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Afghanistan: Dogs of war in full cry
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - United States-led coalition forces stationed in Afghanistan have launched operation "Mountain Storm" - the beginning of their spring anti-terror offensive - with the aim of hunting down suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But unlike previous lackluster operations, the mechanisms of Mountain Storm are envisaged to entail better aims and intelligence, and will target prominent commanders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Afghanistan rebel group Hezb-i-Islami, as well as Ustad Fareed and Kashmir Khan, two big names in the resistance movement.

The focus of Mountain Storm is broader than past US operations, and will cover the provinces of Nagarhar (which includes Jalalabad), Kunhar Valley and Nooristan, Khost, Gardez, Kandahar, Gazni, Oruzgan, Kunduz and Logar (which also includes the outskirts of Kabul). It is believed that the Hezb-i-Islami has established a strong hub in the thick jungles and mountains of Nooristan and Kunhar Valley, and Hekmatyar is said to control the activities of the group from places like Kunduz and Kabul. Meanwhile, high-level sources told Asia Times Online that the dimensions of this latest operation are very much evident in Pakistani tribal areas, where 70,000 Pakistani troops have mobilized - especially in South Waziristan, Bajur Agency and Mohmand Agency.

The political factors
Despite rounding up dozens of Afghan citizens allegedly linked to tribes and clans of the commanders wanted by the US, the situation has been virtually static in Afghanistan, with the US failing to make any significant captures during previous operations. On the contrary, with the passage of time, the grip of the guerrilla movement is becoming stronger with each passing day.

The coalition's past failures are said to be linked to the Afghan administration, which was comprised of former jihadi commanders and, more interestingly, former officials and office bearers of Hezb-i-Islami. But well before Mountain Storm, the Kabul administration brought about major changes in the nine different provinces where the operation is taking place, including a change of security chiefs and governors.

Meanwhile, US authorities have made it clear to Pakistan that if it fails to help the US smash the network of the resistance, one way or other it will find itself swimming in a cesspool of troubles. In fact, US Secretary of State Colin Powell - confirmed to arrive in Pakistan on March 17 - is bringing with him a strong agenda, in which he aims to discuss the ties of Pakistani scientists to Libya, North Korea and Iran in detail. Following this discussion, the US is likely to put the breaks on Pakistan's enriched uranium production, and the reduction of Pakistan's arms is another issue. After that, the dangling sword of sanctions is likely to fall.

Just this week, US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged publicly for the first time that Washington is expecting favors in return for its tolerance of President General Pervez Musharraf’s pardon of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist who in February confessed to selling nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea . "We feel it gives us more leverage," he told the Far Eastern Economic Review news magazine.

As soon as Powell's visit was confirmed, Musharraf rushed to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he held meetings with Crown Prince Abdullah in an effort to convince him to renew the kingdom's oil supply contract with Pakistan on deferred payment, so that Pakistan would be able to weather any tough storms ahead. In 1998-99, Saudi Arabia provided oil worth US$2 billion to Pakistan on deferred payments at the request of then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, following sanctions imposed against Pakistan by the world community because of its nuclear detonations. A major portion of this amount was later converted into a grant and the facility was extended in the subsequent years and continued until December 2003.

But Saudi authorities gave Musharraf the cold shoulder, and so far have given no indication that any more oil supply contracts will be granted on a deferred payment basis.

So with non-cooperation from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is in real political isolation. On the one hand, it has made a complete u-turn in its relations with India and is now ready to sacrifice the pursuit of its contentious issues to end enmity with New Delhi. On the other hand, it has been forced to station 70,000 troops on its western borders to contain the activities of the Afghan insurgence. Furthermore, Pakistan is under US pressure to force pro-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan to lay down their weapons in favor of those who happen to be anti-Pakistan forces. For the last few months, Pakistan has also compromised on this issue, supporting the US with full force against pro-Pakistani forces in Afghanistan. But still, the US failed to see desirable results and the ghosts of Taliban and al-Qaeda continue to haunt it - and, perhaps even more so, Pakistan.

The fact of the matter is that things are not really in Pakistan's hands anymore, as far as Afghan resistance forces are concerned. The resistance of the present is an indigenous force, with no help from any region or any country in the world.

Two years back, when the Taliban retreated from Kabul, they were the most popular force in the Afghan Pashtun belt. In the two-month-long US bombardment of Afghanistan, nothing much changed until the Taliban themselves decided to retreat, as they did not have any shield against the US bombardment. Despite all the odds, it is a fact that the Taliban are still the most popular force in the Pashtun belt and they have successfully retained their rule in most of the suburbs of the urban centers. That fact is now admitted by the major international press.

The spring offensive
Asia Times Online reported earlier that April is the month when the US-led spring offensive will reach its climax. Meanwhile, high-level-sources maintain that al-Qaeda is preparing for its own attack US interests in April - within the US as well - aimed at shaking the nerves of the Bush administration at a time when the Afghan guerilla movement will attempt to retake the major Afghan cities from US forces.

In this regard, Thursday's train bombings in Madrid - allegedly planned by al-Qaeda - have shown a very different picture ahead. One has to keep in mind that Spain has the highest number of al-Qaeda cells in comparison to the rest of Europe. It is al-Qaeda policy to use places like France, Pakistan and Spain as transit points and use these places only for planning their activities, because if they target the place that shelters them, it would be difficult for them to survive. However, if the Madrid attack was indeed carried out by al-Qaeda, it clearly indicates that the group would have had to shut down its cells in Spain well in advance of the attack. This implies that preparations are underway for major attacks against US allies.

High-level sources told Asia Times Online that although a retaliation against the US-led coalition's presence in places like Kabul and Jalalabad is likely, the biggest blunder of the US was to set off on its Mountain Storm operation into the jungles and mountains of Nooristan, as the entire area is pro-resistance; US casualties are therefore a certainty.

A foiled attempt
An attempt to blow up the US consulate in Karachi was cut short Monday morning. What is telling is that it happened just a few days after the US kicked off operation Mountain Storm, a time when there are clear signals that al-Qaeda will attempt to carry out big attacks on US interests as soon as the US and Afghan resistance clashes in Afghanistan.

The work was not carried out by an al-Qaeda or jihadi outfit, instead believed to have been initiated by underworld mercenaries who snatched a van at gun point, loaded it with hydrogen peroxide, and parked it near the US consulate. According to police officials, there was not enough hydrogen peroxide to destroy the consulate, and only partial damage would have resulted. The purpose of the bombing attempt, therefore, was to create a scare.

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Mar 16, 2004

Afghanistan: The spring trap is sprung (Mar 11, '04)

Get Osama - but where, and when? (Mar 5, '04)

Pakistan stirs a tribal war (Mar 3, '04)


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