Pakistan torn over North Waziristan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - After a meeting in Islamabad on Wednesday in which two of United
States President Barack Obama's senior intelligence aides briefed Pakistani
officials on last month's failed car bombing in New York City's Times Square, a
joint statement praised Pakistan's "excellent" cooperation in fighting
A White House spokesman later said the Obama administration believed it was
time to redouble efforts with Pakistan to close what he called "this safe
haven", without being more specific.
He did not need to be. It is an open secret that the US wants Pakistan to
launch a full-scale operation in the North Waziristan tribal area on the border
with Afghanistan - something Islamabad is reluctant to do immediately - and is
applying as much pressure as it possibly can.
United States National Security Adviser General James Jones
and Central Intelligence Agency chief Leon Panetta met with, among others,
President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Foreign Minister
Shah Mehmood Qureshi and chief of army staff General Parvez Kiani on Wednesday.
Jones and Panetta provided the Pakistani officials with an update on the
investigation into the failed bombing on May 1 for which a Pakistani-American,
Faisal Shahzad, has been charged. Shahzad, 30, has told investigators that he
trained in North Waziristan.
Other than North Waziristan, Pakistan has mounted large-scale operations in the
six remaining districts of the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas since 2008
- a 500-kilometer stretch of territory along Pakistan's western border with
North Waziristan is the citadel of the Afghan resistance as well as home to
al-Qaeda and linked militant groups. Washington is convinced that a successful
operation in the area would have a decisive impact on the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization's (NATO's) operations in Afghanistan.
Two attacks in the Afghan capital Kabul this week will make the US even more
Early on Wednesday morning, militants carrying rocket-propelled grenades and
wearing suicide vests attacked the major US base at Bagram, north of Kabul. In
the ensuing battle, 10 Taliban fighters were said to have been killed and at
least five US soldiers wounded. The attack came a day after a suicide bomber
targeted a NATO-led military convoy in Kabul, killing 12 civilians and six
foreign troops. The Taliban claimed responsibility for both incidents.
In the hot seat
Kiani, as chief of army staff and with a close relationship with the US
military, is feeling the heat. Before his meeting with the US officials he
would have pored over the reports piled in the right upper draw of his desk in
the garrison city of Rawalpindi, stubbing out half-smoked cigarettes, as is
He will be aware that if Pakistan enters North Waziristan it would be a
double-edged sword. It would scatter the militants and they would lose their
vital bases, which would affect their capacity to plan and execute attacks in
Afghanistan. However, the militants, numbering at least 50,000 from various
groups, would spread across Pakistan and with their nexus of cells in southern
Punjab and in the southern port city of Karachi they could cause havoc of a
scale never before seen in the country.
Kiani has expressed his reservations over an attack in North Waziristan to
visiting General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, and
General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command.
Kiani is due to retire on November 27 this year, and Minister of Defense
Chaudhary Ahmad Mukhtar has said that his term would not be extended (and that
he did not desire one). In the meantime, a weakened Zardari administration is
not in a position to act as a countervailing force against the Pakistan army.
So Kiani's decision is crucial.
Before the arrival of the American officials this week, Kiani spoke to a
gathering in Rawalpindi of corps commanders. He outlined some of the issues
related to an operation in North Waziristan. Pakistan's economy is in a poor
state and much-needed aid that the US has pledged is conditional on Islamabad's
support to the American war efforts.
All the same, graphs presented showed that Pakistan's average annual gross
domestic product growth in the past 60 years has been about 5%, except for 2006
and 2007 when it performed exceptionally well due to US aid packages. However,
growth declined to 3.7% in 2008 and 2.7% in 2009, due in part to a higher
number of militant attacks and despite aid packages.
A decision on North Waziristan could have been made easier if the militants had
shown willingness for a ceasefire.
Therefore, in coordination with the Saudi Arabian government, early this year a
delegation that included retired squadron leader Khalid Khawaja, a former
Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) official, and Mahmood al-Samarai, was sent to
North Waziristan to explore the opportunities of long-term peace with the
Samarai, an Iraqi and a former Muslim Brotherhood member, was the senior-most
person after Osama bin Laden who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight
against the Soviets and he still lives in the region. Samarai is also known to
have contacts in the Saudi Embassy in Pakistan for making contact with
Khawaja and Samarai tested the waters in North Waziristan and after believing
they had achieved satisfactory results they made another trip in March, taking
with them Colonel Ameer Sultan Tarrar, another former ISI official who is known
as Colonel Imam. He is also called the father of the Taliban. However, a
little-known group calling itself the Asian Tigers abducted them. Khalid was
killed this month on suspicion of being a spy while Colonel Imam is still being
held by the group.
A member of an al-Qaeda-linked Pakistani group told Asia Times Online, "We
appreciated that backchannel move [by Khawaja and Samarai]. All mujahideen
groups were happy at the prospect of reconciliation. Nobody would have been
happy fighting a war inside Pakistan, but the process was sabotaged by the
Asian Tigers. Everybody here is convinced that they were used, either willingly
or unknowingly, by foreign powers that want an operation in North Waziristan at
He added that a gesture to this effect had been conveyed to Islamabad, that is,
nobody wants a war with Pakistan, and if it was forced on the militants in
North Waziristan it "would be an unfortunate event and it would be fought
With the killing of two Italian soldiers in Herat in western Afghanistan on
Monday, the death of NATO troops in Kabul on Tuesday and the attack on Bagram
on Wednesday, the Taliban's spring offensive is well underway. This comes just
10 days before a peace jirga (council) in Kabul, sending a strong signal
that there is little prospect of any political process emerging that could tame
the Taliban-led insurgency.
The race of vital strategic interests from Kabul to Islamabad is entering its
final phase, and nobody aims to lose. Kiani and his commanders want to buy time
over North Waziristan, as do the militants, while the Americans want action -
now. Something will have to give.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at email@example.com