Bring 'em on: Militants in Pakistan await US
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - Efforts by the Pakistani establishment to defuse the volatile
situation in its tribal areas have failed, despite the carrot of large amounts
of money being dangled before the Pakistani Taliban there.
Islamabad is now caught between militants spoiling for a fight and US and
coalition troops in Afghanistan ready to give them one - and there is little
Pakistan can now do to prevent this from happening.
"There is no chance for any peace deal that allows Pakistani troops to stay in
the tribal areas. If this situation allows NATO
[North Atlantic Treaty Organization] to enter Pakistan, let them come. It is
better to fight against NATO than to fight Pakistani troops. But if they fight
together against us, we are ready for that too," Rasool Dawar told Asia Times
Online from the North Waziristan tribal agency on the border with Afghanistan.
Dawar is a close associate of Moulvi Sadiq Noor, one of the several hardline
Pakistani al-Qaeda leaders who have taken control of the militancy in the area,
along with the Pakistani Taliban. Another prominent commander is Moulvi Abdul
As if to back up Dawar's words, on Wednesday militants fired several rockets
into the town of Bannu in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), killing 10
people and injuring more than 40.
Since President General Pervez Musharraf sent in the troops against the radical
Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad this month to root out militants, Pakistan
has sent thousands of troops to the tribal areas, where they have been met with
open hostility resulting in the death of scores of military personnel.
The United States has seized the opportunity to threaten its own military
action on Pakistani soil against militant targets, which Washington says
includes al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Other emerging young al-Qaeda leaders include Gul Bahadur and Baitullah Mehsud.
Their opposition is centered in North Waziristan and South Waziristan, where
they aim to expel Pakistani troops (or any others who might venture there). In
addition, they support the Taliban movement in the cities of Bannu, Tank, Dera
Ismail Khan, Swat Valley (all in NWFP) and nearby Bajaur Agency. The ultimate
objective is to boot Musharraf from power.
Asia Times Online has learned of increased Pakistani military activity in the
Waziristans in preparation for a large-scale operation, possibly augmented by
NATO forces from across the border in Afghanistan.
However, given the topography of the region, with its high mountains, there is
more likelihood of foreign troops entering Pakistan in Bajaur, from where the
largest infiltration into Afghanistan takes place.
For the Waziristans, where the US says it has identified "high-value" targets,
pin-point air strikes are a better option. Certainly, the US would prefer quick
strikes from safe bases in Afghanistan to committing troops to what would
become a protracted battle a la Iraq and Afghanistan.
The balance is tipped
Since 2001, when Pakistan joined the US in the "war on terror", it has tried to
strike a balance between its alliance with Washington and the jihadi
establishment that the Inter-Services Intelligence had built up.
In this peculiar situation, the world watched as Pakistan helped the US arrest
more than 700 al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, mount devastating battles in its
own tribal areas against its own tribesmen, kill dozens of militants and have
hundreds of its own security personnel killed in return.
Then Islamabad signed a peace deal with militants in the tribal areas that
allowed for its troops to withdraw, leaving the militants in charge of stemming
cross-border activity - a bit like placing prisoners in charge of their jail
keys, and this in an area crucial to the "war on terror".
At the same time, Pakistan looked on (until the Red Mosque saga) as the Taliban
consolidated their assets, breeding countless fresh militants to go and fight
in Afghanistan, while also appearing deaf to repeated US calls to share
intelligence on what turned out to be a highly successful spring offensive for
the Taliban in 2006.
Through Pakistan's prism, there was no contradiction here, just a question of
safeguarding its national interests, and for several years Musharraf managed
not to fall off his tightrope. Now, though, it looks as if he's heading for a
plunge as the jihadist networks and the US prepare to confront each other on
Pakistani territory - regardless of what Islamabad might want.
Time running out
Musharraf's administration has been on edge since the storming of the Lal
Masjid, as it was a confrontation it knew would have unpleasant consequences.
And with US war drums beating ever faster, Musharraf became even more nervous.
If troops going into the mosque could inflame the tribal areas, imagine the
reaction foreign troops in the tribal areas could provoke.
A contact in Rawalpindi familiar with goings-on in the capital's twin city,
which is home to the military's top brass, told Asia Times Online on condition
of anonymity of Musharraf's desperate efforts to speak to Washington at the
highest level and request some breathing space.
According to the contact, Washington insisted that Islamabad press on
relentlessly by military means against Taliban and al-Qaeda assets in Pakistan,
saying that NATO would be supportive. Apparently, a personal request by
Musharraf to speak to US President George W Bush about being given time for
matters to cool off was declined.
In effect, Washington is brushing aside Musharraf's concerns over an extremist
backlash of momentous proportions should foreign forces join in the fray in the
tribal areas, let alone threaten the general's hold on power.
But one can understand Washington's determination to force the pace when one of
the more notorious architects of the Taliban's military offensive, Libyan Abu
Laith al-Libby, is sitting in North Waziristan. The hardened al-Qaeda operator
is believed to have come up with the idea of stepping up the number of
abductions of foreigners in Afghanistan. The seizure of more than 20 South
Korean aid workers is the latest example of this.
The reasoning is that it will force coalition troops deeper into the civilian
population to protect them, thereby exposing them to improvised explosive
devices, rocket attacks and suicide bombers.
From the perspective of the al-Qaeda hardliners taking control in the tribal
areas, they relish a confrontation with foreign troops in Pakistan as they see
it as a chance to boost their broader aims in the region.
Such a confrontation would force the Pakistani jihadist community to rise up
fully. This happened last year when the Pakistan Army mounted operations in
South Waziristan - the ranks of the jihadis swelled by thousands within months.
Such renewed fervor could be channeled to Afghanistan, and against Musharraf's
While Washington wants to take action in Pakistan, it does not want the country
to turn into a jihadist playing field, so it is preparing for the consequences.
This includes the encouragement of liberal democratic forces to step into any
power vacuum should Musharraf be forced out or choose to walk into the sunset.
Quick regime changes have in the past worked to take the steam out of
potentially disastrous backlashes, and given the military time to regroup.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.