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    South Asia
     Nov 21, 2008
The US strikes deeper in Pakistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

"The al-Qaeda leadership (shura) has apparently now installed itself in Jani Khel village in the Bannu district of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP)."
Taliban a step ahead of US assault Asia Times Online, August 11, 2007.

KARACHI - Wednesday's missile attack by an unmanned United States Predator drone on the Pakistani village of Jani Khel marks a significant development in the battle against militants.

On the one hand, it is the first such attack to take place outside of the semi-autonomous tribal areas, that is, in territory directly ruled by Islamabad. Previous US strikes have focused on North

 

Waziristan and South Waziristan, where at least 20 missile attacks and a cross-border commando raid have killed scores of people since September.

But on the other hand, the strike also signifies that there is now a genuine alliance between the Pakistani military and US forces against the common foe of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Previously, under former president General Pervez Musharraf, this relationship was blurred by pockets of latent sympathy on the side of the Pakistanis for the militants.

The drone is reported to have fired at least two missiles early on Wednesday morning at a house near North Waziristan. An unnamed Pakistani security official said that six foreign militants "with links to al-Qaeda" had been killed. Unconfirmed reports said one of them was Dr Abdullah Azzam al-Saudi, who is said to be a coordinator between the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership.

Whether al-Saudi is indeed dead is not so much the point. What matters is that the Pakistanis had passed on to the Americans information of al-Qaeda's shura (council) in Jani Khel.

Pakistan had known of the shura since it was set up over a year ago, but as it was not in a tribal area and therefore directly under the writ of the Pakistani government, this intelligence was never shared.

Indeed, on one occasion Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda deputy leader, was cornered during a shoot-out between the Pakistani security forces and militants in the district of Bannu, which lies just outside the semi-autonomous tribal areas, but on learning of his presence the law-enforcement agencies allowed him a safe passage.

Clearly, under Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kiani - currently in Brussels for talks with North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials - highly sensitive information is now being relayed to the US. This has dangerous implications.

Al-Qaeda is likely to spread out south into the cities, instead of going north to the tribal areas. The result could be the bloodiest of all battles in urban centers.

The village of Jani Khel was initially chosen as the tribal areas, although remote, were not suitable for regular high-profile meetings and they were coming under increasingly more drone attacks. There was also no precedence of US attacks outside the tribal areas - and neither were any anticipated. To date, heavily armed militants and their local supporters had kept the al-Qaeda leaders safe.

Top Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani is also believed to be active in Pakistan's cities, rather than in his usual compounds in North Waziristan and in Khost province in Afghanistan.

As a possible portend of things to come in this new phase of urban warfare, on Wednesday a trusted member of Musharraf's former team, retired Major General Amir Faisal Alvi, former commander of the elite commando unit Special Services Group (SSG), was assassinated by a group of armed men in the capital Islamabad.

As chief of the army and president, Musharraf, who had also been a member of the SSG, maintained a close relationship with Alvi. Alvi retired two years ago but was credited with masterminding the Angor Ada operation in 2004, when many Arabs and Chechans based in the tribal areas were killed or arrested and turned over to the Americans.

Other key figures who have participated in anti-al-Qaeda and -Taliban operations could be next on the hit list. These include army boss Kiani, who previously served as the director general of military operations, Corps Commander Rawalpindi and as director general of the Intelligence Services. The present chairman of the Joint Staff Committee, General Tariq Majeed, was the architect of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation in 2007 in which the radical mosque was stormed by troops. He was then Corps Commander Rawalpindi.

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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