Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Brewing Storm On The Pak-Afghan Border

A group known as the Pakistani Taliban has taken control of the North and South Waziristan regions of Pakistan which border the southern Afghanistan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar according to this Guardian report. NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is operating provincial reconstruction teams and providing force protection in both those provinces.

The militants are strongest in North and South Waziristan, two of seven tribal agencies on the border with Afghanistan. Strict social edicts have been handed down: shopkeepers may not sell music or films; barbers are instructed not to shave beards. Yesterday a bomb blew up a radio transmitter in Wana, taking the state radio off the air.


The violent puritanism is spreading. On Sunday a remote-controlled bomb ripped through a police vehicle in Dera Ismail Khan, near South Waziristan, killing seven people. More than 100 pro-government elders and politicians have been killed in the past nine months, said a diplomat.
The connections between the Afghani Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban are loose but the similarities are there, including the fact that both groups are ethnic Pashtun and are directly connected with al-Qaeda. And the Afghani Taliban uses Waziristan as a rear base.

Analysts say the Pakistani Taliban is a loose alliance of tribal militia operating under radical clerics such as Sadiq Noor and Abdul Khaliq. Many are angered by heavy-handed Pakistani military attacks against suspected al-Qaida hideouts, which are thought to have killed hundreds of civilians over the last two years.
Actually, they are more angered over heavy-handed air attacks coming from drones firing Hellfire missiles. And, as for the heavy-hand of the Pakistani army, they have certainly been responsible for a great number of deaths among the civilian population but it would be a mistake to say they are doing it with any effect against either the Taliban or al Qaeda.

Pakistan has 75,000 troops deployed in and around the area and has been engaged in a continuous campaign to supposedly root out Taliban and al Qaeda militants. The problem is Pakistani Peshwar Corps commander Lt. General Safdar Hussain. While he, without hesitation, hammers the hell out of a village, he has yet to produce a single captured al Qaeda leader. The occasional display of weapons captured belies the fact that he appears to be working towards different ends.

Of the priniciple leaders causing trouble in Waziristan, one is Abdullah Mahsud, (real name: Noor Alam), a Guantanamo alumnist, who was inexplicably released by the American military in March 2004. Well, perhaps not "inexplicably". Mahsud had managed to conceal his Pakistani identity throughout his captivity and his assumed position was that of a "fighter" with the Taliban. He was released having offered nothing in the way of information. The truth is Abdullah Mahsud commands a large group of fighters - for al Qaeda. Mahsud is now on Pakistan's "wanted dead or alive" list.

While Lt. General Hussain claims to be on a relentless hunt for Mahsud, his actions indicate otherwise. When tribesmen in Waziristan were caught sheltering al Qaeda terrorists in April 2004, Hussain flew into their village and granted them clemency. One of them was jihadi Nek Mohammed who, shortly after the meeting, vowed to continue his support of the Taliban and al Qaeda. Hussain, in November 2004, met with Abdullah Mahsud in Hussain's Jandola Fort. Hussain has been accused by both the US commander in Afghanistan and the opposition leader in Pakistan of using the Pakistani army to train the Taliban for re-infiltration into Afghanistan. Indeed, since Hussain's arrival in the Waziristan region the Taliban, once reduced to remnants has re-emerged as a force. And, there have always been questions about the fact that the Pakistani army failed to seal the escape routes from Tora Bora during the attack on al Qaeda's main encampment.

It would be a stretch to presume that General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, was not aware or perhaps even implicit in Safdar Hussain's activities. When the US asked that Hussain be replaced Musharraf brushed off the idea.

One could go further back. The operation on Tora Bora was botched by Centcom commander, General Tommy Franks. Franks relied on Afghan war-lords to run down al Qaeda in Tora Bora despite having been informed by his own intelligence officers that the war-lords were untrustworthy; something which turned out to be accurate. The small American, British and Australian special forces units in the Tora Bora range were ordered to wait for the war-lords, even though they were within striking distance of the al Qaeda encampments. With the back door left open by the Pakistanis, al Qaeda escaped into Waziristan - and they've yet to be extricated.

Another part of the problem is that the force that went into Afghanistan was too small and was reduced too quickly. Bush's and Blair's headlong rush to invade Iraq pillaged the US and UK forces of vital reserves which were needed to secure Afghanistan, allowing elements of the Taliban to continue to operate in the south.

Frustrated at the failure of Pakistan to neutralize or capture al Qaeda and the Taliban in Waziristan, Rumsfeld has resorted to a tactic which has served to do nothing if not antagonize an otherwise benign population. He's bombing them. Never one to use the right number of troops on the ground, Rumsfeld defaults to techno-war and air strikes. Results have been less than spectacular. While few al Qaeda terrorists have been killed, tribesmen, angered by US strikes and Pakistani army disregard for their safety, have started to accept Taliban rule and an alliance with al Qaeda.

NATO troops, including Canadian, British, Dutch, Danes, Estonians and an attached Australian force, in Helmand and Kandahar provinces are now under increased risk of attack. The four Provincial Reconstruction Team bases are on a direct line out of Tora Bora. Instead of being able to expand Afghan government control, which is their role, to areas outside Kabul, they will end up having to defend against the rebuilt forces of both the Taliban and al Qaeda. All thanks to Rumsfeld's interference resulting in a botched initial attack on al Qaeda and a subsequent reliance on a wholly untrustworthy ally in Pakistan.

Hat tip to reader Cat for the Guardian link

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