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Sunday, June 5, 2011

US deal second major body blow to Al Qaeda


Harkatul Jihad al-Islami members, arrested along with explosives and bomb making materials, are paraded before the media in Pakistan. (File Photo)

Harkatul Jihad al-Islami members, arrested along with explosives and bomb making materials, are paraded before the media in Pakistan. (File Photo)
The United States has dealt a second major body blow to Al Qaeda, barely a month after US Navy Seals killed Osama Bin Laden in a commando-style raid in Pakistan.

But in contrast to the taking out of Bin Laden, Saturday’s killing in a US drone attack in Pakistan’s lawless tribal area of senior Al Qaeda commander Ilyas Kashmiri appears not to be provoking the kind of crisis in US-Pakistani relations caused by the attack on the Al Qaeda leader.

The US had advised Pakistan that Kashmiri was one of five senior Al Qaeda operatives it needed to target or help the US take out to prove that it was committed to the struggle against the jihadists and had not helped Bin Laden evade his American pursuers for years. Pakistani sources suggest that Pakistani intelligence helped the US in identifying Kashmiri’s location. The list also includes Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s deputy, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
With the death of Kashmiri, Al Qaeda lost the man whose expertise was simultaneous attacks on multiple targets like the one in Mumbai in 2008 in which some 160 people were killed. Kashmiri, who led a unit called the 313 brigade of the banned Pakistani organization Harkatul Jihad al-Islami, is believed to have been responsible for similar attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States had put a $5 million reward on his head.

Kashmiri is widely believed to have also been the mastermind behind last month’s audacious attack on the Mehran naval airbase in Karachi, in which six militants held off Pakistan’s equivalent of the US Navy Seals for 15 hours.

Kashmiri was appointed head of al-Qaeda operations in the Indian sub-continent at a meeting of leaders of the group a week after Bin Laden’s death.

Saturday’s successful drone attack occurred as senior Obama administration officials differed on whether the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) should continue the program, which is a major irritant in US-Pakistani relations. The US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, and some senior military and State Department officials have called for a significant reduction of the number of drone attacks.

Proponents of a reduction argue that this would facilitate repairing US-Pakistani relations in the wake of the killing of Bin Laden. Supporters of the program say that the drones are one of the United States’ most effective tools in the fight against Al Qaeda as well as the Taliban. US President Barack Obama stepped up the attacks soon after taking office. Some 200 such attacks have been launched against targets in Pakistan since 2008.

Pakistan has been urging the US to curtail the strikes because of the relatively high number of civilian casualties they attacks caused. Pakistanis demonstrated Saturday in Karachi against the drone attacks.

The commander of Pakistani forces fighting the militants in the northwest of the country, Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, told The Wall Street Journal that drone strikes make it harder to win allies among tribal leaders. “It’s a negative thing in my area of responsibility. It causes instability and impinges on my relationship with the local people,” General Malik said.

The killing of Kashmiri came days after Pakistan promised to step up efforts to root out militants and increase cooperation on counter-terrorism in talks last week with visiting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen.

The Pakistani pledge and Kashmiri’s death could potentially create an opportunity to ease tensions between Pakistan and India over Kashmir.

Indian officials are likely to welcome the killing of Kashmiri but will want to see whether this is a first step toward Pakistan taking action against several militants India holds responsible for attacks on Indian soil who are believed to be in Pakistan. India also wants to see Pakistan taking steps to prevent militants supported by Pakistan’s controversial ISI intelligence service from infiltrating its territory from Pakistani territory.

Indian Defense Minister of State M. M. Pallam Raju warned at a regional security conference in Singapore that India would likely retaliate if another terror attack on its soil is linked to members of Pakistan’s security apparatus. Mr. Pallam Raju said that self-restraint would be hard to justify to the Indian people if there were another attack similar to the one in Mumbai.

As the United States prepares to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and seeks to repair relations with Pakistan, resolving the perennial Pakistan-Indian dispute over Kashmir is likely to prove as crucial to securing the United States’ interests in the Indian sub-continent as would be a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute for restoring US credibility in the Middle East.

Kashmir has been a festering wound for decades that has fuelled Pakistan’s fixation with India, allowed the Pakistani military to achieve dominance and led the military and the ISI to be the birth maiden of the Taliban and foster Islamist militancy.

Reversing all of that is at best no mean task. But with the United States seeking to secure its place in a world in which power is being redistributed to the advantage of China, which is rapidly expanding its political and military ties to Pakistan, it is increasingly becoming an imperative.

Kashmiri’s death creates an opportunity for the US, Pakistan and India to embark on a road that would involve painful concessions but would significantly increase regional security.

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