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    South Asia
     Oct 21, 2008
Pakistan muzzles its guns
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Cash-strapped Pakistan, after the failure of operations against militants in Bajaur Agency and the Swat Valley, has had to call off an offensive in the North Waziristan tribal area, and instead negotiate ceasefire deals.

Nevertheless, relentless pressure from the United States will not allow Islamabad to remain inactive for too long. This would have been the message relayed by US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, who made an unscheduled visit to Pakistan at the weekend. The US is all too aware how militant strongholds in Pakistan's tribal areas fuel the Taliban-led insurgency across the border in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is in a deep financial hole, however, and the best it can


do is buy time with the militants until the crisis eases.

Both China and the United States appear reluctant to bail out Pakistan, which is in danger of defaulting on debt worth US$3 billion in the next few months. Saudi Arabia, too, has not offered deferred payment on oil or any cash relief and at the weekend Pakistan said it might have to seek assistance from the unpopular International Monetary Fund.

Troops stop in their tracks Last week, Pakistan mobilized troops for an offensive in North Waziristan, forcing hundreds of residents to flee to the city of Bannu as they feared a mass ground and air onslaught of the kind that had earlier forced thousands to flee from Bajaur.

But Pakistan suddenly approached the militants and urged a ceasefire. Two militants leaders - Hafiz Gul Bahadur from North Waziristan and Moulvi Nazir of neighboring South Waziristan, both rivals of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud - agreed to implement ceasefire agreements.

Bahadur issued a statement in which he said that fighting against Pakistani forces damaged the cause for support of the Afghan national resistance and hence it had been decided that if the Pakistani security forces did not advance, the tribes would observe a ceasefire.

For militants elsewhere, though, the ceasefire agreements play into their hands as they can consolidate their bases in Pakistan in preparation for more action in Afghanistan, where they have already achieved unprecedented success in their seven-year battle against foreign forces. Indeed, the Taliban are as resilient as ever in the Pakistani tribal areas, where they have reinforced their positions.

Qari Ziaur Rahman, who recently emerged as the regional commander-in-chief of all pro-Taliban groups in Kunar and Nooristan provinces in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Bajaur and Mohmmand Agency areas, spoke to Asia Times Online in a telephone interview.

"The mujahideen have completely gained control on the ground [in Bajaur]. The American agenda to destroy the mujahideen and all the [Pakistan] government options have failed to defeat us."

Rahman spoke on a land line from Bajaur, which makes a mockery of the government claim that he had been forced to flee to Afghanistan after being injured.

Rahman is an Afghan national, first introduced by Asia Times Online as the most important regional commander of the future (see A fighter and a financier May 23, 2008). He is leading all local, foreign and Afghan Taliban fighting against Pakistani troops in Bajaur.

"I am completely healthy and in Bajaur. I never retreated into Afghanistan nor sustained any injury. It is the propaganda of the Pakistan army to demoralize the mujahideen," Rahman said.

"Initially, Pakistan succeeded in instigating the local tribes against us and there were a few incidents of setting the property of the Taliban on fire, but now all the tribes have pulled out from the government-led militias and except for a few areas like Khar, the Taliban command complete ground control.

"The Pakistan army does not have any option but to send gunship helicopters three to four times a day to fire shells, or send aircraft once a day for indiscriminate bombing for half an hour. In such operations, the mujahideen sustain no losses," Rahman said.

Rahman maintained that the Taliban are now in a position to put up resistance to the Pakistani security forces as well as to initiate successful attacks against US forces in the Kunar Valley.

"We have started our operations in the Kunar Valley and, except for interruptions of a few weeks, these are as normal as they were before the Bajaur operations [began two months ago]," Rahman said.

He was adamant that the ceasefire agreements in North Waziristan would not create any rifts. "It was a strategic decision by the Taliban in North Waziristan. At the end of the day we will all be one in our broader strategies.

Pakistan may have bought itself some time with the ceasefires, but the battle - let alone the war - is a long way from over, even as US unmanned Predator drones begin sorties in the skies of North Waziristan.

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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