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    South Asia
     Nov 20, 2008
Taliban, US wrestle for the upper hand
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - On the face of it, there is no basic change in the situation on the ground in the war theater in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States-led war machine is the same, the pattern of the Taliban's attacks is the same and Islamabad is still an ally of the US.

Nevertheless, the players are already raising the level of their struggle in an effort to win the war when battle resumes in full come next spring.

The Taliban this year decided to target the supply lines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as it passed through


Pakistan - as much as 90% of NATO's needs take this route, with no viable alternative.

This has had some success, but over the past 10 days attacks on Kabul-bound conveys in the Khyber Agency have reached unprecedented levels. Thirteen containers full of arms and ammunition, military vehicles and food were looted by the Taliban, forcing an entire NATO convoy from the southern port city of Karachi to stop in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province.

Under an emergency arrangement, safe warehouses were hired for the supply trucks and containers to park> It was not until Monday, under extraordinary government-enabled security measures, that the convoy was able to resume its journey.

The attacks have been so incessant that Asia Times Online has learned that 530 containers loaded with armored personnel vehicles, military trucks, Humvees, arms and ammunition have not yet been delivered. They were sent four months ago from Jabal-i-Ali in the United Arab Emirates to Karachi. Clearly, if this continues, NATO's war effort will be severely compromised.

This is not the only area in which the Taliban have successfully expanded the scope of their activities. In an important development, they are now active in and around Peshawar, where they are engaging the Pakistani security forces.

In recent days they have also conducted a high-profile abduction of an Iranian diplomat and attacked foreign journalists and government functionaries.

They are also killing pro-government tribal chiefs in Bajaur and Mohamand Agencies, while all the time attracting more and more recruits. The aim is to establish such a presence that Pakistan will be forced to retreat and leave the Taliban alone to wage their war against NATO in neighboring Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, in NATO headquarters in Kabul and Brussels it has been realized that the level of the Taliban's control in Afghanistan is such that they are inching towards a serious escalation of the violence which could create serious turmoil right in the heart of Kabul.

The provinces of Wardak, Logar, Kapisa and Parwan, all relatively close to Kabul, are either partially controlled by the Taliban or the Taliban have a sufficiently significant presence to make them no-go areas for anti-Taliban forces.

In this scenario, especially over concerns about its supply lines, NATO is reluctant to entrust Pakistan with tackling the problem. Although relations between the two countries are good; even low-profile Pakistani support for the Taliban could turn the tables in Afghanistan.

NATO will therefore lead all actions, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan. This is not too popular in Pakistan. Last week, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, visited Islamabad to brief parliamentarians, but several of them, including those of the dominant Pakistan People's Party and Federal Minister Raza Rabbani, refused to attend.

They called the meeting a serious breach of Pakistan's sovereignty as no military official of another country is supposed to approach parliamentarians without the Foreign Office's mediation.

McKiernan wanted to take Pakistani lawmakers into his confidence over a new NATO initiative to increase the scope of Operation Lion Heart, which involves US strikes on insurgent targets in the Kunar region of Afghanistan and a full-scale Pakistani campaign in the region of Bajaur Agency. In the latter sphere, air attacks would be bolstered by land assaults.

Asia Times Online has learned that Qari Ziaur Rahman, the chief commander of Kunar and Bajaur, has admitted that the escalation in Kunar has already caused temporary problems, such as restricting militants from traveling from Kunar to aid their colleagues in Bajaur just across the border. Nevertheless, the militants claim to have defeated the Pakistan military in Bajaur and plan to release a celebratory video to this effect in the near future.

Pakistan army chief General Parvez Ashfaq Kiani plans to visit Brussels to discuss the exact modus operandi of the new phase of Operation Lion Heart.

High-level meetings between US intelligence and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have already been held at different levels to devise plans to cripple the support systems of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

Two prominent names came under discussion at these meetings: retired Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul and a former ISI official, retired Squadron Leader Khalid Khawaja.

Gul, a former head of the ISI, is suspected of providing political and moral support to the Taliban-led resistance in Afghanistan. Last year, former premier Benazir Bhutto named him as a suspect for the October 18 attack on her life in Karachi. She was subsequently assassinated in December.

Khawaja was the first person in the country to assist the displaced families of Arab fighters who fled to Pakistan after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. He fought their cases in court, arranged temporary housing for them and assisted them in departing to their countries. Khawaja is active in the cause of missing people (those detained without trial for years) and wants to register cases against the former chief of army staff and president, General Pervez Musharraf, and his military aides for abuses allegedly committed during their eight years in power.

Tightening the noose around people such as Gul and Khawaja and the like is one way to cut off support for the Taliban.

The battle has begun in earnest in preparation for next year's showdown.

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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