|Same game, new rules in Afghanistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - After more than six years, coalition forces in Afghanistan are
preparing for an all-out offensive against the Taliban centered on their safe
havens straddling the border with Pakistan.
This, allied with intensive North Atlantic Treaty Organization and US
operations already this year, has led to much speculation on whether the
Taliban will launch their annual spring offensive, with even senior NATO
officials suggesting the Taliban will instead bunker down in a war of
attrition, much as they did during a rough phase in 2004.
This will not be the case, according to Asia Times Online's interaction with
Taliban guerrillas over the past few weeks. But
instead of taking on foreign forces in direct battle in the traditional hot
spots, the Taliban plan to open new fronts as they are aware they cannot win
head-on against the might of the US-led war machine.
The efforts of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and
its 47,000 soldiers from nearly 40 nations will focus on specific areas that
include the Bajaur and Mohmand tribal agencies in Pakistan, as well as South
and North Waziristan in that country, and Nooristan, Kunar, Paktia, Paktika and
Khost provinces in Afghanistan. The ISAF is complemented by the separate US-led
coalition of about 20,000, the majority being US soldiers. This does not
include a contingent of 3,600 US Marine Corps who this week started arriving in
southern Afghanistan. They will work under the command of the ISAF.
For their part, the Taliban, according to Asia Times Online contacts, will open
new fronts in Khyber Agency in Pakistan and Nangarhar province in east
Afghanistan and its capital Jalalabad.
This move follows a meeting of important Taliban commanders of Pakistani and
Afghan origin held for the first time in the Tera Valley bordering the Tora
Bora mountains in Afghanistan. (Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda and Taliban
leaders famously evaded US-led forces in the Tora Bora soon after the invasion
Pakistan's Khyber Agency has never been a part of the Taliban's domain. The
majority of the population there follows the Brelvi school of thought, which is
bitterly opposed to the hardline Taliban and the Salafi brand of Islam. The
adjacent Afghan province of Nangarhar has also been a relatively peaceful area.
Conversely, the historic belt starting from Peshawar in North-West Frontier
Province and running through Khyber Agency to Nangarhar is NATO's life line -
80% of its supplies pass through it. From Nangarhar, the capital Kabul is only
six hours away by road.
Over the past year, the Taliban have worked hard at winning over the population
in this region and have installed a new commander, Ustad Yasir, to open up the
front in Nangarhar.
New dimensions to the Afghan struggle
After seven years of the "war on terror" and the Iraqi experience, both "sides"
have become more pragmatic. Slogans such as "shock and awe", "crusade" against
Islamic extremism and "intifada" catch the headlines, but they are not getting
the job done. Both sides have refined their approach aimed at achieving
specific goals and targets. If NATO has acquired excellent knowledge of the
Taliban's network, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have also excelled in gathering
information on NATO and its allies.
Al-Qaeda has evolved from an organization that generally only allowed in Arabs
and its ideology now accommodates indigenous factors. Today, Pakistani
non-Pashtuns, popularly known as Punjabis, are the Pakistani franchise of
al-Qaeda. They receive macro policies from the al-Qaeda shura (council)
comprising Arabs, but are independent in the implementation of these policies -
although an Arab in still in overall charge.
The same goes in Iraq, where al-Qaeda is now a local organization with its hub
spread between Mosul, Diyala and Baquba.
At the same time, the "war on terror" extends beyond US-British dominance.
Although there are several disagreements at the operation level within NATO in
Afghanistan, some partners, such as France, cognizant of the revival of the
enemy's strength, have greatly enhanced their input into intelligence
French intelligence is directly involved in fresh moves to track the most
wanted targets, including Taliban commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, Pakistani
Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, chief of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,
Tahir Yaldeshiv, besides bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri.
New funds have been allocated for clandestine operations by French intelligence
in Pakistan's North and South Waziristan regions, as well as in Balochistan
province, to track high-profile targets with the aim of assassinating them.
This is being done in coordination with NATO forces in Afghanistan.
According to Asia Times Online investigations, French intelligence has
infiltrated a network of donors who had been arranging money for the Iraqi
resistance and the Taliban.
Underlying these efforts is the belief that the war cannot be won through the
use of naked violence alone. The militant camps have reached a similar
conclusion: their actions now are much more nuanced and calibrated and they
realize there will be no quick victory.
A smooth supply of money and arms from various sources as well as thousands of
new recruits have rejuvenated their cause and allowed the militants to better
plan their operations and carefully select their targets. They have established
good rapport within the security forces at an individual level and use these
contacts whenever it is essential.
Last weekend's attack on an Italian restaurant in the Pakistani capital
Islamabad shows how deeply al-Qaeda has made inroads into the Pakistani
security agencies and as a result is receiving first-hand information.
The al-Qaeda attack injured, through a time bomb, four US Federal Bureau of
Investigation agents, including a senior official of counter-terrorism
coordination with the Pakistani Special Intelligence Agency.
The restaurant is co-owned by an Italian woman who is the wife of a man
believed to be the main financial backer of anti-Taliban Shi'ites in the
northern areas of Pakistan.
More such attacks are expected.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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