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    South Asia
     Oct 7, 2008
Pakistan, US await militant showdown
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - With Britain's commander in Afghanistan saying the war against the Taliban cannot be won, and with Afghan President Hamid Karzai inviting Taliban leader Mullah Omar back to Afghanistan to join the political process, the Western coalition is trying a new approach of reconciliation.

"We're not going to win this war. It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army," Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith was quoted in the British media at the weekend as saying.

The Taliban, even though they are laying virtual siege to the capital Kabul, are also not sufficiently strong for a military victory. Yet they have dismissed any notion of talks until the last foreign


soldier leaves Afghanistan.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization showed its willingness to compromise on core principles by publicly approving Washington-backed Karzai's proposal, made on Friday, that Mullah Omar, who is believed to spend time in Pakistan, return to Afghanistan. Overnight, Mullah Omar has gone from "condemned terrorist" to Karzai's brother.

For the Taliban, though, this does not change anything and the battle will continue, although it is accepted that it will increasingly spill over into Pakistan, where the Taliban already control large chunks of territory in the border areas - and even spread into India.
The executive director of the Pakistani Center for Research and Security Studies, Dr Farrukh Saleem, has claimed that 12,000 square kilometers of Pakistan have already been lost to the Taliban, and that their march continues. Pakistan has tried to counter the Taliban through military offensives, local pro-government militias and through the secular Awami National Party (ANP), which governs North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), all without success.

Last week, on the second day of Eidul Fitr, the Muslim celebration to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, a suicide attacker tried to kill Asfandyar Wali Khan, the chief of the Pashtun sub-nationalist ANP, at his home about 20 kilometers from the NWFP capital, Peshawar. Four people were killed, but Wali Khan was unhurt.

Although the main target was missed, the attack had the desired effect - Wali Khan, an important American asset, has taken refuge in the capital Islamabad. Wali Khan had been groomed by the US after the September 11, 2001, attacks through many visits to the US, including this year's trip to Central Command headquarters in Florida.

Pakistan is acutely concerned over the situation in NWFP, as well as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas which comprise seven tribal areas. Much of the tribal areas is already in the control of the Pakistani Taliban and militants; this is now spreading to NWFP. The attack on Wali Khan was followed on Sunday with rockets being fired on the chief minister's NWFP residence.

With Wali Khan in Islamabad, he attended an urgent meeting with President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani and army chief Parvez Ashfaq Kiani.

A special National Assembly session has been called this week for in-camera briefings on the "real situation" in NWFP, that is, that it has virtually fallen into the hands of the Taliban and the government has no option but to wage war against the Taliban - and with American help. Zardari also admitted in the press that a string of US Predator drone attacks on the Taliban in Pakistani territory had been approved by Pakistan. Islamabad initially expressed outrage at the incursions into its territory.

Earlier, US joint chiefs chairman Admiral Mike Mullen confirmed Asia Times Online's report that American bases would be established in Tarbella, 20 kilometers from Islamabad to train Pakistani troops and to take part in operations in the tribal areas.

According to an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Mullen said the primary stumbling block had been that Pakistan had not been able to build a training site near Peshawar quickly enough. The two sides had therefore agreed to use an alternative base at Tarbella. (See The gloves are off in Pakistan Asia Times Online, September 23, 2008.)

Tarbella houses the brigade headquarters of Pakistan's Special Operations Task Force. Recently, 300 American officials landed at the facility with the official designation of a "training advisory group", according to documents seen by Asia Times Online. However, high-level contacts claim this is not as simple as a training program.

In the mid-1990s, during the government of Nawaz Sharif, a special US Central Intelligence Agency unit was based at the same facility, tasked with catching Osama bin Laden. They left after Pervez Musharraf came to power in a coup in 1999.

Now, the US has bought a huge plot of land at Tarbella, several square kilometers, according to sources directly handling the project. Recently, 20 large containers arrived at the facility. They were handled by the Americans, who did not allow any Pakistani officials to inspect them. Given the size of the containers, it is believed they contain special arms and ammunition and even tanks and armored vehicles - and certainly have nothing to do with any training program.

Dissension in the ranks
Kiani recently visited army camps in the restive tribal areas following growing cases of defiance in the ranks, including among officers. Incidents include troops near the border with Afghanistan counteracting commands and firing on US helicopters and a drone.

Kiani is expected to purge the dissidents and replace them with more pro-US officers. Asia Times Online has learned that the former garrison officer commanding Kohat, Major General Niaz Khattack, who performed successful operations in the Waziristan tribal areas and who is presently serving in the United Nations' Georgia mission, is likely to return to Pakistan soon. He is tipped to oversee the smooth running of the new Pakistan-US "joint venture" that will take place inside Pakistan.

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 (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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