At a time when the Pakistani media is fixated on Islamabad; praising and condemning the ongoing protests, a news item that came from Middle East has gone unnoticed.
The ISIS after their barbaric act of slaughtering journalist James Wright Foley declared that they held another hostage, Steven Joel Sotloff. The tragic event brought back memories of 2002 when Daniel Pearl, a US journalist, was executed in similar manner by Al-Qaeda in Pakistan. The ISIS has made a bargaining offer that concerns Pakistan as well. Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani who is currently serving her jail term in US for her alleged involvement with Al-Qaeda, has been demanded to be freed in return for Steven Joel Sotloff.
With already three days gone, the Foreign Office of Pakistan has yet not officially responded, and given the political drama which is currently taking place in Pakistan a response is unlikely. Pakistani government who has principally maintained a policy of supporting legitimate governments in Syria and Iraq (also the operative regions of ISIS) may find itself in an interesting position. Whether Pakistan’s reaction will be sympathetic or not, is for time to tell. What should be much relevant is; a) Dr. Aafia’s connection with ISIS, b) Can such deal possibly be made?
Dr. Aafia, a PhD in neuroscience is on a term of 86 years in US prison for acting as a courier to Khalid Shiekh Mohammed of Al-Qaeda (also in US custody). Theories place Ms. Siddiqui’s former husband also an active Al-Qaeda operative. Rumors has it Pakistani government has been trying to extradite her from US in a possible swap deal for Dr. Shakeel Afridi (serving term in Pakistan for treason for his role in locating Osama bin Laden). The female doctor, being high priority and a symbol of courage for multiple individuals, her elevation to a person of interest for ISIS is mind boggling. Al-Qaeda maintains its distance from ISIS activities calling them un-Islamic. The Al-Qaeda is believed to be an organization working without defined hierarchy in a cellular model. Whether Al-Qaeda welcomes any such deal is again a question of future. Simplifying the equation is the message of extremist unity. For now Al-Qaeda may alienate itself from ISIS but can it realign for the greater cause of Islamic supremacy is a separate question. The situation further becomes complex due to the US’s exit from Afghanistan. The ISIS were smoothly able to capture ground in Iraq and till the time hold most of their ground. Afghanistan may turn out to be a similar case for Al-Qaeda, and for the sake of brotherhood it can definitely host ISIS for its non-Muslim operations.
With all hypothetical situations, are Pakistani strategists sighting this future possible alliance? Both the Al-Qaeda and ISIS have common grounds on Dr. Aafia, imagine their future handshakes. Can Pakistan keep an ignorant or even a soft response towards the offer made by ISIS? Can Pakistan allow such hardliners with a possible future in Afghanistan develop sympathetic feelings among its public? Given the religious sentimentality of masses in Pakistan, even raising this as a possible deal would give ISIS significant support.
For the latter query, can the deal be made? The offer Obama administration would find itself in a dilemma of its own. Criticized for not being proactive for late Mr. Foley, it may not be that easy to pull off a swap.
The public swap deal of US marine Bergdahl held hostage in Afghanistan for prominent Al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders has already invited criticism by republicans. Can Mr. Obama trade a weak, mentally paralyzed female for an American national? Would the Pakistani administration be asked for guarantees? If the neuroscientist does return, would that be accounted as a weakened US in the Middle East? Being skeptical over US policy on ISIS one may not have all answers but clearly finds a certain refraining pattern.
Developing or not developing our concern still remains the stance for Pakistan to make. We have already faced the consequences of our previous mistakes and cannot afford any further extremism or even partnership. The Pakistani Government should respond in a tone which should not be welcoming. Perhaps there will be another time for Dr. Aafia to return home.
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