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
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
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
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
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[email protected]