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Sunday, July 29, 2007

INSIGHT: Intelligent intelligence —Ejaz Haider

It is all too tempting to be tactically brilliant while losing the larger strategic focus. What needs to be discussed — and at multiple levels — is the cost of keeping certain intelligence assets: does the cost exceed the benefit; what is the nature of such assets; is there absolutely no other policy approach and so on

The one-legged Pakistani Taliban commander, Abdullah Mehsud, is dead, reported to have killed himself July 24 by detonating a hand grenade to avoid capture when intelligence agents closed in on the house where he was hiding. The house, in Balochistan’s northwestern Zhob district, just south of South Waziristan, belonged to Sheikh Ayub Mandokhel, a leader of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-e Islam. Mehsud’s two brothers and a third Taliban leader were arrested.

These are now known facts. But recapping them is important because of the pointers they contain. Consider.

Mehsud was intercepted while returning from Afghanistan through the Zhob corridor. Anyone with even little knowledge of intelligence work would know that this kind of operation is not serendipitous — i.e., the security forces did not just chance upon him. Quite the contrary. They were monitoring his movement, had the means to keep the trail hot and got him when he entered Pakistan and was relaxing in transit before crossing north into South Waziristan.

Corollary: Pakistani intelligence has elements within the jihad international which it can use, and does, when the moment to take someone out is propitious.

On May 12, NATO-ISAF troops killed another one-legged top Taliban commander, Mullah Dadullah, in the Helmand province of Afghanistan after he had crossed over into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Dadullah was Mullah Omar’s number 2. It is now known that the tip-off came from Pakistani intelligence, though at the time NATO spokespersons had declined to comment on where the information had come from.

Does this mean Pakistan knows everything about the movement of jihadi commanders? No. What this shows is that Pakistan has the capability, because of the old nexus between these groups and its intelligence set-up, to pick up actionable tips on the movements of these people. The level of trust and cooperation has dwindled but there seem to be enough people out there who straddle both sides and can be relied upon.

Also, it is important to note in the case of Mehsud that the intelligence agents caught up with him while he was en route to his Waziristan redoubt. It would probably have been difficult to get him after he had entered his own area.

Mehsud was captured from the house of a JUIF-related leader. That man, Mandokhel, said to be JUIF chief for the Zhob chapter, has slipped away. Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, a JUIF leader and considered a moderate, says the party had rescinded Mandokhel’s membership on account of indiscipline. Be that as it may, it shows the connection between the jihad underground and mainstream religio-political parties of Pakistan.

Sherani himself is supposed to be close to General Pervez Musharraf and was active in dissuading the MMA from resigning from the assemblies when Qazi Hussain Ahmed of Jama’at-e Islami was pressing for a more radical course of action in the wake of General Musharraf’s decision not to doff the uniform post-December 31, 2004.

Sherani’s political boss, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, is already chalking a cautious course and trying to contain the vaulting ambition of Qazi Hussain Ahmed to wage a grand struggle against the Musharraf regime. Both the JI and JUIF have had linkages with the Afghan jihad/civil war and the Deobandi groups active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If Rehman wants to cover his tracks and become a part of the new political configuration in Pakistan, those linkages could be useful to the Pakistani intelligence.

In this shadowy world, there is little certainty. There are too many actors involved and most have their own agendas. This is not peculiar to the current game being played. In Afghanistan, the US army co-opted warlords and drug dealers to mop up Al Qaeda elements. It has ended with a massive problem on both counts. The CIA co-opted General Manuel Noriega even though he had linkages with Cuba and was running drugs. But he was useful on many counts and helped the US against the Sandinistas by financing the Contra rebels. Intelligence assets are never clean. There is a time to use them and there is a time to get rid of them. It’s all in the nature of the game.

The links of Pakistan Army and intelligence agencies with the groups active in this area are no different. Without such links there can be no penetration and no control. A balance has to be kept, not just for purposes of any perceived strategic pluses — important though that may be — but also because not everything the groups do may be against the interests of Pakistan.

This is playing with fire. But in this business this is the only way to go about it. It is amazing that western military/intelligence analysts should fault Pakistani establishment for acting in the way it has or does because they know that they would have done exactly that. It is a laugh when analysts talk about the necessity for Pakistan to clean up its act. If Pakistan did not have links with these groups the Americans, for the most part, would have walked into Afghanistan blindly. Since these analysts know how this game is played, their analyses smack of double-speak.

What is vital, however, is to ensure that the game dovetails into a well thought-out national security strategy instead of becoming a function of rogue elements. It is all too tempting to be tactically brilliant while losing the larger strategic focus. What needs to be discussed — and at multiple levels — is the cost of keeping certain assets: does the cost exceed the benefit; what is the nature of such assets (whether they are short- or long-term ones); is there absolutely no other policy approach and so on.

Take a specific example: Maulvi Nazir was introduced into Waziristan because the idea was to prevent attacks on security forces and with time and effort get rid of the foreigners. It worked pretty well for some time; Nazir was allowed to run his own local government in exchange for an understanding that Pakistani troops will not be attacked. And he did take on the Uzbeks.

But the attack on Lal Masjid seems to have changed the hue of the game with the hardliners winning over those who would like to stay clear of Pakistani troops. Nazir has faced an assassination attempt and sources say he may not be very useful now. The man who threatened suicide bombings was the slain Mehsud; the other, Baitullah Mehsud, is still around and is dangerous.

The issue for Pakistani establishment is to keep these people under control. But the problem with that approach is that any such linkage is tenuous at best because these groups and their cadres are not amenable to the state’s agenda. The question, therefore, is how much use Pakistan has for them, especially when it becomes important to take them out after a rash of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.

Ejaz Haider is Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and Consulting Editor of The Friday Times. He can be reached at

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