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Saleem Shahzad: Pakistan military agrees to closer US relationship as Taliban leadership moves closer to al-Qaeda

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Senator John Kerry was in Pakistan on what was called a fence-building mission. Fence building necessary because the US after killing bin Laden [incompre.] accused Pakistani military and Intelligence agencies of being incompetent or, worse,perhaps protecting bin Laden. This has also sent Pakistan politics into quite a bit of turmoil. Now joining us to talk about Kerry’s trip and the current situation in Pakistan. is Now joining us, is Syed Saleem Shahzad. He’s the Pakistan bureau chief of Asia Times Online, the author of the upcoming book Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11. He’s also the Pakistan bureau chief of Asia Times Online. Thanks for joining us, Saleem.


JAY: So, first of all, is there any doubt amongst the military, the intelligence agencies, or Pakistan public opinion that it was in fact Osama bin Laden who was killed?

SHAHZAD: Yes, I mean, undoubtedly it was bin Laden who was killed in Pakistan. There is no doubt about that.

JAY: Now, you’ve written extensively over the last few years about a division in the military–I guess the ISI as well, the intelligence service–that before 9/11, people that were very Islamic and very connected to the Taliban in Afghanistan who were very religious were very well promoted in the military and the ISI, and after 9/11, many
of them quit in opposition to Musharraf’s alliance with the United States, some were even arrested, and there was a purge of the more senior pro-Islamist elements. But you’ve talked about this division, how some of these retired officers continued to work with mid-level cadre in the army. How are they responding to the killing of bin Laden? And what does this mean for Pakistan’s politics?

SHAHZAD: Well, as far as my understanding is concerned, many of the military officers who had a religious inclination resigned or took their retirement soon after 9/11. Some of them silently sat at their home, but many joined forces with the different militant groups. I personally interacted with some of the officers who joined Commander
Ilyas Kashmiri, who is now the member of al-Qaeda’s shura. And some of those retired army officers were also behind the Mumbai attack in 2008. And, of course, bin Laden’s killing is a big event for them. And they are also assessing the new situation after bin Laden’s killing, and that is a new collaboration between the Pakistani security forces
and the US military establishment. And as you can see in yesterday’s joint statement issued in Islamabad after John Kerry’s visit, that both countries have reiterated that they would launch joint operations against al-Qaeda, new targets. And the security forces–[an] Islamabad security forces official personally told me that it means that now
Pakistani forces and the Americans would jointly work to crack high-profile Afghan Taliban leaders and the Pakistani militants and as well as al-Qaeda leaders. So the thing is that now I can clearly see a disturbance within the Pakistani establishment. And I understand that many of those retired officials, army officials, who’d use their
clout inside the Pakistan army and instigate the [incompr.] officers, tried to manipulate them to work with the jihadi forces and instigate the rebellion against the state apparatus.

JAY: To what extent do you think the Pakistan military was simply posturing about not knowing about the attack on bin Laden? I mean, it is hard to conceive that, number one, they didn’t know he was in the house down the road from their military base. It’s also hard to conceive that even the American intelligence agencies wouldn’t have known something. You’ve written before about how much the FBI and some of the other American intelligence agencies have become kind of connected to working very closely with, even sometimes controlling, you’ve written, the Pakistan ISI. What do you think happened here?

SHAHZAD: Well, as far as Osama bin Laden’s hiding cave is concerned, I don’t have any qualified opinion to share with you. But given my interaction and my exposure with some of the retired army officials who were hand-in-glove with the jihadi forces, I can safely guess that it is quite possible that some retired army officers, use their connections to keep Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, although I’m not sure that he was living over there for the last five years. I’m not sure about the time period which is mentioned by the Americans. But I think that if he was living in Abbottabad for several months, I think it was not possible without the help and connivance of some of the elements who were directly or indirectly connected with the military establishment.

JAY: Now, the leaders of the army and the intelligence service spoke in Pakistan’s Parliament a little while ago, I guess just a few days ago, in an unprecedented presentation. But you wrote what they said there was essentially riddled with contradictions. What were the contradictions?

SHAHZAD: There were many contradictions. First of all, they vent their anger, they vent their anger against the American strikes inside Abbottabad. But I think that they were very much onboard, they were very much onboard. As far as my understanding and my information is concerned, Americans did inform them about the arrival of the Navy SEALs inside Pakistan, but they did not share the information that–where they would strike and what is their exact high-value target. The name of the high-value target, that was Osama bin Laden. So that is very much in line of the previous American tactics in Pakistan. They did send Navy SEALs inside Pakistan in past years, and they did share the information with Pakistan, and Pakistan did back
those initiatives. But the thing was that–they made lot of hue and cry about the drone
strikes and everything, but immediately after the parliamentary revolution, there were at least two drone strikes inside Pakistan. And there was not even a formal protest by Pakistani military establishment or by the Pakistani foreign office.

