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,
Ahmed Shuja Pasha, was briefing lawmakers on Pakistan's strategy in the "war on
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com