ISLAMABAD - United States ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter's alleged meeting with one of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation's most wanted men - Jamaat-ul-Daawa (JuD) amirProfessor Hafiz Mohammad Saeed - seems to be the principal reason for his premature exit from Islamabad, after having served just over 18 months since his appointment in October 2010.
Munter, a career diplomat, abruptly quit his job last week, hardly 24 hours after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared Saeed responsible for the 26/11 Mumbai carnage and announced that the US was prepared to work with India to bring the JuD amir to justice. The November 2008 attacks were 11 coordinated shooting and bombing incidents across Mumbai by terrorists who allegedly came from Pakistan. The three-day rampage cost 166 lives, including six Americans, with at least 308 people injured.
Munter's decision to quit the ambassadorship prematurely has
been confirmed by Mark Stroh, an embassy spokesman, who said, "He will be leaving this summer at the conclusion of his two years in the job. The ambassador had been weighing the option of continuing for a third year, but decided against it." No replacement has been named.
However, well-placed diplomatic officials in the federal capital claim that Munter's decision has more to do with behind-the-scenes developments that took place in Islamabad following the April 1, 2012, decision of the Barack Obama administration to put a price of US$10 million on information and evidence leading to the arrest and conviction of the JuD's Saeed. Saeed is also the founder of the pro-Kashmir proscribed jihadi organization Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). The bounty was announced for his alleged role in the Mumbai attacks.
Just hours after the US State Department announced the bounty, Saeed appeared on Pakistan's Geo TV. He said he was a free man - living in Pakistan - and was ready to speak with US officials at any time.
While some high-ups in the Pakistani Foreign Office claim that Munter has taken the decision to quit on his own for not being kept in the loop by the US State Department, there are those in diplomatic circles who maintain that the envoy is being made to resign by his seniors because of his seemingly soft line over Saeed's bounty issue, which has not gone down well with the Obama administration.
According to a report in the Indian Express, Munter had informed Washington that an apology "was in order" after a cross-border North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last year, but his advice was overruled by the Pentagon. "Pakistan's insistence on an apology for the NATO attack has emerged as a key irritant in moves to reset its relationship with the US after a year of crises that took ties to a new low," the paper reported.
However, the instant cause of Munter's exit is believed to be his clandestine meeting with Saeed that took place in Islamabad almost a month ago, after the US announced the bounty.
Diplomatic circles say the Munter-Saeed meeting was intended to remove misunderstandings created by the bounty announcement, which had prompted the JuD amir to step up his anti-US public campaign by laughing off the American action against him.
According to the sources, Saeed presented solid evidence to Munter, showing that he had no links to the Mumbai carnage. The US envoy subsequently sent a detailed report to the US administration on Saeed's viewpoint, but the State Department reportedly made it clear to Munter that it would not be responsible for any assurances given by him to the JuD chief.
To recall, following the bounty announcement, Saeed addressed a press conference in Rawalpindi on April 4 and dared the US to carry out a military raid against him like the one that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad a year ago.
Taunting the US to give him the head money offered for information leading to his arrest under the Rewards for Justice Program, Saeed said he would inform the US authorities about his whereabouts so he could claim the cash. "I am not hiding in caves and mountains, I am here in Rawalpindi. If the Americans want to contact me, I am present here, they can contact me. I am also ready to face any US court, or wherever there is proof against me or my group's involvement in terrorist activities."
Saeed then mocked the US bounty decision for someone who lives so openly in Pakistan. "These Americans seriously lack information. Don't they know where I go and where I live and what I do? These rewards are usually announced for people who are hiding in mountains or caves. I wish the Americans would give this reward money to me."
Munter, who is known for his conciliatory approach, decided to pacify Saeed in a one-on-one meeting in Islamabad that was kept secret and which is still not being confirmed officially by either side as it is perceived to be damaging for both parties.
The US Embassy spokesman in Islamabad has categorically refuted that any meeting between Munter and Saeed took place. "Ambassador Munter has never met with Hafiz Saeed and no US official has made any promises to, or agreements with, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed who is a wanted terrorist responsible for the deadly attack on Mumbai in November 2008 that killed 166 people, including six Americans. The JuD amir is subject to UN Security Council Resolution 1267/1989 sanctions and there is an international responsibility on the member states to bring the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks to justice," the US embassy spokesperson said in an official press release.
Approached for comments, JuD spokesman Mohammad Yahya Mujahid too denied reports of a meeting between Saeed and Munter, saying his amir was not at all interested in holding secret meetings with someone who represented the enemy of Islam and Pakistan. "[The United States] has butchered millions of Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere."
But the fact remains that Munter had declared in Lahore (soon after his alleged meeting with Saeed) on April 28, that the US government did not announce any bounty or head money specifically for the JuDamir and that the matter had been misreported in the Pakistani media.
"The Pakistani media is very active and responsible but it misreported the issue of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed," Munter said in reply to queries after the annual dinner of the American Business Forum at the Royal Palm Golf and Country Club in Lahore. "Though Hafiz Saeed is a suspected accused of the Mumbai terror attacks, the US government didn't place either a bounty or head money for him," he said.
Diplomatic circles in Islamabad say these developments were brought to the knowledge of Clinton, who apparently did not appreciate Munter's actions as they could be perceived as rolling back the tough stance that was later spelled out by Clinton during her Indian tour, when she bluntly reprimanded Pakistan for not taking any action against Saeed as the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attacks.
Delivering a speech in Kolkata on May 8, and lending support to India to fight terrorism, Clinton confirmed the bounty on Saeed. Calling theamir one of the principal architects of the Mumbai attacks, she said the bounty was meant to show solidarity with the people of India.
"I am well aware that the Pakistani government had not yet taken steps to help secure Hafiz Saeed's conviction. We're going to be pushing that. So it's a way of raising the visibility and pointing out to those who are associated with him that there is a cost for that," Clinton said, adding that Pakistan should do more to ensure that its territory is not used as a launching pad for carrying out more terrorist attacks.
Hardly 24 hours after Clinton's Kolkata speech, which clearly negated Munter's earlier stance on the Saeed head money issue, the US ambassador made public his decision to quit.
Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest beingThe Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.