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    South Asia
     Oct 11, 2008
A long, hot winter for Pakistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

The Taliban are escalating the conflict in Pakistan's cities, aiming to strike before the US and its partners can dig in for the all-out war that all quarters - the Western ruling establishments, Afghan government, Pakistani ruling military and political establishment and the two US presidential candidates - tacitly agree must be waged against the Taliban and al-Qaeda inside Pakistan.

The Taliban's pre-emptive strategy continued on Thursday when a bomb - disguised as a delivery of sweets - destroyed the headquarters of Pakistan's Anti-Terrorist Force in Islamabad. The blast occurred during a special session of parliament at which the director of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Lieutenant General

 

Ahmed Shuja Pasha, was briefing lawmakers on Pakistan's strategy in the "war on terror".

The package of sweets was allegedly sent by Waliur Rehman, a commander of Jaish-i-Islami Pakistan, a militant outfit which is attached to the umbrella organization Pakistan Tehrik-i-Taliban led by Baitullah Mehsud. Waliur Rahman works out of Pakistan's Bajaur agency - a tribal area situated near the border with the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nooristan. The Pakistan Army is presently conducting a powerful military operation in Bajaur.

A letter recovered from gift basket read, "If Pakistan does not separate itself from the American crusade on Muslims, these sort of attacks shall continue."

According to reports, a vehicle with two occupants entered the Anti-Terrorist headquarters and asked guards to to deliver the package of candies to a top policeman's office. Interestingly, the police official had already given instructions for an employee to carrying the sweets inside for him. Within minutes, the bomb exploded.

Apart from a few guards, nobody was in the office. Some guards were injured, but the whole Anti-Terrorist Force building, where many jihadis have been detained and interrogated, was reduced to rubble.

The bombing comes just as Pakistan has decided to expand its partnership with the US in the "war on terror". Army officials were in the process of bringing parliamentarians on board before the country enters into a major battle against the militants. Similar letters have been sent to members of parliament, warning that if the policy of supporting US forces in the region is not abandoned, the entire country will face dire consequences.

Additionally, shopkeepers in the cultural capital of the country, Lahore, received letters, widely distributed in the markets under an organized campaign, instructing them to abide by Islamic norms and remove all "vulgar" movies from their shelves.

Last week, in a special briefing session of a Senate committee, Pakistani Secretary of Defense Kamran Rasool briefed lawmakers on the recent dynamics of Pakistani support for the "war on terror". Rasool openly admitted that Pakistan does not have any option but to follow US dictates, whatever they may be, because the country would collapse within three days if US financial assistance was withdrawn. His statement was widely criticized by the media and opposition parties.

Despite sparring over Pakistan in their second televised debate on Tuesday night, the two US presidential candidates ended up saying the same thing, though in somewhat different ways. While Democrat hopeful Senator Barack Obama said the US should only take action inside Pakistan if the government there was unable, or unwilling, to do so, Republican Senator John McCain was more conciliatory, recommending that the US use soft language with Pakistan, but carry a big stick.

This presidential posturing suggests that the focus of war in South Asia will eventually shift to Pakistan from Afghanistan and that before launching any final strategy, Pakistan's leaders must make adequate arrangements.

The main American asset in the North-West Frontier Province is Asfanyar Wali Khan, the leader of the Awami National Party which governs the province. Asfanyar has made Islamabad his home after a failed suicide attack on his life last week in his town. He is not the only one taking security precautions. Official premises in the present "Red Zone" - the president's quarters, prime minister's house, parliament, supreme court and the diplomatic enclave - are to be secured in a highly protected "Green City". This new complex will reportedly be separated from the rest of Islamabad by an enormous wall.

All this is in preparation for Pakistan's emergence as the main theater of the "war on terror". This comes as the long winter begins and war goes cold in neighboring Afghanistan.

The war in Pakistan
The recent thread of events seems to start from a huge training program which the US has called an essential component in fighting the militancy in Pakistan. US Admiral Mike Mullen told the Los Angeles Times that American forces have secured bases north of Islamabad to train Pakistani soldiers. However, sources have told Asia Times Online that the situation on the ground reveals much more than a training program.

