US strike hits Pakistan's raw nerve
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has for a long time
been split over strategic questions in Afghanistan. These divisions will be
further sharpened following Tuesday evening's attack by United States warplanes
on a Pakistani military post in Mohmand Agency in which 11 Pakistani
paramilitary soldiers were killed.
Indications that Pakistani soldiers were fighting alongside Taliban forces
against Afghan army and US units in the border area will also bolster critics
of US policy who argue that the Pakistani military is playing a "double game"
and can no longer be trusted. All the same, should NATO "lose" Pakistan, it
would be a devastating setback.
While the precise circumstances of the incident remain unclear, an eye witness,
Taliban spokesman Zubair Mujahid, who
the Taliban's commanders for Kunar and Nooristan provinces in Afghanistan,
told Asia Times Online by telephone: "The multiple Taliban groups operating
on both sides of the border - in the Afghan Kunar Valley and in Mohmand
Agency - spotted NATO forces launching into Mohmand Agency's mountain-top
Sarhasoko military post (below).
"We realized the Pakistani troops were struggling against the NATO forces so we
activated our networks all over the area," Zubair said.
"The Pakistani security forces were under siege and were at the point of being
evacuated from the post when we opened fire on them [NATO] from several
positions. Our attack was so unexpected for NATO that they had to retreat. The
Pakistan army lost 11 soldiers, the Taliban lost eight and NATO lost 20
soldiers during the operation."
An official Pakistani armed forces release called the air strikes "unprovoked
and cowardly" and added that "the incident had hit at the very basis of
cooperation and sacrifice with which Pakistani soldiers are supporting the
coalition in [the] war against terror".
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, meanwhile, said, "Although it is early, every
indication we have is that it was a legitimate strike in self-defense against
forces that had attacked coalition forces."
The timing of the attack coincides with the release of a report this week by
the US Defense Department-funded RAND Corp, entitled "Counterinsurgency in
Afghanistan", which said that some active and former officials in Pakistan's
intelligence service and the Frontier Corps - a paramilitary force - directly
aided Taliban militants.
Significantly - as happened on Tuesday - the report suggested direct NATO
operations in the Pakistani tribal areas to root out the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Confusingly, at the very moment the Taliban went to aid Pakistani security
forces - which will boost respect for them among the lower- and middle-order
cadre of the armed forces - the Taliban kidnapped seven security personnel in
Dera Adam Khail in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and in Mohmand Agency
they exchanged fire with security forces at a checkpoint.
This contradiction highlights the complex relationships between the Taliban,
militants and the Pakistani establishment: nothing can be read as black and
white. What can't be ignored is that ethnic Pashtuns are natural Pakistani
allies and the Pashtun heartland is overwhelmingly under the influence of the
Taliban, a factor Pakistan has to factor into its regional relationships.
The case of Taliban commander Haji Nazeer illustrates the point. Al-Qaeda
leaders, Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud and even Uzbek warlord
Qari Tahir often praise his services for fighting some of the toughest battles
against NATO in Afghanistan. Yet they also curse him for his links to
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), for which he acts as a point man
to work against Uzbeks, the network of Baitullah Mehsud and Takfiri Arabs -
those who take it on themselves to decide who is a true Muslim and who is not.
Haji Nazeer is not the only example of this, several big and small operators
receive support or patronage from the Pakistani security forces, which allows
think-tanks such as the Rand Corporation to blame Pakistan for actively
supporting and facilitating the Taliban fight against NATO.
From 2006 onwards, US officials and NATO have on several occasions provided
evidence directly to Islamabad on Pakistan's support for the Taliban. Yet the
crux is, Pakistan needs to do this.
The US does the same in Iraq, where it struck deals with former Ba'athist
elements to take on al-Qaeda, knowing that Sunni-nationalist Arab tribes would
continue to fight against them, though with low intensity.
A lesser evil
By late 2003, foreign elements, especially Egyptians and Uzbeks, had regrouped
in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal area and established two organizations.
