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    South Asia
     Nov 26, '13


Afghan spies take fight to Islamabad
By Shahab Jafry

The November 1 drone attack that killed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the TTP or Pakistani Taliban) leader Hakimullah Mehsud, and the subsequent appointment of Mullah Fazlullah in his place, was an Afghan intelligence maneuver aimed at "ending the talk of talks" and recommitting the TTP to its insurgency, Pakistani counterinsurgency officials have revealed on condition of anonymity.

Chatter about possible TTP collusion with the NDS (Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security), long a concern for Pakistani intelligence, was not taken seriously till the New York Times' October 28 account of a US special forces raid on an Afghan intelligence convoy carrying Hakimullah's number two, Lateef



Mehsud, as he was headed for secret talks in Kabul. [1]

Kabul's vendetta wars
"The NYT story was not new information", said Pakistani intelligence officials who refused to be named. "We, and the Americans, have known this for a long time".

Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) believes that Fazlullah's track record made him the most convenient conduit for this arrangement. His group joined the TTP amid the chaos following the July 2007 Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation, which sparked unprecedented militant attacks and marked a major turning point in the insurgency. He portrayed the operation, along with drone attacks, as proof that Pakistan was playing into US hands in the garb of a war against terror.

When his parallel sharia courts and public beheadings provoked military action in the Swat Valley in 2009, he was pushed into the Kunar-Nooristan mountain range across the Afghan border, from where he has continued to mount attacks inside Pakistan. These included the September 15 assassination of General Officer Commanding for Malakand Division General Sanaullah Niazi, Lieutenant colonel Tauseef Ahmed and Lance Naik Irfanullah. (Lance Naik is the equivalent rank to lance corporal in the Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indian Armies). [2]

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces abandoned the Kunar-Nooristan area in mid-2009 after repeated attempts to secure the border, and it was here, according to tribal sources, that Fazlullah's association with the NDS matured. The accompanying photograph, obtained from an information source in the tribal area, allegedly shows the NDS deputy director Kunar, Ghafoor (far right), holding talks with two Fazlullah group commanders for Kunar region. This is the first time such evidence has been presented in the international media.



Pakistan's intelligence officials say the NDS is not acting alone, but is rather the lynch pin of a deeper proxy network involving Indian and even American intelligence agencies. That is why the NYT story's novelty was not so much in its content but its timing.

"If you look at it closely, you'll see the insurgency here suiting the Americans. The more the militants are engaged in Pakistan, the less hurdles the Americans face wrapping up in Afghanistan", said the intelligence officials.

"In Hakimullah's case, it was pretty clear that those who invested large sums in arming the TTP would not allow it to submit to a negotiated settlement. It makes no sense for the handlers, except in buying time for it to re-arm".

A typical security concern in such operations is fear of the proxy going rogue, or offering too much during talks with the enemy. Lateef's interrogation revealed doubts over Hakimullah, it is believed in Pakistan's covert networks.

Isolated and paranoid, and besieged by commanders urging talks, there were concerns that Hakimullah might spill a few beans about his patrons in exchange for concessions - hence the hellfire missiles.

"Why do you think they always know just where to find the man that matters most at the time with regard to peace initiatives?" they asked. "From Nek Mohammed to Baitullah Mehsud to Molvi Nazir to Waliur Rehman to now Hakimullah, there is definitely a pattern that cannot be ignored".

The hit allowed the US to score political points at home and replace Hakimullah with Fazlullah, and gave the NDS greater leverage in the Pakistani theatre.

The timing is seen as a warning for Pakistan from Kabul: As the US leaves, Afghans will not shy away from using the same dirty tactics they have long accused Islamabad of - such as offering their territory to launch cross-border operations and arming and funding militant proxies. The Indians, meantime, can wear down Pakistan's military in an internal fight, while keeping it engaged on the western border.

Such a "mutually beneficial relationship" as another Afghan official is quoted as describing the arrangement, has deeper implications that have not been explained. Despite a measured public alliance, the TTP and Afghanistan's Taliban have been at loggerheads for some time.

The Pakistani reaction has not helped clarify matters. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar was livid at the Hakimullah strike, accusing the US of "sabotaging the peace process". [3] An official visit to the tribal areas to formally deliver the talks offer, he said, would no longer go ahead. The northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province's government threatened to block NATO supply routes if drone strikes were not called off by November 20.

Yet the Taliban publicly denied any contact with the government, exposing the home minister's antics as "not so smart face-saving", according to Rasheed Safi, head of news at Radio Burraq, a trusted news source across the northern areas.

Despite its open opposition to drone strikes, the federal government is not likely to support the threats of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has already ruled out upsetting ties with the US, despite Nisar's remarks.

What about the talks?
Strangely, Islamabad seems completely unfazed by TTP's rejection of peace talks and promise of revenge attacks targeting Sharif's family and senior party members. The military and other security personnel, not to mention minorities, are, of course, fair game as well. Still, the center continues are posturing for peace, while center-right parties insist only drone attacks are preventing negotiations.

The military, on the other hand, seems to have interpreted recent events more profoundly. For TTP's patrons in Kabul and Delhi, Fazlullah brings the double advantage of not only being physically closer to his handlers, but also boasting a network with greater penetration in settled areas.

While senior Pakistani officers realize the inevitability of talks, they stress the right approach is first cutting off the insurgents' lifeline, which means disrupting their foreign funds and arms. Without isolating the TTP, talks can never be approached form a position of strength.

But so far neither the government nor the military has succeeded in exposing the TTP's plans. Fazlullah is very good at influencing public opinion. As TTP chief of Swat, he bombarded traditionally conservative listeners with Takfiri extremism through illegal radio channels, earning him the nickname Mullah FM. The TTP is expected to have a far more aggressive disinformation campaign under Fazlullah, which will engage the Pakistani government's information machinery, and the military's PR wing.

For now, though, the country remains bitterly divided. The uncertainty regarding talks, the constant criticism of the war - to the point of hardliners openly sympathizing with militants - have left Pakistan's political, social, military and media circles badly split. If foreign powers are indeed colluding to help paralyze Islamabad, their script is playing out well.

Notes:
1. US disrupts Afghans' tack on militants, New York Times, Oct 28, 2013
2. Fazlullah behind attack on Gen Sanaullah in Dir, The News, Sep 18, 2013
3. Nisar says US has sabotaged peace talks, The News, Nov 2, 2013
Shahab Jafry is a journalist with a special interest in AfPak and Arab Spring insurgencies.

(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)






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