JAY: Saleem, I thought you had written that the head of the Air Force, I think, had said to Parliament that you should give us orders to shoot these drones down.

SHAHZAD: That’s true. That’s true. He said, actually, actually, Armed Forces chief tried to take parliamentary cover. But they did not mean that, no. They give the option to the Parliament, and at the same time, they also warn the Parliament that if you allow us and Pakistani Armed Forces would retaliate, we’re waiting for the American reactions, that Americans would also react in the same way–in more harsher way, rather. So, I mean, they put the option in front of theParliament, but at the same time, they also warned the Parliament. So it was–I mean, it was a sort of a defective briefing, I must say. So there were a lot of–I mean, the whole of their statement was completely riddled by contradictions.

JAY: Now, the–what exactly is the strength and role of al-Qaeda now in Pakistan? You hear everything from there’s, like, 50 al-Qaeda fighters left and they really don’t play much of a role. On the other side of it, you hear that al-Qaeda’s actually reborn itself, has new leadership, and has a very close connection with the Taliban. Where is
the truth in this as you know it?

SHAHZAD: There are two aspects. Number one, there are–first you have to understand this fact, that there are 17 Arab-Afghan groups which are operating inside Pakistani tribal areas and in Afghanistan, and most of the groups are allied with al-Qaeda, but they are not part of al-Qaeda. They have alliance with al-Qaeda, but they are not a part of al-Qaeda, number one. And the strength of those 17 Arab-Afghan groups is, like, over 1,000, approximately. Second, those who are the members
of al-Qaeda are hardly, like, 100, not more than 100. The third thing is–and this is the most important thing, and that is the phenomenon of neo-Taliban, the new generation of those Afghan fighters, of the Pakistani fighters, or the fighters coming from the Pakistani tribal areas who were–previously pledged their allegiance to Mullah Omar and
the Taliban. But now they–in the last ten years, they completely absorbed al-Qaeda’s ideology inside-out, and they are more loyal to al-Qaeda than Mullah Omar or to the al-Qaeda leaders or to their jihadi commanders. So this is the new group, this al-Qaeda
horizontally, not only in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the tribal areas, but all across the globe, like in Yemen, in Somalia, and other parts, even in America. So this is the new generation, on which al-Qaeda is heavily banking on. And not only those, but it also includes the new converts, white Caucasians, which are living in North Waziristan and
in South Waziristan. And many of them were sent back to their countries of origin in Europe, Canada, and America, and different countries. So this was completely a new phenomenon. Al-Qaeda grew horizontally in different directions.

JAY: Now, al-Qaeda’s relationship and the Taliban’s relationship with the ISI and the Pakistan military has also been a matter of great debate. Many people have suggested that there’s kind of a dual policy going on, that the Taliban at the very least, if not al-Qaeda, but the Taliban, are a sort of a lever, a card that Pakistan gets to play in
Afghanistan. And there’s also been talk about this split, the Pakistan Taliban versus the Afghan Taliban, that the Afghan Taliban are focused on Afghanistan, and they have the links with the Pakistan military. But the Pakistani Taliban is closer to al-Qaeda, and they’re more targeted at overthrowing the Pakistan regime itself. So what do you
make of that?

SHAHZAD: Over the last ten years, things have become very complicated. You cannot say that in any categorical terms, that Afghan Taliban are the same person as the Pakistani establishment. Yes, part of Afghan Taliban is still in contact with the military establishment, but all their top commanders, all the top commanders of Taliban, Afghan
Taliban, are now completely in the hands of al-Qaeda. For example, the biggest Taliban Afghan commander is Sirajuddin Haqqani. He is very close to al-Qaeda. Similarly, Commander Nazir who runs the largest anti-NATO, anti-Western coalition network in Afghan province of Paktika–he has also influence in the Afghan province of Zabul and
Helmand– is completely part of al-Qaeda. People say that he is Afghan Taliban. He is very close to the military establishment. But when recently I interviewed him, he said to me in categorical terms that “I am part of al-Qaeda,” and he–and his very close lieutenant handed me check in which it was written that anybody who would be friendly with Pakistan would be considered as Taliban and al-Qaeda’s foe. So that
actually showed that the currents have completely changed in the last ten years. Asia has completely changed in the last ten years.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us Syed and we will continue to do this conversation in Pt. 2 of this interview and please join us for that on The Real News Network.

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Syed Saleem Shahzad (November 3, 1970 – 30 May 2011) was a Pakistani investigative journalist who wrote widely for leading European and Asian media. He served as the Pakistan Bureau Chief of Asia Times Online (Hong Kong) and Italian news agency Adnkronos (AKI) and often contributed to The Real News Network. He was found dead in a canal in North-east Pakistan, showing signs of torture, two days after he was kidnapped. Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Pakistan intelligence services of being behind his killing, and US government officials later announced that they had “reliable and conclusive” intelligence that this was the case. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) denied the accusations.