One was for international operations, the Jaishul al-Qiba al-Jihadi al-Siri
al-Alami, the other, specifically aimed to operate inside Pakistan, was
Jundullah. See The
legacy of Nek Mohammed Asia Times Online, July 20, 2004.)
Between them, the two groups masterminded operations such as the March 11,
2004, Madrid train bombings and the July 7, 2005, London bombings and several
attacks on the life of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as well as other
officials and security installations.
Pakistan mounted several military operations against the groups and killed many
commanders, including Nek Mohammed, but the insurgency intensified and new
faces emerged, such as Baitullah Mehsud, and they established even better
facilities for al-Qaeda operations.
These new commanders did not restrict their activities to South Waziristan,
they spread their networks across the country. The previously calm Swat Valley
in NWFP and the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad became two important bases
The new self-proclaimed "Pakistani Taliban" quickly eliminated the local
networks of the tribal elders, the only reliable front on which Islamabad could
deal with the new militant movements. Over 130 tribal chiefs were killed and
dozens fled to different cities. Any cleric who spoke in favor of harmony with
Pakistan risked being killed and ending up with a message attached to his body:
"A lesson for CIA-ISI proxies."
By 2005, suicide attacks began in Pakistan and the Pakistani security apparatus
was at a loss over how to deal with the militants - neither the military nor
the political approach worked.
Then an ISI network based in Balochistan province succeeded in making a
connection with now slain Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, who, after a lot
of negotiation, agreed to play a role in South Waziristan. He acquired a letter
from Taliban leader Mullah Omar in which he emphasized that all groups in South
and North Waziristan should focus on the jihad in Afghanistan rather than
become involved in other regional and global operations.
Then Pakistan-friendly and legendary mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani was
announced as the military leader of the Taliban's spring offensive of 2006 and
he led all factions into Afghanistan. Before this, he had signed a ceasefire
agreement with Pakistani forces in the tribal areas. The upshot was that the
Taliban had their most successful season since being ousted in 2001 and
Pakistan saved itself from a major catastrophe.
Nevertheless, Uzbeks and a group of Egyptians under the uncompromising Sheikh
Essa and his Pakistani adherents Sadiq Noor and Abdul Khaliq Haqqani were still
obsessed in fermenting an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. They were not ready
to move into Afghanistan to fight against NATO, they wanted to continue the
fight against Pakistani security forces.
So Pakistan had little choice but to follow the American example of the Sunni
Awakening Councils in Iraq and what the British did in Helmand province in
Afghanistan: divide and rule.
Ideological affiliations and tribal rivalries co-exist in South Waziristan.
While most support the Taliban, Wazir tribesmen were wary of the growing
strength of the Mehsud tribe's new strongman, Baitullah Mehsud. Baitullah had
the support of his tribe, but his greatest support was several hundred Uzbek
warriors who made Baitullah the biggest commander in the region.
The ISI exploited this situation and they tapped up Haji Nazeer, in particular
playing on the fact that the Uzbeks did not fight in Afghanistan. Haji Nazeer
was given US$150,000 to strengthen his network and also received truck loads of
ammunition and a guarantee of free movement into and out of Afghanistan.
In January 2007, Haji Nazeer and his men carried out a massacre of Uzbeks,
killing at least 250 of them and expelling the rest from South Waziristan. Haji
Nazeer attracted many Arabs, such as Abu Ali Tunisi, who influenced scores of
Pakistani jihadis to join Haji Nazeer, whose now-expanded network only fights
A similar case is that of Haji Namdar, (See
Taliban bitten by a snake in the grass Asia Times Online, April 26,
2008 and Taliban
claim victory from a defeat Asia Times Online, May 3, 2008.) He is the
biggest recruiter of warriors in Khyber Agency to fuel the Taliban-led
insurgency in Afghanistan and he raises funds for the Taliban. The ISI had to
solicit his help, though, to break a Taliban network in the agency which was
crippling NATO supply lines into Afghanistan (the attacks have since resumed).
NATO was aware of this contradiction but did not have any choice but to go
along with the ISI.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]