x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

To solve Pakistan's terror problem, fry the big fish first

The death of top terrorist Ilyas Kashmiri – if indeed he is dead – signals a new doctrine in US-Pakistani operations against top enemies: a tacit acceptance of drone strikes on 'high-value' targets.

Ilyas Kashmiri was first reported dead in September 2009, when a Pakistani government spokesman said he had died in a drone attack. That proved to be false.

And so the report earlier this month of his death, from the US Embassy in Kabul, was received with considerable scepticism. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) issued an immediate denial. However, by midday a quiet confirmation rumour was abroad, and soon thereafter the TTP issued confirmation - and vowed deadly vengeance. US officials were not so quick to confirm his death, but then Pakistan's prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, said the US has now done so. Kashmiri was, or is, 48.

If he has been killed, Kashmiri may have become an early victim of a promising new Pakistani-American accord on how to deal with "high-value" targets. Despite much-publicised disagreements in recent weeks, especially in the wake of Osama bin Laden's killing on Pakistani soil, the two sides continue to cooperate, albeit quietly.

To understand this avenue of attack, it helps to know about Kashmiri.

A veteran of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, he rose to prominence in the early 1990s, when he led a faction of the Harkat-ul-Ansar Mujahideen fighting alongside Indian Kashmiris in Kashmir. He has erroneously been referred to as an asset of Pakistan's ISI, merely because he was one of many whose groups received support from the intelligence service in those days. He denied a rumour that he had served in the Pakistani army's Special Services Group.

Captured by Indian forces in 1994, he escaped in 1996 and joined the Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami (Jihadi movement for Islam), known as HuJI. Asked to serve under Maulana Azhar Masood of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, he refused and formed his own splinter group.

Around the end of the 1990s, a litany of complaints against him cost him any further assistance from the ISI. But he managed to find the means to continue his struggle in Indian Kashmir for another year or so. Donations dried up, and he pulled out of Kashmir in early 2001.

He hails from Azad Kashmir, the portion of Kashmir affiliated with Pakistan, but acquired a considerable following in southern Punjab, his adopted home base, to which he returned to a hero's welcome. For reasons best known to those then in power, nothing was done to stop him. His grudge against the ISI, for cutting off his support, began to extend to the Pakistani state.

During this period he named his immediate fighters the 313 Brigade, recalling the 313 faithful warriors of the Prophet who won the battle of Badr against a force three times as large.

After September 11 2001, when President Pervez Musharraf reversed his Taliban policy, Kashmiri found a new cause to espouse: the Taliban. Pakistani Pashtun had grown to hate the Taliban, but Kashmiri found considerable Taliban support among the disgruntled youth of southern Punjab. The number of his followers began to swell, fresh donations began to arrive and he swore bloody revenge on the Pakistani state for betraying the Taliban.

Sometime after 2003, Kashmiri was also reputed to have established contacts with al Qa'eda. Following a failed attempt to kill President Musharraf in Rawalpindi in December 2003, Kashmiri was jailed as a suspect, but was soon released. He then went underground, and South Waziristan became his regular haunt.

He has been accused of a number of high-profile attacks in the years since, including the strike on the Sri Lankan cricket team, army headquarters and a mosque in Rawalpindi.

When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Chief of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, visited Pakistan last month, there were reports that they came bearing a "wish list" of individuals the US wanted to target. Evidence suggests Kashmiri was on that list. I am unaware of the priority accorded to listed individuals, but I would have given top priority to Kashmiri. I am also fairly certain that the ISI did so and located him for US drones to target.

This should not be surprising. Pakistan has long demanded that the US restrict drone attacks to "high-value" individuals that Pakistan wants targeted. Kashmiri fit the bill on both accounts.

Pakistan will have no hesitation in helping the US target others who are on the hit lists of both countries. These will probably include anyone in al Qa'eda's command hierarchy. Nor will Pakistan hesitate to assist the US in striking those TTP leaders who are targeting Pakistan.

Pakistan's interests and America's do not always converge, however. When it comes to high value targets seen as anti-US and pro-Pakistan, Pakistan might not be inclined to be as helpful. But reports of a widening gap in US-Pakistan relations must be measured.

Both nations benefit when mid- level terrorist leaders feel threatened. Negotiations are not possible unless terrorists feel they are losing ground. The ideal I have cited is the way the British brought the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, to the negotiating table - by infiltrating and targeting the leaders.

Targeting Taliban foot soldiers increases the death count reported in the media, but is an exercise in futility as far as the outcome of the war is concerned. "High-value" targeting, on the other hand, makes sense.


Brig Shaukat Qadir is a former Pakistani infantry officer