Sunday, March 11, 2007

Pakistan Catch-And-Release Of Taliban Bigwig

Remember the fuss and glee with which conservatives hailed Pakistan's capture of Taliban bigwig Mullah Obaidullah Akhund hours after Dick Cheney's visit?

Well, according to Swiss newspaper SonntagsBlick, the former Taliban defense minister was freed by his Pakistani captors two days afterwards.

How do they know? Their reporter was drinking coffee with him as the right were penning their praises of Cheney's tough-talk.

The AP/International Herald Tribune:
The Swiss weekly SonntagsBlick said one of its reporters spoke to Mullah Obaidullah Akhund on Feb. 28 unhindered in an Islamic school in the southwestern city of Quetta.

Akhund, considered a key ally of fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar, was the most senior leader from the hard-line militia to be reported arrested since U.S.-led troops ousted it from power in 2001.

Several Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said earlier this month that he was among five Taliban suspects arrested on Feb. 26 in a raid on a Quetta home. However, Pakistani government officials at that time did not confirm any arrest publicly, and one senior Interior Ministry official who handles counterterrorism issues denied a top Taliban figure was captured.

Pakistani officials could not be reached for comment late Sunday on the Swiss newspaper's claim.

The arrest purportedly took place the same day U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visited Pakistan, which has been under growing international pressure to crack down on Taliban militants believed to seek sanctuary on its soil.

Pakistan has repeatedly denied claims from Afghan and Western officials that insurgent leaders shelter in Quetta.

"The news is not true," SonntagsBlick wrote. "The world press reported: top-Taliban imprisoned. At the same time he was sitting with a SonntagsBlick reporter having coffee."

It said Akhund was one of 300 people present at the Islamic school. He then met with the reporter and explained his future strategy in Afghanistan, the Zurich-based paper said.

"Six thousand martyrs are ready to die in battle for Allah," SonntagsBlick quoted Akhund as saying. "No member of the occupying forces will be spared. We will kill all of them. We thirst for their blood."

The paper said Akhund promised a series of suicide attacks and that he had "commando units" of 12 to 30 militants already in Afghanistan.
In other highly related news, the Bush administration is contesting Dem attempts to link military aid to Pakistan's actual accomplishments in the War On (Some) Terror.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee Wednesday the arms package should not be held out as a reward to Pakistan. Boucher said Pakistan is fighting Taliban militia for its own good and that the United States and other nations benefit as a result.

At stake is the long-delayed sale of 18 new jet fighters, an opportunity to buy 18 more and refurbishing 34 used aircraft already in Pakistan's air force arsenal.

The Bush administration objects to the House version of the legislation because it conditions sale of the aircraft to a certification by President Bush that Pakistan's anti-terror efforts were sufficient, Boucher said.
Let's be clear what the administration's reluctance is really about - Republican corporate sponsors Lockheed Martin will make $5.1 billion from the sale and refurbishment deals. Much of that money is being spent directly by the US Defense Dept. or is coming from the billions of US aid money already given to Pakistan. In other words, it's your tax dollars at work.

Update The last democratically elected president of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, has an op-ed in the Washington Post today (H/t Kevin Drum) in which she argues against the Bush adminsitration's continued insistence that Musharaff is the only bulwark against an Islamist takeover in Pakistan:
For too long, the international perception has been that Musharraf's regime is the only thing standing between the West and nuclear-armed fundamentalists.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Islamic parties have never garnered more than 13 percent in any free parliamentary elections in Pakistan. The notion of Musharraf's regime as the only non-Islamist option is disingenuous and the worst type of fear-mongering.

Much has been said about Pakistan being a key Western ally in the war against terrorism. It is the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. aid -- the Bush administration proposed $785 million in its latest budget. Yet terrorism around the world has increased. Why is it that all terrorist plots -- from the Sept. 11 attacks, to Madrid, to London, to Mumbai -- seem to have roots in Islamabad?

Pakistan's military and intelligence services have, for decades, used religious parties for recruits. Political madrassas -- religious schools that preach terrorism by perverting the faith of Islam -- have spread by the tens of thousands.

The West has been shortsighted in dealing with Pakistan. When the United States aligns with dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, it compromises the basic democratic principles of its foundation -- namely, life, liberty and justice for all. Dictatorships such as Musharraf's suppress individual rights and freedoms and empower the most extreme elements of society. Oppressed citizens, unable to represent themselves through other means, often turn to extremism and religious fundamentalism.

Restoring democracy through free, fair, transparent and internationally supervised elections is the only way to return Pakistan to civilization and marginalize the extremists. A democratic Pakistan, free from the yoke of military dictatorship, would cease to be a breeding ground for international terrorism.
That pretty much accords with my own limited experience. I've known hundreds of pakistanis over the years, mostly businessmen and their families, and found them overwhelming hard-working hard-bargainers who were, well, un-radical.

Today the New York Times has a report that has been prominently repeated in the Pakistani press which strongly suggests that support exists within the US intelligence community:
“I am not particularly worried about an extremist government coming to power and getting hold of nuclear weapons,” said Robert Richer, who was associate director of operations in 2004 and 2005 for the Central Intelligence Agency. “If something happened to Musharraf tomorrow, another general would step in.”

Based on the succession plan, the vice chief of the army, Gen. Ahsan Saleem Hyat, would take over as the leader of the army and Mohammedmian Soomro, an ex-banker, would become president.

General Hyat, who is secular like Mr. Musharraf, would hold the real power. But it is unclear whether General Hyat would be as adept as Mr. Musharraf at keeping various interest groups within the military in line. American officials say that Pakistan’s intelligence service, the I.S.I., continues to play a direct role in arming and financing the Taliban’s re-emergence in western Pakistan, and there are worries about the relationships between some senior military leaders and Islamist groups.

The ties between Islamic militants and Pakistan’s security services are decades old, with the two sides working together most closely during the mujahadeen battles against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Analysts generally agree, however, that the military remains a largely secular institution that takes seriously its role as protector of Pakistan’s identity and would not allow Islamists to become the dominant force in Pakistan.
So why on earth would Bush support a dictator if his intelligence people think a non-Islamist democratic government could be brought about with a little pressure and withdrawal of that support?

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