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Pak a terror sponsor? US experts' opinion mixed

By Aziz Haniffa
May 28, 2012 14:59 IST
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While the consensus seemingly among Barack Obama administration and US congressional lawmakers and several policy wonks who deal with South Asia at leading think tanks is that Pakistan meets all of the criteria to be designated a state sponsor of terrorism, opinion is mixed among security experts if it would serve any purpose or be counter-productive.

Bill Roggio, senior fellow and editor of Long War Journal at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, who has been researching Pakistan-based terrorism for the past 10 years even since 9/11, believes that Islamabad has been playing Washington for so long that the latter has lost any semblance of leverage.

Thus, he believes it's time to throw the book at Pakistan and not only designate it as a state sponsor of terrorism but completely cut off trade links, stop issuing visas to Pakistani citizens and start expelling Pakistani citizens from the US.

Roggio said, "We are just coddling Pakistan at this point," and argued that "our policy with respect to Pakistan is an absolute mess."

"We have a state sponsor of terror inside of Pakistan and yet, we deal with Pakistan as if it's a country we can work with," he said. "The sooner we recognise this," the better and "the sooner that we can start making policy which makes sense with regard to Pakistan."

Roggio said not only does Lashkar-e-Tayiba leader Hafeez Saeed "appear freely on TV, but he routinely meets with Pakistani generals and Pakistani political figures, and he is a popular personality in Pakistan," although he is "one of the most wanted terrorists in the world."

"I believe his bounty is only exceeded by (Ayman al) Zawahiri's -- the $10 million bounty on his head, which is equal to that of Mullah Omar and only Zawahiri has a $25 million bounty on his head."

Roggio said that "Pakistan has been extremely shrewd in how they've operated since 9/11. We are dependent on Pakistan or have been till the last six months for our supply lines into Afghanistan."

While acknowledging that Pakistan has supported the US operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, he said, "At the same time they refuse to move against the groups -- the life-blood of the Al Qaeda, which are the Pakistani jihadi groups because these groups are just considered wayward brothers."

Roggio said, "We've been willing to turn a blind eye towards Pakistan's action towards these various groups because we've compartmentalised it -- we've said, these are really Kashmiri jihadist groups that are fighting local resistance and that's a Pakistan-India problem, it's not a global jihad problem."

"But the reality is, when you look at all these groups and how they operate and shelter each other, provide support, provide training camps, it's all one big problem and we know this -- it's known as the top levels -- but we turned a blind eye because the reality is that for us to recognise this and deal with this, we have to call a spade a spade and we know we are not going to Pakistan on this because we are overly reliant on them -- we always want to seek some type of accommodation with Pakistan."

Roggio reiterated that he personally did not believe "it's possible. As a matter of fact, Pakistan is in a stronger position today than it has been in any other year. Drone strikes are down in there because of pressure, they shut our supply lines down in Afghanistan, we are leaving Afghanistan."

"Any leverage we have against the Pakistanis, they know we are not willing to declare them a state sponsor of terror or we are not willing to actually demand that they do something against these terror groups."

Roggio argued that "they've learnt -- the elements within Pakistan that's been called the real power, the real state, the ISI and military -- over the last 10 years that they could play this game and win."

But two erstwhile CIA officials, Lisa Curtis and Bruce Riedel, currently with the Heritage Foundation and Brookings Institution respectively, where they are senior fellows, said such a designation would be counterproductive.

Curtis said, there is no denying that Pakistan has "assisted the United States in getting a handle on Al Qaeda and the fact that there is still a chance that we can convince them it's in their own interests to crack down on these groups."

She pointed out that, "As I said, Pakistan has clearly helped in the capture of Al Qaeda leaders, whether Abu Zubeida or others. This is where the confusion sets in -- because Abu Zubeida was apparently at a LeT safe house which has connections to ISI, but Pakistan also helped in that operation."

"So you have a very confused situation where they do have some links at some level -- within the ISI to these groups -- and sometimes these people retire, they leave their job and they use the knowledge that they have and their connections with Pakistani institutions to help the militants."

Curtis said even in all of the brain-storming that has gone on about whether senior Pakistani leaders knew that Osama bin Laden was hiding out in Abbottabad, "and of course, we've heard (Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton and other senior US officials testify before Congress that the US found no information in all these files down in Abbottabad that senior Pakistani leaders knew he was there. And you ask yourself, how could that be?"

Riedel said, "To my knowledge, only one administration in recent years has seriously looked at the question of putting Pakistan on a state sponsorship level -- that was the first Bush (George H W Bush) administration, which contemplated it in 1992 and interestingly did so largely over Kashmir and Sikh related terrorism (which Pakistan allegedly was funding and supporting to destabilise India) -- not the global jihadist variety."

But in the end, he recalled, "Although a pretty substantial case was made by the counter-terrorism bodies inside the US government that Pakistan deserved to be on the list, it didn't get on the list for the simple reason because it's a blunt instrument."

Riedel argued that "once you put a country on the terrorism list, first of all, it's almost impossible to come off. Iraq got off the list because we invaded and occupied the country."

"Second, once you are on, the United States cannot engage with that country anymore -- we can't have military assistance, we can't have economic assistance and even the level of diplomatic interaction we have with them becomes sharply constrained."

Thus, Riedel said, "All the levers that you want to use on that country are basically gone and gone in perpetuity."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC