Assassination of Syed Saleem Shahzad: Pakistan is the problem

Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan Bureau Chief for Asia Times Online, was assassinated in Pakistan at the time of or shortly after his disappearance on May 29, reportedly on the orders of top-level officials of the Pakistan intelligence agency.

See Editorial, “A Pakistani Journalist’s Murder,” The New York Times, July 7, 2011

Jane Perlez and Eric Schmitt, “Pakistan’s Spies Tied to Slaying of a Journalist,” New York Times, July 4, 2011

“Pakistan ‘sanctioned’ killing of journalist, says US commander: Islamabad hits back at claim by Admiral Mike Mullen over murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad, The Guardian, July 8, 2011

The Observer has previously referred to Shahzad’s reports on alleged behind-the-scenes deals between the Obama administration and the Pakistan military. The first was for the U.S. to withdraw its support of Abdullah Abdullah in negotiations for a unity government or at least the holding of a second-round election, in the stand-off that resulted from the massive fraud in the Afghanistan presidential elections held on August 20, 2009. The U.S. basically cast Abdullah aside, and backed Karzai as the legitimate winner in the elections, reportedly in exchange for Pakistani support in facilitating negotiations with the Taliban.

The second and related move by Hamid Karzai, believed to be at the insistence of Pakistan, was to fire the intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, and the interior minister, Hanif Atmar, who were viewed as too close to India and therefore hostile to Pakistan. Both were fomer members of the Northern Alliance, the force which with the United States toppled the Taliban government in 2001.

See The Trenchant Observer, “Intelligence Matters: In Afghanistan, Karzai Ousts Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Intelligence Chief Amrullah Saleh,” June 6, 2010

Now, perhaps partly as an unintended consequence of the humiliation of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies by President Obama, who loudly touted the fact that the United States took out Bin Laden without the foreknowledge or participation of Pakistani officials, a leading reporter on the inner workings of the Pakistan military and intelligence agencies has been murdered. According to American officials, the assassination was approved at very high levels of the Pakistan military and security agencies.

The Observer must observe, in passing, that Obama’s public humiliation of Pakistani military and intelligence officials was utterly unnecessary, and represented a novice’s mistake for a practitioner of foreign policy. In international affairs, it is important to allow your enemies, as well as your (questionable) allies and friends, to save face, and not to push them too hard into a corner. Doing so subjects them to intense internal political and other pressures and sharply limits their freedom of action in adopting policies that you may want them to follow.

Obama, in effect, stressed that the operation against Bin Laden violated the sovereignty of Pakistan, when he might easily have left that issue shrouded in ambiguity. His mistake was to publicly declaim that the Bin Laden operation was carried out without Pakistani knowldge. That wasn’t necessary. On the other hand, it was entirely appropriate to raise the issue of how Bin Laden had lived near Islamabad in Abbottabad, the very same town where the Pakistani “West Point” is located, without being detected. These were legitimate questions. The public humiliation was a grave mistake.

Since the Bin Laden killing, U.S.-Pakistan military and intelligence relations have taken a sharp turn for the worse.

We are left with a situation where we are faced with a nuclear-weapons state, which continues to support Taliban and other insurgent forces operating in Afghanistan, while our own ability to conduct anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations from within and against targets in Pakistan territory has been greatly curtailed.

The assassination of Shazad closed one of the few windows open to the world to follow and understand the machinations underway within Pakistani military and intelligence circles.

It also serves as a useful reminder that the United States has gained very little from its apparent deal with Pakistan by withdrawing its support for Abdullah in 2009, and acquiescing in the firing of Saleh and Atmar.

The much-touted negotiations with the Taliban have come to nothing, and hold very little promoise of ever producing tangible results. We are no further along in this regard, in fact, than we were two years ago. The illusions fed by the flawed assumption of the possibility of a political settlement with the Taliban remain as far from the reality on the ground and the realm of real-world possibilities as they were then. The difference is that now President Obama, with his recent speech on the the path forward in Afghanistan, has adopted a posture of publicly relying on those illusions.

The consequences in Afghanistan are likely to be harsh. Moreover, we now face a much larger problem in Pakistan than even that faced in Afghanistan itself, which we have yet to devise a successful strategy to address.

The effects of the loss of Special Ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, who died suddenly in December, 2010, have been devastating.

On July 9, 2011, the United States faces a one-time ally in Pakistan which looks much more like a hostile state that 1) will block a peaceful resolution of the war in Afghanistan on terms acceptable to the West and the international community; 2) itself has become a great center of Islamic radicalism and the spawning of terrorist behavior; and 3) poses an ultiimate risk to the United States and other nations due to its possession of nuclear weapons.

If a country like Pakistan can decide, at the highest military and intelligence levels, to assassinate a journalist whose reports reveal messy facts they would prefer to remain hidden, how can the United States continue to proceed as if it were an ally?

The Trenchant Observer

www.twitter.com/trenchantobserv

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Links to some of the Observer’s articles dealing with Syed Saleem Shahzad and the issues he raised, and excerpts from these articles, are reporduced below.

NEWS TO NOTE: Pakistani sources report progress in back-channel talks with Taliban, September 18, 2010

See Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Taliban soften as talks gain speed,” Asia Times On-Line (www.atimes.com), September 15, 2010.

“Pakistan Desire to “Mediate” with Taliban Consistent with Earlier Reports of Deal to Support Karzai in Election Settlement,”
February 10th, 2010

NEWS TO NOTE Deal by U.S. with Pakistan Military to Undercut Abdullah in Final Discussions?
November 11th, 2009

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