Islamabad : After the United States conducted a counterterrorism strike in Afghanistan that killed Al Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, questions were raised on Pakistan’s role in the elimination of the most wanted terrorist.
Despite repeated official denials, several reports claimed that Pakistani airspace was used in the US drone attack.
A scholar of South Asian affairs at the Wilson Center, Washington, Michael Kugelman thinks the drone attack could only have been launched from Afghanistan’s neighborhood and does not rule out Pakistan.
Suspicions vary between Pakistan facilitating the United States’ drone attack on a safe house in downtown Kabul in neighboring Afghanistan, by providing airspace, and providing ground support at one of its military bases.
A parallel is being drawn, either directly or by implication, between Zawahiri’s killing last week and that of Al Qaeda founder and his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, who had been found and eliminated in another safe home, in Abbottabad, in Pakistan, in 2011.
A parallel, all by itself, is that while Osama stayed hidden in a house in a key garrison town of Pakistan with the military all around, Zawahiri lived in a house reportedly owned by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the acting Interior Minister and the effective head of the dreaded Haqqani network. The ‘official’ stamp is unmistakable.
In both cases, the ‘host’ governments were red-faced, having left with no choice but to protest.
While Pakistan had then vehemently objected to the violation of its “territorial integrity and sovereignty”, the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan, took a leaf from the Pakistani diplomatic book.
They have gone a step further by denying any knowledge of the presence of Zawahiri on their territory. While confirming the American drone attack and protesting, they have announced that they would ‘inquire’ into Zawahiri’s presence.
This binary has singed both neighbours, but has got Islamabad more worried. While the civilian government has maintained a stoic silence, the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Babar Iftikhar rejected reports, saying there was “no question” of Pakistan’s soil being used for “such a purpose”.
Not satisfied with the denial, the main opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has asked whether even Pakistani air space was provided for the American mission.
Led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan, the party has been engaged in daily anti-American tirade, alleging that Khan was voted out of power in a US-led “international conspiracy.” It has added to its anti-military stance by questioning the ISPR’s denial on the Zawahiri assassination.
PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry on August 6 said that the “question” was not about Pakistan’s soil being used in the US drone attack that killed Zawahiri, but its airspace. He demanded a formal statement from the government. “The question is whether Pakistan’s airspace was allowed to be used or not.”
“Repetitive statements on Pakistan’s land not being used are unclear,” Chaudhry said, stressing that relevant ministries would have to issue a formal statement over the matter.
Any role by the US, be it real, perceived or alleged, is a sensitive issue in Pakistan where the politicians engage in anti-West rhetoric, even as they seek, like both, the Khan Government, and now the Shehbaz Sharif Government, an early release of a loan by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The Kabul protests were launched a day after the Taliban said their government had no information about Zawahiri “entering and living” in Kabul and warned the United States to never repeat an attack on Afghan soil.
Photos shared on social media showed protesters in at least seven Afghan provinces carrying banners reading “Down with USA”, “Joe Biden, stop lying” and “America is a liar”.
While the US is not confirming anything about from where its drone mission had taken off, both Afghanistan and Pakistan are picking selectively from reports in the Western media, apparently to obfuscate the issue of the origin of the attack.
In a dispatch from Washington, representative of Dawn newspaper said that the drone that hit Ayman al Zawahiri flew from Kyrgyzstan. He quoted American media reports that claimed that the attack was launched from Ganci Airbase, a US transit facility at Manas in northern Kyrgyzstan.
According to the US Department of Defence, Ganci is a former American military base in Kyrgyzstan, near the Bishkek international airport. It was operated by the US Air Force, which handed it over to the Kyrgyz military in June 2014.
However, the National Public Radio (NPR), America’s largest radio news network, noted that US officials were not saying where they launched the drone from, “but the US no longer has any military bases in the immediate region, suggesting the aircraft may have flown a long distance before reaching its target”.
Amidst all this flurry of speculation, the finger is being pointed at Pakistan. Kugelman noted that the drone strike has generated “lots of discussion” in the US on “Pakistan’s possible role” in the raid.
Kugelman focused his attention on two possible forms of support: airspace and intelligence. “The geography doesn’t lie. If this drone was launched from a US base in the Gulf, it wouldn’t be able to fly over Iran.
Flying over Central Asia is circuitous and hard to pull off if you’re undertaking a rapid operation,” he wrote.” This leaves the Pakistani airspace as the most desirable option for intelligence support and US officials have indicated the planning and surveillance for this operation took months.”