A sting in Pakistan's al-Qaeda mission
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - The Pakistani military has halted operations in Bajaur Agency in the
northwest of the country, saying "the back has been broken" of the militancy
A military spokesman said that in light of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan,
which began on Sunday, all action would stop, which would allow about 500,000
displaced people to return home. Officials claim that in three weeks of
fighting 560 militants have been killed, with the loss of 20 members of the
The ground reality, though, is that the operation failed in its
primary objective, to catch the big fish so wanted by the United States -
al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. This would
have been the perfect present for Islamabad to give the George W Bush
administration in the run-up to the US presidential elections in November.
Pakistan said they had Zawahiri in their sights, but he evaded them. Zawahiri,
who has a US$25 million bounty on his head, escaped a US missile strike in
January 2006 near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.
The Bajaur operation was a comprehensive joint show of power by North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) and Pakistan forces as they were convinced that the
al-Qaeda leaders and other senior Taliban militants were in an area spanning
Kunar and Nooristan provinces in Afghanistan and the Bajaur and Mohamad
agencies immediately across the border in Pakistan. (See
Ducking and diving under B-52s Asia Times Online, May 22, 2008.)
NATO and the Pakistani military had hoped that a pincer operation would force
their prey to move their base, thereby exposing them. The thinking was that the
militants would seek refuge inside Pakistan, where they could be cornered.
The mission began disastrously, though. Two days before troops were ordered
from the corps headquarters of Peshawar in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP)
early last month, news of the impending attack was leaked to the militants and
the al-Qaeda leadership was hastily moved. The Pakistani forces also received
an unwelcome - and unexpected - reception when they began operations in Bajaur;
the militants were armed and waiting.
The al-Qaeda leaders were taken under the wing of Qari Ziaur Rahman, a senior
Taliban leader and regional commander of Nooristan, Kunar and adjoining
Pakistani regions. Over the past few months he has emerged as a key figure and
has generated considerable publicity by staging public executions in Kunar and
Bajaur of suspected spies for the Americans. Rahman even took the unusual step
of contacting the Pakistani press to claim responsibility for successful
attacks on Pakistani troops.
Pakistan and NATO had placed high store on a successful mission, launching the
heaviest-ever aerial bombardment inside Pakistan's tribal regions - hence the
high level of displaced persons. The militants claim that many dozens of
paramilitary troops were killed and many captured, along with their heavy
weapons and tanks.
The assault continued for several more weeks, but on August 28 during a secret
meeting on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln the chairman of the US
Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, and the chief of the Pakistani
Army Staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, it was agreed the Bajaur mission had
failed. No key militants had been hit and they had now completely fallen off
all radar screens.
Inter-Services Public Relations of the Pakistani army then issued a statement
confirming that the leading militants had escaped from Bajaur and that the army
did not have any idea where they had gone, be it Afghanistan or elsewhere.
The Pakistani government then changed tack and lavished millions of rupees on
tribal chiefs through its political agents to form lashkars (groups) to
fight against the Taliban and militants. This experiment had earlier failed
dismally in the North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal areas, resulting
in the assassination of over 200 tribal chiefs and religious clerics. The
survivors fled to the cities, leaving the self-acclaimed Pakistani Taliban to
take charge of those areas. There is no reason to believe the story will be any
different in Bajaur.
The Bajaur operation was carried out at a time when the Taliban's offensive in
Afghanistan was winding down for Ramadan. The militants tend to fast and sleep
in peace for the month until Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan.
By this time winter has set in and, as they do each year, the Taliban gradually
leave Afghanistan and melt into the Pakistani tribal areas.
Unlike previous years though, the militants are unlikely to remain inactive
during their winter break from the battlefields of Afghanistan.
The Bajaur operation, mainly because of the severity of the aerial bombing that
caused widespread civilian displacement, has aroused intense anger in militant
circles and bloody reprisal attacks can be expected within Pakistan.
The initial skirmishes have already started in NWFP, where members and
political allies of the ruling Pashtun sub-nationalist Awami National Party
have been targeted. Four top leaders have already been killed and many homes
have been gutted. Scores of anti-Taliban political workers have fled from the
Swat Valley and other areas.
Taliban sources have
confirmed to Asia Times Online that high-level
targets are also planned, including army chief
Kiani, the leader of the
lead party in the ruling coalition, the Pakistan People's Party's Asif Zardari
and Rehman Malik, the powerful advisor to the Ministry of Interior. Zardari has vacated
his private Islamabad residence in favor of the prime minister's house
and he has also curtailed his public appearances.
On Wednesday, shots were
fired at Prime Minister Yousaf
Raza Gilani's motorcade, his spokesman said. The
attack took place on the road to
the airport in Islamabad. Gilani was not believed to
be in the motorcade.
The Bajaur operation, which was intended to eliminate key figures in the "war
on terror", could end in leading figures in Pakistan being killed.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at email@example.com