In Pakistan insecurity and concern about a US attack is catching on. The only logical and plausible Pakistani response to such a possibility is for the government to publicly warn the US that all cooperation on anti-terrorism will immediately stop if the US violates international law and attacks Pakistani territory.
Within the US national security institutions, speculation is on that Osama bin Laden is present in Pakistan's tribal areas. No one actually knows where he is or even if he is alive. The US elite spy agency is groping in the dark. Through intermittently released videotapes he reminds the world of his presence and tries to motivate people. Yet when asked about bin Laden by NBC television, US intelligence chief Mike McConnell said: "My view is that he's alive... I believe he is in the tribal region of Pakistan." US President George W. Bush has also endorsed McConnell, insisting that action needs to be taken.
In Pakistan, speculations of a US attack are fuelling the already existing anger against US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. On July 22, Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said in a TV interview: "Pakistan can handle its own requirements of troops. We do not need any other troops from anywhere to come and help. Sovereignty, integrity and security are the responsibility of Pakistan."
Earlier, Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri demanded that Washington provide evidence about bin Laden's presence in Pakistan. The agitated minister said: "Pakistan's commitment (to the war on terror) cannot be doubted by anybody, and that is why some of our people do not like what we read in some of your newspapers, which are more like leaks, and calculated leaks." Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam added: "We have stated in the clearest terms that any attack inside our territory would be unacceptable."
Significantly, in his last presidential address, the US president stated that "one of the most troubling is (the) assessment that Al Qaeda has managed to establish a safe haven in the tribal areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan". Bush spoke about the failure of the Waziristan peace accord. Not ruling out military action on Pakistani territory, he warned that the National Intelligence Estimate "makes clear that the threat is not behind us..."
Against the background of this threat the Bush administration may believe an attack on Pakistan's tribal areas will help to rehabilitate its floundering image abroad. After all, the Bush administration's performance is a string of blunders. Afghanistan is not any closer to peace than half a decade ago. In fact it is far less secure and politically more divided today. In Iraq, the killing fields keep expanding. Through its Iraq and Afghanistan policies, Washington has only shown that when it is convinced that its security is being undermined, directly or indirectly, it will to 'go for the kill' through brute military power.
The timing of the American threat to Pakistan is significant. The gradual build-up of these threats has coincided with major security upheavals within Pakistan. Its fallout has been a seemingly endless string of suicide bombings that have left over 200 dead. In the tribal areas, the anti-Lal Masjid operation anger has translated into the scrapping of the September 2005 peace deal. The heavily armed and organized militia leader Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan has also promised to avenge the Lal Masjid assault.
A marathon effort has been under way to revive the earlier accord between the local militia and the government covering the North Waziristan Agency. These accords will involve give and take. Earlier under the accord the army and paramilitary troops were withdrawn from checkpoints in the region. The militia had agreed to stop attacks on security forces.
While Pakistan continues to tackle the politico-military challenge of containing weaponized militias that have contributed to bloodshed and insecurity and to undermining the rule of law within Pakistan and also facilitating insecurity in the region and beyond, the US cannot be allowed to inject further chaos into our very difficult situation.
Any unthinking step where application of force will lead to major civilian casualties can push Pakistan closer to anarchy. Any policy that articulates a divide between Pakistanis or Muslims as good or bad Muslims, between extremists and moderates, is equally divisive. No cause can justify the threat to the citizens of Pakistan. No action that can threaten the security of Pakistan can be tolerated.
The problem of armed militias planning terrorist attacks anywhere in the world is a shared problem. To the extent of tackling that problem Pakistan and the US are partners. Yet the content of such a partnership remains blurred and subject to massive criticism in Pakistan and the US.
In Pakistan criticism builds around issues such as the US not respecting the human rights of Pakistanis even while Islamabad cooperates with Washington in fighting terrorism and of occasionally owning up attacks with civilian casualties on Pakistani territory carried out by US forces and equipment.
The criticism of the policy towards Pakistan flows often from a frustrated American media, think tanks and the legislature. They are frustrated because they have yet failed to get Osama. There is frustration because the US intelligence agencies do not know where he is. They conjecture about his location. There is impatience with Pakistan's politico-military policy.
Here is where the divergence in approach lies. Here is also where the limit of Pakistan-US cooperation in countering terrorism lies. Ultimately Pakistan must take the firm but circuitous politico-military and not purely a military route while fighting this crisis.
(Nasim Zehra, national security strategist and columnist, is currently a Fellow at the Harvard University Asia Center. She can be reached at email@example.com)