US fight against terrorism

Updated: Feb 16 2002, 05:30am hrs
Both the complexities and ironies of the South Asian offshoot of the Operation Enduring Freedom are being exposed to the light of day with increasing frequency. What a coincidence it is that just when General Pervez Musharraf achieved his ambition of being received officially by the United States and indeed praised publicly by George Bush, his many slips also began to show.

It was his bad luck or bad management of affairs in his own country that notorious Pakistani terrorists should have abducted the Wall Street Journals correspondent Daniel Pearl, just when the US had invited Pakistans military ruler and self-appointed President to pay an official, working visit to Washington. His two earlier sojourns in America were in relation to the business at the United Nations.

Despite his much bruited and often hailed crackdown on terrorism, Musharrafs government proved to be totally incapable of freeing poor Pearl from his fiendish captors. This led the General to making the absurd statement that India had a hand in the reporters abductiona claim that even his ardent admirers in the US found unacceptable. To the suggestion that Sheikh Omar Saeed of Jaish-e-Mohammed might be the villain of the piece, Islamabad had responded with the declaration that he wasnt in Pakistan.

And then, all of sudden, a day before Musharrafs meeting with Bush at the White House, the Pakistani police arrested Omar Saeed at Lahore. Within 24 hours, Saeed announced in the court that the abducted reporter was dead, making utter nonsense of the Generals own reassuring statement from the White House podium that, according to information, Pearl was alive. No less embarrassing was Saeeds revelation that he was arrested not on February 12, as claimed by the Pakistani authorities, but a week earlier only underscored how tangled and confusing are the links between terrorist outfits and the Musharraf government at various levels.

A despatch in the Washington Post by the Pakistani journalist, Kamran Khan, shows how sordid the situation actually is. According to him, on February 5, Saeed had surrendered himself to the Home Secretary of Punjab, Brigadier (retired) Aijaz Shah, who had then handed the Jaish leader to some non-police officers whatever that might mean. Kamran says that higher-ups told all concerned not to breathe a word about this before Musharrafs arrival in America!

Of a piece with all this was Musharrafs own clumsy attempt in US to make the demonstrably false allegation that India had conducted a nuclear test. But this pales into insignificance, compared with other revelations about and by Sheikh Omar Saeed. When he was at last produced before an anti-terrorist court, several significant things happened, besides his confident assertionwith a lot of supporting detailthat the captive Pearl was indeed dead.

For instance, according to the Pakistani daily, News, the court asked the prosecution what the charges against Omar Saeed were, apart from masterminding Pearls abduction. The Advocate General of Sindh replied that the man in the dock was a principal jehadi and had been very active in Kashmir. There upon the judge had observed that jehadi was no crime but an essential of Islam. For his part, Omar went out of his way to declare that he and the Pakistani government knew each other well but he alone was responsible for Pearls abduction, right or wrong.

Neither the ISI nor any other official agency had asked him to do so. One of the hijackers of the Indian aircraft in 1999code-named Haiderwas the man hiding Pearl in a secret place in Karachi, and Haider it was who, on being asked by Omar to release Pearl, had replied that the captive was already dead.

In this context, the high praise Bush has heaped or Musharraf by calling him a courageous leader of a key ally in the fight against terrorism makes no sense except in terms of the US trying to balance public praise with private talking to. American intelligence agencies know a lot more about Pakistan than anyone else. But the US needs Pakistan and considers Musharraf its best bet. In defence of American interests, it would therefore twist his arm without undermining his position.

The key question now revolves round Americas outrage over Pearls fate. The least that Washington would have to do is to force Musharraf to make his crackdown on terrorists really effective. Otherwise Americas own sincerity in combating all terrorism everywhere would be seriously eroded. If Musharraf hands over Omar Saeed to Americaas Saeed expects to happen, according to his statement in courtbut goes on refusing to extradite the 20 Most Wanted to India, with America maintaining thunderous silence, New Delhi will have something to chew on.