Another day, another conspiracy in Pakistan. In the latest unusual coincidence, news of Washington and Islamabad’s joint-intelligence team to hunt Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders has leaked amid a frenzy of U.S. military visitors. Though meant to assassinate high-ranking militant leadership, the team is also being assembled to demonstrate the renewed strength of U.S.-Pakistani ties.
For their next meeting, maybe U.S. officials can get to the bottom of Syed Saleem Shehzad’s assassination.
Shehzad’s torturous death has shaken Pakistan’s civil society to the core - shocked truth-seekers around the world - and the effects are eerily similar to Osama bin Laden’s killing. Shehzad further proves that no one is safe in Pakistan, except this time the culprits appear to be of Pakistani origin. While the Afghan Taliban had no reason to kill the Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief, who served as one of their mouthpieces, al-Qaeda and TTP leadership may have diverged in ideology.
However the real killers are widely assumed to work for Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), which has supported a variety of militant groups over the last three decades.
Shehzad uncovered these shadows for the majority of this time, and numerous theories attempt to explain why the Pakistani military would suddenly terminate him now. Blackmailed last October, he was finally found dead days after reporting on the attack inside PNS Mehran naval air station in Karachi. al-Qaeda had infiltrated a number of cells into the Pakistani navy, forcing Islamabad to eventually arrest more than a dozen suspects. al-Qaeda proceeded to issue threats against naval targets and one cell decided to take action after bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs in Abbottabad. The ISI recently demanded that Saleem reveal his sources, who in turn refused and provoked Rear Admiral Adnan Nawaz and Commodore Khalid Pervaiz.
"This killing bears all the hallmarks of previous killings perpetrated by Pakistani intelligence agencies," said Ali Dayan Hasan, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in South Asia.
While we fundamentally sympathize with America’s historically destabilizing influence in Pakistan, we aren’t oblivious to its self-induced erosion either. The public has lost trust in nearly every part of the government, the economy lies in ruins, and the ISI remains divided over the Taliban and al-Qaeda’s presence in the region. Yet if true, the Pakistani navy’s involvement in Shezhad’s death reveals much more than an ISI assassination; the order and coverup would stretch all the way to the top.
Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, “The United States strongly condemns the abduction and killing of reporter Syed Saleem Shehzad,” few Pakistanis expect the transparent investigation that she called for. Washington’s support doesn’t inspire confidence. An odd exchange between State spokesman Mark Toner and journalists only added to the confusion surrounding Shehzad’s death.
So because these governments “trust” each other so much, they’re now taking the extraordinary step of forming a joint team tasked strictly to al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership. The top five targets include al Qaeda’s new head, Ayman al-Zawahri, and operations chief Atiya Abdel Rahman, and Taliban leaders Mullah Omar and Siraj Haqqani, thought to be untouchable in Pakistan. Clearly the U.S. hopes to silence all doubt by cutting off every remaining head of the "terror" hydra.
Such a strategy may work in the context of a larger political and economic scheme. Or it might further alienate the militant’s rank and file rather than force their surrender, in addition to covering up Afghanistan’s lack of non-military progress. The overriding question is whether Islamabad will actually move on those assets that still respect its command, and the answer depends on its trust gap with Washington.
With Shezhad’s death hanging directly over these high-level meetings, both events appear to be products of the same smoke and mirrors.