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Bin Laden between a hammer and a hard place
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - After taking a dramatic, and suspect, deviation into Iraq, the United States' "war on terror" is right back where it began, in Afghanistan, once again in hot pursuit of Osama bin Laden.

"The hunt has been intense," said US General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "There are areas where we think it is most likely he is, and they remain the same. They haven't changed in months."

"The sand in their hourglass is running out. The troops are re-energized," confirmed the US commanding officer in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General David Barno. "Their day has ended and this year will decisively sound the death knell of their movements in Afghanistan," Barno was quoted as telling journalists in Kabul about bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. "We have unfinished business in this part of the world."

This part of the world, in the latest US initiative to hunt down the al-Qaeda leader - code-named Hammer and Anvil - is the rugged, inhospitable territory on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the Pakistan side, the area includes the semi-autonomous tribal areas, particularly South and North Waziristan.

"On the one side of the border are US and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] troops, on the other side are Pakistani troops," commented a source familiar with military developments to Asia Times Online. "This time it will be a big, long operation."

Another crucial side to the operation is an overhaul within the Pakistani army "to purge the elements allegedly sexed up with al-Qaeda and the Taliban", the source said, referring to those elements in the army and the intelligence services with sympathies for these groups.

The shakeup follows the recent arrest of several militants of Uzbek origin, as well as an Arab named Waleed bin Azmi, in a raid in the eastern district of the Pakistani port city of Karachi. About a dozen militants managed to escape, while the captured ones were handed over to agents of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, who found during their interrogations that the operators had been besieged near Wana, South Waziristan, but they were given an escape route, allegedly by officers of the Pakistan armed forces. The operators fled to Karachi, but were rounded up thanks to the local police's intelligence network.

The US presented these facts to Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf - not the first time such incidents have been reported, but this time with the demands that the officers be taken to task and that US officials be allowed to take part in the inquiries to understand better the nexus between Islamists and officers in the Pakistani army.

Several officers are now expected to be arrested. A similar incident occurred last year when Lieutenant-Colonel Khalid Abbassi and one Major Atta were seized, among others. Asia Times Online broke the story of these arrests (Musharraf's army breaking ranks ), causing a stir in the country.

Hammer poised
The ongoing operations on the border are expected to last for some time. The Pakistani military has begun to confront tribal leaders, threatening them with home demolitions and other punishment if they harbor al-Qaeda fighters. This is a highly sensitive matter in an area that is virtually beyond the writ of the administration in Islamabad.

"The Pakistani troops are confronting the tribal elders and making them be accountable for the behavior in their area. That's a traditional approach that has not been used till now in that particular part of Pakistan," said General Barno.

Of course, this area has been the focus of attention ever since the Taliban were driven from Afghanistan in late 2001. Its rugged territory and the close ethnic ties with the Pashtun of Afghanistan make it a natural safe haven, which it has undoubtedly become over the past two years as the Taliban, aided by al-Qaeda, have regrouped.

The starting point for the new US-led operation is Khost in Afghanistan as part of a preemptive plan to curb mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose belt of influence spreads all the way from Khost to Pakistan's North Waziristan Agency. Another belt travels from North Waziristan to the Kunar Valley in Afghanistan, where Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hebz-i-Islami Afghanistan and de facto leader of the Afghan resistance, is directing operations.

Unlike in the past, though, when operations have focused on limited targets and been of short duration, the current offensive is all-embracing and has as its ultimate goal the destruction of the Afghan resistance (with the cherry on the top being bin Laden's capture). NATO forces have already occupied key places in Afghanistan in an attempt to block off the border and to wait for fugitives flushed out from Pakistan. The anvil is almost in place on one side of the border. Now it is up to the Pakistanis to do their bit on the other side.

And the United States is not taking any chances. US Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet visited Islamabad recently on an unofficial trip. His team stayed in a local hotel, while Tenet was accommodated at the US Embassy. He secretly met with several high-profile Pakistani officials, including his counterpart, the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence. Sources familiar with the meetings told Asia Times Online that a roadmap was sketched for the region, including a "full-scale war" if necessary to smoke out bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Pakistan's commitment in this was sought.

At a time when the United States is keen to leave Afghanistan - elections are due in June but likely to be delayed - this full-scale commitment holds the inherent danger that it might fail, and the US be drawn even deeper into the country's morass. This in turn could trigger a chain of events culminating in another terror attack on the US along the lines of that of September 11, 2001, for example on the Rockefeller Center in New York. The wheel in the "war on terror" in such an event really would have turned full circle.

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Feb 21, 2004



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