Shaukat Aziz raised the issue of the attacks with the US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld he was told that ‘fleeting targets’ made it difficult for the US to get clearance from the Pakistani government. The Americans like on previous occasions again promised to give night equipment etc for conducting anti-terrorist operations. The endless delay probably indicates Washington’s hesitation in giving this equipment to Pakistan.

The reason for Washington not informing Pakistan before the Bajaur attack was simply that the Americans believed there was a possibility of some elements within Pakistani institutions, which would help the targets to flee. And the Washington Post editorial, written perhaps after an off-the-record briefing, clearly spelt out this distrust factor. It advocated more US air strikes on Pakistani territory if US intelligence indicates that as the area of talibaan or al-Qaeda operation.

This is then the fundamental issue and the abiding problem that the Bajaur attack raises for Pakistan. The Information Minister’s statement that "We want to assure the people that we will not allow such incident to recur," is well-intentioned but untrue. The Americans have other plans.

Pakistan and the United States will have to engage seriously on this issue. Pakistan cannot have the blood of its citizens flowing to protect US citizens against real or imagined terrorists. Pakistan’s contributions to the war on terrorism have been unparalleled. Dozens of Pakistani soldiers have been killed in the tribal belt.

Despite this why then the abiding American concerns and its intentions to carry on occasional operations inside Pakistan ? This calls for candid engagement by the two allies to achieve a goal that the entire region shares. Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan all seek the common goal that US does- the end of militia power that has undermined State authority over last two decades. To achieve this objective Pakistan and the US have an elaborate collaborative institutional arrangement in place. That must be fully utilized to address the mutual concerns. Not just the concerns of Washington. Meanwhile any unilateral actions by Washington that undermine Pakistan’s legitimate concerns will unlikely help to address even Washington’s own legitimate concerns.