The October Surprise That Failed?

Waiting for the ‘October Surprise’ has become a standard ritual of the American election season, and this year was no exception. As usual, nervous Democrats anxiously wondered what sort of manufactured event and tricks the Bush administration, weighed down by its abysmal approval ratings, would unleash in the week or two prior to November 7 that might sway voters and reverse the deteriorating fortunes of the Republican party. Would they announce the capture of Osama bin Laden? Would they launch an attack on Iran? Would they announce a dramatic change in strategy in Iraq?

When none of these things happened and the only news of significance to emerge in the waning days of the election campaign was the break up of Britney Spears’ marriage, and the Republicans ended up getting a drubbing at the polls, people began to wonder if alleged political genius Karl Rove’s well of tricks had simply run dry.

However there is reason to think that there actually was an attempt at creating an October surprise, but that it went horribly wrong, and that was the missile strike that killed 80 people by destroying a madrassa in the Bajaur region of northwest Pakistan on October 30. There is strong evidence to suggest that the strike was an attempt by the US at killing the number 2 man of al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri.

The Pakistan military immediately claimed responsibility, saying that they were the ones who had ordered and executed that strike because the madrassa “was no longer being used for imparting religious lessons and was instead in use as a military training camp”, presumably to train people to go across the border into Afghanistan and fight the US and NATO forces there.

The claim that the school housed militants was immediately disputed by residents of the area, who said that the dead were students from the surrounding area, many of them young children. The Pakistan government has sealed off the area and prohibited journalists from entering, thus preventing independent verification of the competing claims. However, news reports said that “A group of lawyers from Peshawar who visited the site last week said they saw no evidence of training or weapons. What they did see was disturbing enough: a tense, angry crowd that surrounded their vehicles, shouting for holy war against the Pakistani and U.S. governments, less than a week after local leaders had been ready to sign a peace pact with the government.”

What raises suspicions about the Pakistan military’s version of this incident is the timing of the strike. In September 2006, the Pakistan government, incurring deep US displeasure, had entered into a peace deal with the pro-Taliban militant leaders of North Waziristan (one of Pakistan’s northwest frontier provinces that borders Afghanistan) and was in the process of negotiating other deals with tribal leaders of other border regions. This rugged mountainous region is hard to monitor, is friendly to the Taliban, and the Pakistan government has historically had little control over it, with its own troops being periodically attacked and hundreds of people dying in the periodic skirmishes.

A news report said “Intriguingly, the attack was launch [sic] on the very day when the pro-Taliban tribal militants led by Maulana Faqir Mohammad and the deceased Maulana Liaquat were scheduled to sign a peace agreement with the Pakistan government.” Maulana Liaquat ran the madrassa (seminary) that was destroyed and was a leader of the banned pro-Taliban organization called Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM). He was killed in the attack. “The TNSM Bajaur leader Maulana Faqir Mohammad, wanted for allegedly sheltering al-Qaeda and Taliban linked foreign militants, survived the attack as he wasn’t at the seminary at the time of the attack. He had attended a meeting at the seminary in the afternoon and left.”

This raises the puzzling question of why the Pakistani government would arrange to make a peace deal and then turn around and bomb the very people with whom it had made the deal, on the very day that the deal was to be signed. It did not make sense and the people of the region quickly dismissed the idea that Pakistani forces had been responsible for the attack. They said that the madrassa was destroyed by missiles fired from US Predator drones. They cited witness who said they heard the drones circling overhead and said that Pakistan President Musharraf was trying to hide the fact that the US had attacked targets within Pakistan. As a result, there has been a violent reaction against the Pakistani government, with demonstrations and rallies and a suicide bomber who killed 42 Pakistani government troops on November 8.

But why would the US embarrass their ally so publicly? One possible argument is that they wanted to scuttle any peace deals between the Pakistani government and pro-Taliban tribal leaders. But killing 80 seminary students seems an extreme step to take to achieve that goal, even if you suspect that some of them might be militants in training.

The more likely reason is that the US had received intelligence that Ayman al Zawahiri may have been at the seminary, either hiding there or talking to the students.

This would not be the first time that the US had tried and failed to kill him in that region, where Zawahiri is supposed to have relatives. On January 14, 2006, the US had launched similar Predator drone missiles at the village of Damadola in the same region. That attack ended up killing 18 people including women and children, but no Zawahiri. Two weeks later, Zawahiri released a video taunting the US for their failed attempts at finding him.

It was outrage over the January deaths in Damadola that forced Musharraf to publicly declare that the US would not be allowed to launch any more attacks within Pakistani territory, which may have been why the Pakistan authorities were forced to claim responsibility for the recent madrassa attack.

It seems quite plausible that the October 30, 2006 missile attack was an attempt at an October surprise, a gamble that hoped to net the death of Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command and the main strategist of al Qaeda. This would have allowed Bush to claim that he was achieving success in the war on terror, and put terrorism front and center in the minds of voters just days before the election.

If so, it failed in that goal. What is has done instead, apart from leading to more deaths of innocent people, is undermine and weaken the main ally that the US has in that region, Pakistani President Musharraf, an October surprise just for him that he neither wanted or needed.

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