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    South Asia
     Feb 13, 2009
Taliban send a bloody warning
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - The Taliban made their bloody presence felt in the Afghan capital Kabul on Wednesday with a daring attack that claimed the lives of at least 26 people, with up to 60 injured.

Suicide bombers and gunmen, reminiscent of the Pakistan-linked terror attack on the Indian city of Mumbai last November, stormed heavily guarded government ministries near the presidential palace, making an unequivocal statement that they are a factor to be reckoned with as Western-led nations scramble to contain the Taliban insurgency and find a way to protect supply lines into Afghanistan.

The attack, the most complex and brazen in the capital since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, involved five armed militants 

storming the Ministry of Justice building in a crowded downtown area, killing some workers and taking others hostage. Afghan security forces exchanged gunfire for hours before freeing the hostages and killing all of the insurgents. At the same time, suicide bombers attacked a Prison Affairs office in the north of the city, while a gunman opened fire outside the Education Ministry before being killed by police.

The attack came a day ahead of a visit by Richard Holbrooke, the new United States special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and can be seen as a clear statement that even while furious diplomatic activity is taking place involving among others Washington and Moscow, the Taliban voice will be heard.

The administration of US President Barack Obama, along with Britain, which has appointed Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles as its envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, are attempting to strengthen Pakistan's role against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as well as trying to bring India into the fold of their strategic partnership.

A spokesman for the Taliban was reported to have claimed responsibility for the incident, saying it was revenge for the mistreatment of Taliban prisoners by Afghan authorities.

Initial inquires point towards Sirajuddin Haqqani, along with other groups including Arab and Pakistani militants. Haqqani's network is the most resourceful and the strongest component of the Taliban-led Afghan resistance with long-standing links to Pakistan.

The attack comes as something of a surprise as it was widely believed that the Taliban would lie relatively low ahead of this year's spring offensive. In the meanwhile, various diplomatic initiatives are underway for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces to be fully prepared come April.

Russian connection The Obama administration went the extra mile to achieve this task by unofficially using the services of veteran Henry Kissinger, a former US national security advisor and secretary of state, to deal with Russia. Kissinger has been dealing with Moscow on START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) negotiations as the accord expires in December this year.

On the sidelines of this past weekend's 45th Munich Security Conference, Kissinger was instrumental in making a deal with Russia under which the most Russian-influenced Central Asian republic, Kazakhstan, agreed to refine and supply 100% of the oil needed for NATO in Afghanistan. Currently, 90% of the oil is supplied by Pakistani refineries, with 5% coming from Azerbaijan and the rest via other Central Asian sates.

Russia has also tacitly agreed to allow NATO's military supplies to pass through its territory as routes through Pakistan are being severely disrupted. In return, Moscow would expect NATO expansion into Europe to stop and that other defense-related issues in Europe would take into consideration Russian demands.

On the battlefields in Pakistan and Afghanistan, meanwhile, plans are afoot to launch the strongest offensive yet against militants. This could begin once Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani returns to Pakistan from the United States where he will discuss in detail the dynamics of the militancy and enhanced cooperation between Islamabad and Washington.

Holbrooke has already met with the leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif and is expected to persuade Sharif from supporting a potentially politically destabilizing lawyers' movement in March against the government.

Pakistan is continuing its efforts to curtail militants in Khyber Agency, where they are causing havoc with the bulk of the NATO supplies that pass through the area on the way to Afghanistan. The next plan is to target the Taliban in Mohmand Agency, Bajaur Agency and the Swat Valley, as well as in North Waziristan and the South Waziristan, which serve as vital bases for the Taliban's efforts in Afghanistan.

In recent weeks, the Pakistani Taliban have stepped up attacks on Pakistani cities as advance warning to the Pakistani security apparatus not to implement any joint US-Pakistan operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. These are expected to reach deep inside Pakistani territory.

In this vicious cycle, new responses could emerge in coming days, such as attacks in Islamabad, where security has been tightened to unprecedented levels. Such a development in the capital of the most important non-NATO ally would be devastating.

Across the border in India, there are also murmurings of al-Qaeda terror cells exploding into action to deter India from aligning with Western forces against the Taliban-led resistance in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda assesses 2009 as the year in which it could fight its fiercest - if not decisive - battle: the flames of war could flare at any time, anywhere.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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