“More congenial than their last encounter in July,” was the phrase used to describe an unusual conference Aug. 28 aboard the USS carrier Abraham Lincoln on the Arabian Sea between the top chiefs of the US and Pakistani armed forces.
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, and commander of US forces in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus – who soon takes over Central Command – invited Pakistan’s chief of staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani aboard for a conference in the tightest possible secrecy.
They discussed efforts to slow the infiltration of insurgents and terrorists from Pakistan, which, said Mullen, “continues to be an extraordinarily complex problem.”
Wednesday, Sept 3, US troops conducted the first known foreign ground assault against a Taliban haven inside Pakistan. Some 15 people were killed in the raid about a mile from the Afghan frontier.
The next day, an American drone was said to have struck in the same area.
The Pakistani government summoned the US ambassador to protest the incursion. However, the presidential front-runner, Benazir Bhutto‘s widower Asif Ali Zardari, said Thursday he stands with the US against “international terrorism.”
Zardari, while bidding for Washington’s support for his candidacy, the weak Islamabad government and the army – all appear to be pulling in different directions.
One result is to tie the army’s hands, especially after Aug. 31, when the government in Islamabad announced a unilateral halt for the 30-day Ramadan festival of its military operations against Taliban in the border districts with Afghanistan.
Taliban is gunning for the widower
Taliban declined to reciprocate either in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
This was not quite the outcome the American military chiefs had in mind from their high-powered conclave with the Pakistani general.
Clearly, the Pakistani army’s suspension of hostilities left Taliban free to step up its attacks on US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan and at the same time intensify its operations in Pakistan as well – which is why US commanders took the extreme measure of a cross-border raid against a Taliban haven.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror and military sources report that Taliban decided to keep up its attacks through the month of Ramadan in the hope of getting to Zardari and aborting his election as Washington’s choice for president on Sept. 6.
Last week, he was moved to a high-security fortified building in the government compound and placed under heavy guard.
Military and political circles in Islamabad maintain that the candidate won the Bush administration’s backing by pledging an all-out military offensive againstTaliban and al Qaeda sanctuaries on the Pakistan border as soon as he is elected.
He also promised to crack down on the pro-Taliban elements in the powerful Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI).
The former president, Pervez Musharraf, who stepped down last month, turned Washington down on both these objectives.
A fit custodian for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?
Not everyone in and around the White House and the intelligence community in Washington thinks that Bhutto’s widower can deliver on these pledges as president, or that he is a wise choice for leader of the war on al Qaeda and custodian of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
The controversy surfaced last month in a row between assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher, who is in charge of the Pakistan desk, and UN ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
Boucher rebuked the ambassador for offering Zardari tips on how to improve his prospects of election and a date he made for them to meet in Abu Dhabi on Sept 2.
On Aug. 18, Boucher shot off a sharp note to Khalilzad asking him to clarify the channel he was opening with the Pakistani politician – government, private or personal.
“We have maintained a public line that we are not involved in the politics or the deals” in Pakistan, he wrote. “We are merely keeping in touch with the parties. Can I say that honestly if you’re providing advice and help?”
While circles close to secretary of state Condoleezza Rice affirmed her full confidence in Khalilzad, Washington insiders maintained Boucher would not have laid into the ambassador without a go-ahead from the department’s Number Two Diplomat, Deputy Secretary John Negroponte.
Ali Zardari’s detractors are certainly influenced by the derogatory reports afloat about his mental health. Dementia, depression and post-traumatic stress order have been mentioned.
One Washington media disclosed he had been diagnosed with mental problems last year. While Zardari’s spokespersons claimed he had been cured, Pete Hoekstra, a Republican member of the US House Intelligence Committee, commented that the US would not “want that kind of person involved in a nuclear chain of command.”
Zardari – concerns about corruption as well as mental ill health
His lawyers presented evidence in a London high court that he was too ill (mentally) to testify in corruption-related charges against him. Zardari’s long imprisonment in Pakistan, while facing corruption probes, was said to have left him “emotionally unstable” with memory and concentration problems.
Aside from concerns about the mental health of the Pakistani presidential front-runner, there are questions about the stability and durability of the regime he will head.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that one of the main purposes of Adm. Mullen’s private face-to-face with Gen. Kayani was to get some answers to these questions and find out where he, as head of the armed forces, stood in the event of internal pressures in the army and intelligence for a military coup against Zardari.
The Pakistani army chief had no clear-cut answers for the Americans, but he promised to do his best to prevent a military coup and keep up the campaign against Taliban and al Qaeda.
According to our sources in Pakistan, there is not much he can do, given the turmoil and breakdown of authority in the country.
Large parts of major cities, such as Islamabad and Karachi, and of the western and northern regions, have fallen under Taliban control. Even worse, Zardari is known to have personally wooed some of these insurgents to support his candidacy.
The only certain outcome of the next stage of Pakistani history, therefore, is a tighter Taliban-al Qaeda’s stranglehold on Pakistan.