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    South Asia
     May 17, 2006
Osama back in the US crosshairs
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

"According to everything we know, he [Osama bin Laden] really is living in Pakistan, near to the Afghan border. Our neighbor [Pakistan] could certainly catch him and put him in court. But to our knowledge, their efforts to do this have always been half-hearted."
- Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, May 14

PAKISTAN-AFGHANISTAN border - The Pakistani government has dismissed Foreign Minister Spanta's accusations out of hand, saying that the problem lies with Afghanistan, which is where al-Qaeda leader bin Laden his actually hiding.

The Americans, for now at least, are keeping their options open in

their quest to hunt down the world's most wanted man.

Asia Times Online investigations, after a harrowing journey to
some of the most inhospitable territory in the Hindu Kush mountains, confirm that US and Pakistan forces are now preparing for a large-scale operation to track down bin Laden, or other big fish, on whichever side of the border they might be.

The focal point in the "war on terror" has thus firmly shifted to the maze of mountains and rivers that stretches from remote Chitral in the northwest of Pakistan's North West Frontier province to Nuristan and Kunar provinces in Afghanistan.

The Durand Line, the border, dissects this region, but it is a barrier in name only: for those who know their way along tortuous passes, unrestricted passage between the countries is possible.

The FBI: Talk of the town
The presence of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents in the Chitral Valley has been the subject of much discussion recently. From the chief minister of the province to the man in the street, the word is that the Americans have established a vigilance center in Chitral town after what is said to be a "credible" tip-off of al-Qaeda activity in the region.

There has been no official word from the United States on the speculation of a FBI presence, but feedback gathered by Asia Times Online from various quarters confirms frequent visits by Americans to the Chitral Valley recently. At the same time, there is an extraordinary large presence of Pakistani security forces all along the border area, especially near Arandu, armed with heavy weapons.

Local residents explain that the Pakistani military built many bunkers around Arandu during the 1980s when the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan. They abandoned these after the Soviets pulled out in 1989, but now they have manned them with Chitral Scouts, a paramilitary force, along with heavy weapons.

All quiet on the eastern front?
"Compared with the southern region of Afghanistan, the eastern region is quiet. There is resistance in Kunar and Nuristan, but nothing on the pattern of southern Afghanistan. Perhaps the eastern zone is best suited to hide instead of carrying out regular combat operations," a person who only called himself a mujahid (Islamic fighter, singular of the Persian/Arabic term mujahideen) told Asia Times Online.

In support of this, the mujahid referred to persistent reports that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister and now leader of the anti-US movement, was hiding in the Kunar Valley.

There have also been any number of wild guesses about the presence of bin Laden in the area.

However, the mujahid dismissed this notion about bin Laden. "There is no doubt that in places like Nuristan and Kunar one can easily hide, compared with other parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there is a special threat to Osama in this region as the local Afghan Salafis [80% of the population ] are dead against the Taliban.

"During the Taliban's rule [1996-2001] Osama played a role in persuading many of the Afghan Salafis to pledge their allegiance to [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar. That created a lot of bad blood between Afghan Salafis and Osama, and that is why Osama would not be safe in Nuristan," the mujahid elaborated.

Nevertheless, many middle-ranking veterans, such as Commander Faqirullah of the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan and Abu Ikhlas of al-Qaeda, are operative in the Nuristan and Kunar area and are well placed to orchestrate guerrilla operations against US-led allied forces.

At the same time, the Taliban-led resistance has steadily taken over control of some strategic areas. This indicates another trend, how the Taliban has blended in with local vested interests.

Fired by opium
The Pechdara region is a strategic part of the Kunar Valley, east of Jalalabad and touching Nuristan province. It has become a nucleus in the hands of the Taliban, notably the village of Korangal, where fighters of Chechen, Chinese, Arabic and Uzbek origin are entrenched and from where they carry out insurgency attacks.

The Kunar Valley, unlike many other parts of Afghanistan, is devoid of poppy fields, except for the Pechdara area. Buyers converge here every day to buy small quantities of poppy, ranging from 5-10 kilograms at a cost of about US$233 per kilo.

Although the Taliban have a strong foothold, some of the main players (warlords) in Pechdara are in fact non-Taliban, with ties to Kabul. These include Commander Najamuddin, once of Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan, Jahandad, a former governor of Kunar, and Malik Zarin Khan, who was an aide of slain Ahmad Shah Masoud, the legendary Tajik leader in northern Afghanistan.

These players initially helped allied forces carry out operations against the Taliban. However, subsequently they struck a deal with the Taliban, who in turn stopped harassing the warlords. Pechdara became relatively peaceful, with the warlords growing poppy and sharing the proceeds with the Taliban.

As mentioned above, though, relative to the south of Afghanistan, the Kunar Valley is quiet in terms of the insurgency.

During the Soviet occupation, the belt was a strategic high point and key supply line of the resistance up to the Panjshir Valley. Nuristan was a real tough nut as the mujahideen had seized complete control and never allowed the Soviets a foothold.

"This is not the case today. The Soviets were brutal. Every family in Kunar and Nuristan complains that at least one of their members was butchered by the Russians," another person associated with the Taliban-led resistance told Asia Times Online. He identified himself only as a "Servant of Allah".

"This is not the case with the Americans," he said. "They are not tyrants as the Russians were. On the contrary, the Americans have bribed locals and bought their cooperation. As a result, there is no open revolt-like situation.

"Nevertheless, the resistance is all over, up to Nuristan," the "Servant of Allah" said. "For instance, on September 18, 2005, we attacked an American convoy in Mudagal, Nuristan. We stormed the convoy with rockets and then surrounded it from all four sides and sprayed bullets. We witnessed eight bodies before we fled from the scene. The next day in the media, we heard of only two casualties," the person maintained.

"Similarly, in Bazgal near Nuristan, two vehicles were destroyed with IEDs [improvised explosive devices] in which 10 soldiers were confirmed dead. The incident happened in December 2005. The media only reported a few injuries," the "Servant of Allah" said.

Asia Times Online learned that local support, after being neutral for some time, is now in favor of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which have comfortable places to hide and carry out random attacks at their convenience.

The blame for this, from the US perspective, lies largely with the Afghan National Army (ANA), which has turned out to be untrustworthy.

Two years ago, US forces received confirmed information, with photographs, of the presence of high-profile al-Qaeda and Afghan operatives in Bazgal near Nuristan. It was impossible for US troops to take the risk of going after them alone in the maze of jungle and mountains, so they asked the ANA for assistance.

After many hours, the forces reached the area, but all the suspects had fled. Ground inquiries showed that they had left immediately after the Americans shared information with the ANA.
To improve the situation, the US is developing a special "Peace Force" in which the benchmark for recruitment is not military aptitude but staunch anti-Taliban tendencies. Many of the news force's members are either former communists or local villains. Perhaps they are attracted by the extremely generous pay - US$500-$1,000 a month.

The situation on the east remains in this state of balance, with the Taliban and some al-Qaeda operatives well bedded with a sympathetic local population, but in essence lying low.

A massive operation, such as one in search of the elusive bin Laden, could ignite the tinder, and open up another front, as in the south of the country. All the pieces are already in place.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.
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The fall and fall of Afghanistan (May 6, '06)

It's showdown time in Pakistan (May 5, '06)

Fighting talk from Osama and the Taliban (Apr 25, '06)


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