Taliban a step ahead of US assault?

Aug 11, 2007

Taliban a step ahead of US assault
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - The ongoing three-day peace jirga (council) involving hundreds of tribal leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan is aimed at identifying and rooting out Taliban and al-Qaeda militancy on both sides of the border.

This was to be followed up with military strikes at militant bases in Pakistan, either by the Pakistani armed forces in conjunction with the United States, or even by US forces alone.

The trouble is, the bases the US had meticulously identified no longer exist. The naive, rustic but battle-hardened Taliban still
want a fight, but it will be fought on the Taliban's chosen battlegrounds.

Twenty-nine bases in the tribal areas of North Waziristan and South Waziristan on the border with Afghanistan that were used to train militants have simply fallen off the radar.

The US had presented Islamabad with a dossier detailing the location of the bases as advance information on likely US targets. But Asia Times Online has learned that since early this month, neither the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led coalition in Afghanistan nor Pakistan intelligence has detected any movement in the camps.

Human intelligence on both sides suggests the bases have been dismantled, apart from one run by hardline Islamist Mullah Abdul Khaliq. All other leading Taliban commanders, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, Gul Bahadur, Baitullah Mehsud and Haji Omar, have disappeared. Similarly, the top echelons of the Arab community that was holed up in North Waziristan has also gone.

The new battlefield
The al-Qaeda leadership (shura) has apparently now installed itself in Jani Khel village in the Bannu district of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). This includes Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Taliban leadership, most prominently Haqqani, is concentrated in the Afghan provinces of Khost and Gardez, where much fighting is expected to take place.

A spillover of al-Qaeda's presence in Jani Khel is likely to spread to Karak, Kohat, Tank, Laki Marwat and Dera Ismail Khan in Pakistan. Kohat in NWFP is tipped to become a central city in the upcoming battle, as the office of the Pakistani Garrison commanding officer is there and all operations will be directed through this area. In addition, Kohat is directly linked with a US airfield in Khost for supplies and logistics.

A second war corridor is expected to be in the Waziristans, the Khyber Agency, the Kurram Agency, Bajaur Agency, Dir, Mohmand Agency and Chitral in Pakistan and Nanagarhar, Kunar and Nooristan in Afghanistan.

The fiercest battleground, however, will be in Khost and Gardez, making the previous Taliban successes in Helmand and Kandahar during the spring offensive of 2006 a distant memory.

The Taliban's evolution
The death in May of Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah in Afghanistan during a coalition raid set in motion a major change within the Taliban's command structure.

The loss of the heroic commander was a huge blow for the Taliban in southwestern Afghanistan, as a major symbol of success had been killed - and there was no one of his stature to replace him, as another top Taliban commander, Mullah Akhtar Osmani, had earlier been killed in Helmand.

Amid the demoralization, the entire Taliban leadership left Helmand, Urzgan, Zabul and Kandahar and sat idle in Satellite Town in Quetta, Pakistan, for several weeks.

Finally, in June, Taliban leader Mullah Omar outlined new guidelines, which included:
No members of the central military command would work in southwestern Afghanistan.
Group commanders would be given control of specific districts and be allowed to develop their own strategy.
This strategy would be passed on only to the Taliban-appointed "governor" of the area, who in turn would relay it to the Taliban's central command council. From these various inputs, the council would develop a broader strategy for particular regions.
The Taliban would discourage personality cults like Dadullah's, as the death of a "hero" demoralized his followers.

Four spokesmen were appointed to decentralize the Taliban's media-information wing. Each spokesman would look after only a specific zone so that in case of his arrest, only information about that zone could be leaked. They also have all been given the same name, at present it is Qari Yousuf Ahmedi.

This "unschooled" program produced results within weeks as the Taliban gained new ground in Helmand and Urzgan through widespread grassroots support, and Jalaluddin Haqqani's commanders gained prominence.

Where does Pakistan stand?
Pakistan's stance throughout the "war on terror" has been problematical, especially with regards to the Taliban, whom its intelligence agency had long nurtured. Certainly Islamabad distanced itself from the Taliban after their fall in 2001, and has periodically cracked down on them in Pakistan, but sections in the military, intelligence agencies and general public remain sympathetic.

But once the peace jirga concludes this weekend, a war has to be fought: the US is simply running out of patience.

Pakistan has said it is committed to such a battle against Taliban and al-Qaeda elements on its soil. Interestingly, though, of late the military establishment has activated its anti-American segment in the ruling coalition.

First, the secretary general of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, Mushahid Hussain Syed, called for a crushing response in the event of any US attack in Pakistan. Then retired Major Tanveer Hussain Syed, secretary for the parliamentary committee on defense, said ties with the US should be severed and the Taliban should be promoted in Afghanistan. Minister of Religious Affairs Ejaz ul-Haq weighed in by calling for a review of Pakistan-US relations and the country's participation in the "war on terror".

One can dismiss this as rhetoric. Washington might consider, though, that Pakistan has changed horses in midstream many times before.

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

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