Biden in Pakistan: Where’s the baseline?

January 9, 2009

U.S. Vice President-elect Joe Biden held talks in Pakistan as part of a regional tour expected to focus on terrorism and tensions between Pakistan and India following the Mumbai attacks.

Before he left the United States, Biden, travelling in his capacity as outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that “What I hope to accomplish is to get sort of a baseline. This will be my God knows how many trips, I guess my 10th or 11th trip into Iraq and I don’t know how many times in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Politico quoted him as saying.

Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper said on its website that President Asif Ali Zardari “apprised Biden of Pakistan’s commitment and the measures being taken by the government in the war against militancy, extremism and terrorism”.  Biden in turn described Pakistan as “an incredibly valued U.S. ally”, according to the Associated Press of Pakistan.

But what about those attacks by U.S. Predator drones on targets on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan which have fuelled anti-American anger and been condemned by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty? President-elect Barack Obama has been a strong advocate of unilateral U.S. attacks, saying during his election campaign that “If we have actionable intelligence about high-level al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s border region, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot.”

Not only did the controversy over drone missile strikes seem to be given little attention – at least in the Pakistani media – but shortly before Biden arrived in Pakistan, a U.S. counterterrorism official announced that al Qaeda’s operations chief in Pakistan and a top aide were believed to have been killed in South Waziristan. The official declined to discuss how or when the men died, but a suspected U.S. drone strike in South Waziristan killed three foreign fighters on New Year’s Day, intelligence agents in Pakistan said at the time. U.S. forces in Afghanistan carried out about 30 missile strikes in Pakistan in 2008, according to a Reuters tally, mostly since the beginning of September.

Operations chief Usama al-Kini was thought responsible for the bombing of a Marriott hotel in Islamabad that killed 55 people in September. Kini and his dead lieutenant, Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, were on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorism suspects and had been indicted for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
The Washington Post quoted Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and Georgetown University professor, as saying that the CIA’s tactics appeared to be cutting dramatically into al Qaeda’s top ranks on the Pakistan border. ”It is a stunning testament of the accuracy of intelligence that the United States is obtaining,” Hoffman said. “Either we have built up an impressive network of sources that facilitates such precision targeting, or the Pakistani authorities are cooperating big-time.”
So where is the baseline Biden said he was looking for in Pakistan? A tacit understanding that the drone attacks can continue while being publicly condemned? Or was there a deliberate choice to avoid controversy before the Obama administration has even taken office and at a time when Pakistan faces pressure from both the United States and India to crack down on Islamist militants?
(Photos: Vice President-elect Joe Biden arrives for talks in Islamabad; tribesmen in Pakistan’s border areas)        



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