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    South Asia
     Jan 18, 2008
THE RISE AND RISE OF AL-QAEDA, Part 1
Militants make a claim for talks
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KABUL - The capture by militants of a fort in Pakistan near the Afghan border is not just another isolated incident in the volatile region. It represents a concerted fightback by al-Qaeda to derail any peace initiatives unless the group itself is directly engaged, rather than local resistance leaders.

On Wednesday, several hundred insurgents armed with assault rifles and rockets stormed the remote Sararogha Fort in the South Waziristan tribal area and routed its garrison from the Frontier Constabulary (FC), a paramilitary force formed of men from the



area.

Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said 40 militants had been killed in an exchange of fire when they managed to enter the fort after blowing up a wall.

A Taliban spokesman, Maulvi Omar, however, claimed that 16 FC personnel had been killed and 24 more captured. He said only two of his men had been killed, while a dozen had sustained injuries. "The fort is still in our control," the self-proclaimed Taliban spokesman added in a phone call to the offices of a Pakistani newspaper.

Unrest has escalated in South Waziristan since the government singled out Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud for his alleged involvement in the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto on December 27 in the army garrison city of Rawalpindi.

All the same, Islamabad has tried to defuse the situation by negotiating with selected Taliban leaders. Most recently, a Pakistani Taliban shura (council) headed by Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan responded positively to a government offer of a ceasefire, despite opposition from Takfiri elements who view non-practicing Muslims as infidels.

The backlash was immediate. Militants launched attacks in Mohmand Agency, followed by Wednesday's mass assault.

This response is orchestrated by al-Qaeda from its camps around the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan. Al-Qaeda views any peace agreements with the Pakistani Taliban as a government maneuver to split the militants, and also says Islamabad has been consistently intransigent over the years.

Al-Qaeda demands that it be the chief interlocutor in any peace talks, and it has set its bottom line: guarantees of the withdrawal of all security forces from the tribal areas; enforcement of sharia law, the release of Maulana Abdul Aziz of the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), who was apprehended last year; and that President Pervez Musharraf step down.

Graphic ideology
Al-Qaeda has fought back strongly in the tribal areas after being forced onto the back foot as a result of Pakistani security operations. Its hardline message is well summed up by a video now in circulation, a copy of which Asia Times Online has viewed.
It comes from the camp of Tahir Yuldashev, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, in Mir Ali. It carries bloody footage, including that of severed heads, backed by messages from top Takfiri ideologues in the tribal areas, including Abdul Khaliq Haqqani and Yuldashev.

The video traces some of the successes of the insurgents, including mass surrender scenes of Pakistani armed forces in South Waziristan and detailed footage of the October 2007 war in North Waziristan - the biggest battle in the history of Pakistan's tribal regions. There are scenes of Pakistani F-16s bombing towns and the retaliation of the Pakistani Taliban. The video claims the killing of 150 Pakistani soldiers and shows footage of their bodies, burnt vehicles and seized equipment.

The video is primarily a declaration of war against the Pakistani army and urges to struggle to continue until Islamabad is captured. The video portrays Musharraf as the prime accused.

With propaganda material such as this, al-Qaeda aims to stamp its authority on the area. At the same time, Jundullah, a purely militant outfit whose objective is to target Pakistan's pro-US rulers and US and British interests in the country, has been revived. Its members receive training in Afghanistan and South Waziristan.

The curtailment and revival of al-Qaeda
The mastermind of a new approach in Iraq was former US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and US commander in Iraq General David Petraeus, who introduced peace ideas in early 2007 which resulted in Anbar Awakening. This is an alliance of about 200 Sunni sheikhs drawn mostly from the Dulaimi tribe and dozens of sub-clans who were fighting against al-Qaeda.

With arms, money and aid from the US, they established links with indigenous Iraqi tribal resistance movements in Samarra, Tikrit and Mosul to target al-Qaeda, which has proved successful in curtailing the group's operations in Iraq.

This initiative was copied by the British in southwest Afghanistan and by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence in South Waziristan and North Waziristan, with channels of communication with the Taliban being established.

A new leadership within the Taliban was nurtured and given arms and money by the Pakistani army. The outcome was the massacre of Uzbeks in South Waziristan and the removal of al-Qaeda bigwigs from North Waziristan.

But al-Qaeda diligently sowed the seeds of its ideology among the downtrodden and dead-end jihadis of Pakistan's underground militant organizations, such as the Laskhar-i-Jhangvi and the Jaish-i-Mohammed, who felt betrayed over Islamabad's withdrawal of active support for the struggle in Kashmir.

This effectively stemmed the rise of the neo-Taliban, and Pakistani and Afghan warriors have fully embraced the global jihad ideology of al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda believes it has sufficiently changed the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan and that the first regional dialogue with al-Qaeda - involving Britain, the United States and Pakistan - will start in South Asia.

Indeed, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in audio and video messages last year, surprised many when he urged the West for dialogue.

Of course, this was not a straight-forward offer of an olive branch, but an indication that al-Qaeda aims to be the main negotiator of Muslim issues, rather than local groups such as the Taliban, Iraqi tribes and Hamas in Palestine.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, this is already happening.

Next: International players trapped in their game

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

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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