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Updated: July 19, 2011 13:00 IST

Troubled alliance, deadly costs

Nirupama Subramanian
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A startling new suggestion in Bruce Riedel's Deadly Embrace is that the 2001 attack on Indian Parliament was a quid pro quo by Jaish-e-Mohammed to al-Qaeda for securing the release of Masood Azhar through the IC-814 hijacking.

A former CIA officer, Riedel says the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane from Kathmandu to Kandahar was one of four al-Qaeda “millennium plots”, the only one to succeed. The hijackers secured the release of Azhar, a Kashmiri militant who went on to form the JeM from his base in Pakistan, and Sheikh Omar Saeed, who was later held for the killing of Daniel Pearl.

Two other millennium plots — planned bombings at three sites in Jordan and its border with Israel, and an attack on the Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Day 2000 — were detected in time and thwarted. The fourth, on an American destroyer berthed in Aden harbour at Yemen, went awry when the explosives-laden boat that was to ram into the ship sank under its own weight.

Dress rehearsal

Riedel, now a Foreign Policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, extends Jaswant Singh's theory that the hijacking was a “dress rehearsal” for 9/11 to raise the possibility that al-Qaeda may have been involved in the planning of the attack on Parliament.

The post-9/11 attack on Indian Parliament helped to take the heat off al-Qaeda — through 2002, the attention of the world and the Pakistan army was focussed on the possibility of a military response by India.

“Did JeM pay bin Laden back for his help in 1999 by diverting the Pakistani posse away from the chase in 2001? Did al-Qaeda play a hand in the attack plan itself?” he asks.

Riedel's theory will doubtless go down well with Indians. In other ways too, this book reinforces many of India's long-held doubts and suspicions about Pakistan: as the crucible of global terror, its role in the rise of the Taliban and the al-Qaeda and, post-9/11, its Janus-faced approach to the global war on terror — delivering on some goals in fits and starts, as and when it suited President Musharraf, while doing nothing to rein in “strategic assets” such as the Taliban, and militant groups operating in Kashmir, such as the JeM and the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Riedel, among the first to talk about the links between the al-Qaeda and the LeT, say these connections were “obvious” to some in the CIA as far back as 1998.

Pakistan's dubious policies — never mind the heavy price it has had to pay for them — are only too well known. While many would be pleased that a former CIA top honcho, who was adviser to four U.S. Presidents on the Middle East and South Asia, is confirming them, a reader expecting CIA insider-stories about Pakistan is in for some disappointment.

Indeed, Riedel writes about these “mysteries” as if he was an onlooker rather than a top official of the most powerful intelligence agency in the world that is up to its elbows in Pakistan, and therefore someone who should know more about these mysteries. Maybe, he decided to self-censor. For instance, on the question of who killed Abdallah Azam, the original jihadi, a Palestinian who is said to have inspired Osama bin Laden — Azam was “mysteriously” assassinated in 1989 in a car-bombing in Peshawar along with his two sons. Riedel runs through the list of usual suspects: the al-Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al Zawahiri, Mossad, and the CIA. He leaves us with the impression — kind of — that the Jordanian intelligence agency did it, but none the wiser if that was the CIA's final conclusion too. And he does not even deny outright the suspicion that the CIA might have been behind it.

Even more surprising is Riedel's summing up of the first Afghan war: fought to remove the Soviet Red Army from Afghanistan, he says, at an annual $250 million funding by the CIA from 1984, peaking to $400 million in 1987 to 1988, “it has to be one of the most cost-effective programs ever run by the U.S. government.” Evidently, he did not take into his reckoning the terrible consequences of the war that we live even today.

Extreme scenarios

The chapter titled ‘Thinking the Unthinkable' paints extreme scenarios of a jihadist Pakistan under another Zia-like general, and of a “9/11 redux” and a “Mumbai redux”, all of which will leave America with only bad options for dealing with the situation. Indian heads will nod in agreement with his analysis that another Mumbai-style attack could provoke a military response from New Delhi, as “India's patience is not eternal.”

What will not endear him to his Indian audience is his proposal that the U.S. use its new relationship with India to “help advance the Kashmir issue to a better, more stable solution” by “quietly but forcefully [encouraging] New Delhi to be more flexible on Kashmir.” Even if a somewhat self-serving account of U.S. actions and “interests” before and after 9/11, Deadly Embrace is an interesting read, fill as it does some, if not all gaps, in our understanding of both the U.S. and Pakistan.

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