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    South Asia
     May 8, 2009
Al-Qaeda seizes on Taliban's problem
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2008 has focused on eliminating the sanctuaries of anti-Western insurgents through joint Pakistan-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operations regardless of borders or ethnicity.
As a result, Taliban operations launched through the Pakistani tribal areas into Afghanistan have been seriously disrupted this year by as much as 50%.

Pakistan had to divert troops from the Indian border to the east to take on militants on the other side of the country. Then a plan by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence to spark the Kashmiri separatist movement was hijacked by al-Qaeda. (See Al-Qaeda 'hijack' led to Mumbai attack Asia Times Online, December 2). What resulted was the terror attack on Mumbai last November as

 

a maneuver by al-Qaeda to escalate tension between India and Pakistan to prevent the further relocation of troops.

Now, Pakistan is prepared to move more troops to the Afghan border as Washington has agreed to guarantee the de-escalation of Indian troop activities along the Pakistan border. If this happens, the Taliban's cross-border operations will be further curtailed.

According to reports, the US has told Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, currently in Washington, that if this plan goes ahead, US Predator drone strikes inside Pakistan against militants will immediately be stopped. The scores of attacks over the past year or so have created bitter resentment in Pakistan as they have killed numerous civilians as well as militants.

This proposed troop shift poses a major challenge to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Taliban have already resorted to relying on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) rather than major offensives against the numerically superior NATO forces.

Al-Qaeda will see this as an opportunity to raise tensions between Pakistan and India by striking into India, as happened following the Mumbai attack in which nearly 200 people were killed.

At the same time, the Taliban and al-Qaeda will attempt to reduce the political influence of NATO and the Afghan government in the southern Pashtun heartland of Afghanistan. They will be helped in this by the fact that Washington has failed to define a comprehensive political strategy to complement its military operations in Afghanistan.

Operation Lion Heart
This began in 2008 with NATO-led forces in Afghanistan targeting Kunar and Nooristan provinces and the Pakistanis across the border homing in on Mohmand and Bajaur agencies.

The aim of the Pakistani security forces was to clear Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries and training centers in the border areas which were used to send thousands of fighters into Afghanistan.

The Pakistanis were largely successful and then signed peace deals with the local tribes which made them responsible for two things. First, they would not allow the Taliban to restart their activities; secondly, they would provide protection for military checkpoints in Mohmand and Bajaur.

As a result, the Taliban's launches into Afghanistan from this region were reduced to a trickle, prompting US Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen to specifically praise Pakistan.

Meanwhile, where military operations were not possible, al-Qaeda and the Taliban were targeted through drone strikes, mostly in South Waziristan and North Waziristan. Fourteen top al-Qaeda leaders and 700 non-combatant civilians have been killed in these strikes.

The militants were forced to abandon their sanctuaries and the activities of the powerful network of Jalaluddin Haqqani and his sons Nasiruddin and Sirajuddin was disrupted in 2008. The network, which had been the largest in southeastern Afghanistan with outreach up to the capital Kabul, was reduced to isolated launches through Angor Ada in South Waziristan into Paktika province and into Helmand province through the Paskitani Gardi jungle area.

Pakistani militants are nevertheless far from beaten. In February, they signed a peace deal to their advantage in the Swat area, although it has now been broken, with fierce fighting raging.

Al-Qaeda wanted to break up the cycle of peace agreements. In the Swat Valley, the al-Qaeda-linked network of Mullah Fazlullah did not want the ceasefire to hold - it prefers an environment of chaos to distract the Pakistani armed forces from engaging in broader counter-insurgency operations.

Onwards in Afghanistan
While the Taliban's launches from the Pakistani tribal areas have been curtailed, the US still has problems in the provinces around Kabul - Logar, Wardak, Kapisa and Ghazni - as well as the provinces of Herat, Farah and Nimroze in the northwest. This is besides Helmand, Kandahar, Urzgan and Zabul, where the Taliban lead a tribal insurgency and which they aim to consolidate this year.

The US has committed more troops to Logar, Wardak and Ghazni. However, the Taliban don't plan to obstruct their movements through any major offensives. Instead, the Taliban will rely on local tribal arrangements to live in these areas while resorting to increased IED attacks. NATO does not have any means to disrupt these tribal arrangements and isolate the Taliban.

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

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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