Hasanpur, a small town situated along the Ghazi Brotha Canal six kilometers from Tarbella Ghazi, is the center of activity. Sources in Pakistani security agencies told Asia Times Online that the airstrip in Hasanpur has been upgraded to war readiness in the last few weeks and new hangars have been built for military aircraft. Underground shelters, bunkers and tunnels have also been constructed. Following the arrival of American "training advisory groups", British military personnel were flown in and have reportedly taken over management of the facility.

Sources claim that the logistical capabilities of the US and British personnel, and extraordinary measures they have taken to upgrade the airstrip, suggest something far more advanced than a simple training site.

The security sources also maintain that new installations in the Hasanpur mountains are geared for direct participation in military operations. At the least, they are said to be capable of conducting independent drone operations from the high-altitude Hasanpur area.

As earlier reported, (See The gloves are off in Pakistan, Asia Times Online, September 23, 2008), US preparations are also underway at Tarbella, the brigade headquarters of Pakistan's Special Operation Task Force approximately 20km from Islamabad. In September, 300 American officials landed at this facility, with the official designation as a "training advisory group", according to documents viewed by Asia Times Online.

The report was widely reproduced in the Pakistani press and discussed in parliamentary committees. The main concern of the parliamentarians was that US activity so close to a Pakistani nuclear facility could jeopardize Pakistan's nuclear assets.

Supposedly, the frenzied US military preparations have an aspect of "October Surprise" - a longstanding term for unexpected twists that can help or hinder candidates in the month before US presidential elections.

For example, there is now an increased focus on attacks in areas where al-Qaeda leaders could potentially be spotted, arrested or killed. Rather than destroying Taliban sanctuaries or attacking the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Taliban center in South Waziristan, all focus has been on Bajaur - where a huge battle continues, causing the displacement of 500,000 residents.

Although the Pakistani military has failed to control the ground in Bajaur, preparations are now being made to assault North Waziristan, where most high-profile al-Qaeda leaders are believed to have shifted. Any al-Qaeda "successes" by US or Western forces would likely be used to the advantage of Republican candidate McCain.

The battle for 'October Surprise'
Lieutenant General Pasha told the recent session of parliament that Bajuar agency has been cleared of all militants and that state policy on the area will be established in coming weeks. Sources in the security agencies, however, maintain that so far Pakistan has only used fighter aircraft to bomb the militants. The army, according to sources, was not deployed on the ground because it is not prepared to take casualties. Until the army gains control of the ground, military operations in Bajaur will remain in limbo.

But the Pakistan Army is convinced, without any substantial proof, that it has displaced al-Qaeda leaders from Bajaur and that they have fled to North Waziristan.

Now, with American elections scheduled next month, the Pakistan Army will go to North Waziristan for the battle of "October Surprise". Fresh contingents of the army have been mobilized and action appears to be expected next week.

Sources said that the main target of the operation is Dr Ayman Al-Zawahiri. However, NATO allegedly favors the operation in North Waziristan because, like Bajaur, it is a nest of Afghan resistance, mainly of pro-Pakistan Jalaluddin Haqqani, a legendary Afghan mujahideen leader who has run the most effective militant network against NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Militants' winter offensive
Militants have their eyes set on November when they aim to spin the web of world events according to their will. Sources privy to their plans refused to reveal the details of global operations, but categorically refer to an extremely hot winter for Pakistan. Asia Times Online has learned on good authority that militants have planned attacks which would exceed this January's suicide attacks - which outnumbered those in war-torn Iraq.

As a source involved in the upcoming winter offensive told Asia Times Online: "Let October pass, then comes the mujahadeen's turn and then these mercenaries who bow down either for money or American might [will] have to decide whether we are more powerful or their American masters, and hence would have to decide whether they are with the American crusade in the name of war on terror, or with the global Muslim resistance against Western occupation forces."

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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