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    South Asia
     Jul 3, 2007
US to hunt the Taliban inside Pakistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Since last September, North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan have been pressing Islamabad for the right to conduct extensive hot-pursuit operations into Pakistan to target Taliban and al-Qaeda bases.

According to Asia Times Online contacts, NATO and its US backers have gotten their wish: coalition forces will start hitting targets wherever they might be.

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf is expected to



make an important announcement on extremism during an address to the nation in the next day or two.

The ATol contacts in Islamabad say that coalition intelligence has pinpointed at least four centers in the tribal areas of North Waziristan and South Waziristan on the border with Afghanistan from which Taliban operations inside Afghanistan are run. These bases include arms caches and the transfer and raising of money and manpower, the latter in the form of foot-soldiers to fight with the Taliban-led insurgency.

Operations inside Pakistan might be carried out independently by the United States, probably with air power, by Pakistani forces acting alone or as joint offensives. In all cases, though, the US will pull the strings, for instance by providing the Pakistanis with information on targets to hit.

Musharraf has apparently already told his military commanders, the National Security Council and decision-makers in government of the development.

Officially, both NATO and Pakistan deny any agreement on hot-pursuit activities. Major John Thomas, spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, told Asia Times Online, "The ISAF would not strike any targets across the border. That is not part of our mission. We work with the Pakistani government closely on cross-border issues. The ISAF does not have a counter-terrorism mission that I know of."

Similarly, the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations of the Pakistani Armed Forces, Major-General Waheed Arshad, said NATO forces would not be allowed to intervene in Pakistani areas. He conceded that Pakistan is wary of growing extremism in the country, but said there is no threat of Talibanization.

"The Taliban are a problem for Afghanistan, not Pakistan. There are a few extremist groups operating in Pakistan and we have our own indigenous mechanism to counter them through law-enforcement agencies, and through paramilitary and military deployment," Waheed said.

Nevertheless, the ATol contacts are adamant that an agreement is in place for increased operations on Pakistani soil, given the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and US fears of al-Qaeda using Pakistan as a base for planning operations in the West. There are precedents.

Last month, US Central Intelligence Agency drones targeted a madrassa in North Waziristan, and 20 people were killed. CIA drones tried to take out al-Qaeda No 2 Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri in January 2006 in Bajur Agency. Zawahiri survived, but 18 people died. In December 2005, al-Qaeda leader Hamza Rabia was killed by a CIA predator aircraft in the town of Mir Ali, North Waziristan.

However, new operations, which could begin within weeks, if not days, are expected to be much larger in scale.

A border in name only
In recent meetings at both the policy and operational levels between Washington and Islamabad, it was acknowledged that Pakistan simply cannot control its border with Afghanistan. Pakistan has established numerous military posts in the tribal areas, but with distances of as much as 20 kilometers between them they can't stop the cross-border flow, especially given the rugged nature of the terrain.

On the Afghan side of the border, NATO and the Afghan National Army have also established posts, but they are even less numerous than on the Pakistani side and, given their isolation, are open to enemy fire.

While most of the Taliban's cross-border activity takes place from the Waziristans, it extends to Chaman, Zhob and Noshki in the southwest and Bajaur and Mohmand in the northwest.

In North West Frontier Province, the settled towns of Tank, Laki Marwat, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan have all but been taken over by the Pakistani Taliban and they recruit from these areas. The circle is expanding up to the Valley of Peshawar, which includes Peshawar city and Mardan. However, the Taliban's influence in the Valley of Peshawar is still basic.

On the other hand, a pro-Taliban force named Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM) has spread rapidly, and its influence ranges from Bajaur, Malakand, Swat Valley and Mingora. The TNSM sent 10,000 men to Afghanistan in 2001 to fight against the US-led invasion. The organization is dedicated to the enforcement of Islamic laws. Like the Pakistan Taliban, the TNSM uses scores of illegal FM radio stations as a propaganda tool, and its popularity increases with every passing day.

All roads lead to the mosque
All these pro-Taliban/al-Qaeda zones on the Afghan border have connections with the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, run by outspoken brothers Maulana Abdul Aziz and Ghazi Abdul Rasheed. The brothers are openly pro-Taliban and also run large Islamic seminaries for boys and girls.

The Pakistani establishment believes Aziz is in fact the new leader of all the Taliban and al-Qaeda assets spreading through northwestern Pakistan, especially the zone commanded by the TNSM. Aziz delivers lectures by telephone every evening to TNSM members.

Lal Masjid has had numerous high-profile run-ins and standoffs with the government, but Islamabad has never risked an outright confrontation, given the power and influence of the brothers and their standing in the jihadist world.

They can be expected to organize sustained resistance should NATO/US forces launch attacks into Pakistan. Some reports claim that about 70 suicide bombers are waiting to be unleashed from the mosque. But any attack on the mosque could set off a chain reaction all the way from Islamabad to the Afghan border and beyond, in the process throwing Pakistan further into turmoil.

At this point in the "war on terror", this is something the US does not want, at least not until it has had one more crack at rooting out the Taliban and al-Qaeda from Pakistan. Washington has paid Pakistan about $1 billion a year for the past five years for its efforts in tackling terrorism. Now the US administration wants more return on that money.

Musharraf already faces intense opposition over his suspension of his chief justice on charges of malfeasance. Both political and religious opponents are riding the bandwagon with a vengeance, especially as the country faces presidential elections this year.

Senior US officials, including John Negroponte, the deputy secretary of state, and Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state, recently visited Pakistan to spell out to opposition leaders that the US is still behind Musharraf, although it will support the participation of secular, democratic political parties in government.

This development occurred even as Washington voiced its dissatisfaction over Musharraf's performance with regard to the Taliban: it pointed to Pakistan's clear involvement in supporting the insurgency in Helmand province since last year.

Indeed, the US was even prepared to withdraw its support of Musharraf, who seized power in 1999, but after a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney to Pakistan, the general remains in favor. Cheney's office is believed to run the United States' Pakistan policy.

The reasons are probably twofold: the US needs Pakistan's support should it attack Iran (covert operations into Iran are reportedly already taking place from Pakistan), and the US is concerned over the revival of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

With regard to the latter, the head of the US Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, followed up Cheney's visit, warning Islamabad that the US needs Pakistan's assistance and approval to confront the bases. He also made it clear that any delay on the part of Pakistan to allow NATO operations could result in another major terror operation in the West. And if that happens, Pakistan will face the music.

Musharraf has already agreed to take some prisoners from the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay (see Pakistan to help as the US's jailer, Asia Times Online, June 29). Now he's opening his doors to the United States' soldiers. It's a move fraught with danger for Musharraf and Pakistan, and one that could influence the direction of both the war in Afghanistan and the "war on terror".

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com .

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Chitral now on the jihadi radar screen (Jun 28, '07)

Fast and furious with the Taliban (Jun 27, '07)

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