Urgency In Pakistan
Taliban-al-Qaeda Alliance Grows Beyond 200,000 Men With Eyes On Islamabad
By Steve Schippert
With the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance fortified, well-established and growing in North and South Waziristan, the North West Frontier Province and several other Pakistani territories, one of the most welcomed possible developments in the ongoing war against the terrorist allies would be an actual strike on their positions by Pakistan itself. But for reasons that include Musharraf’s weakened position among his own military commanders and a hope against hope that he can stave off an all out Taliban-al-Qaeda offensive, insurgency or coup attempt, this is unlikely to happen, either in this instance or in a consistent, assertive Pakistani drive.
The widely reported news echoing on various newswires Tuesday is that Pakistan has done just that: Launched a 'precision airstrike' on al-Qaeda forces in the village of Zamzola along the Afghanistan border in the Taliban and al-Qaeda enclave of South Waziristan. Pakistani spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan claims that the Pakistani strike was then followed by a helicopter assault in "mop-up." In an area known to be a daytime training area for terrorists, as many as twenty have reportedly been killed.
With the new US Secretary of Defense in Kabul the same day to meet with Afghanistan’s President Karzai, it is possible that Pakistan would want to display a show of force before one of President Musharraf’s most important allies. If so, it would be a drastic change of course and one that Musharraf may not be likely to sustain against a Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance that has made numerous attempts on his life already, the latest also involving senior members of his own air force officer corps.
CBS quoted an unnamed western diplomat as saying of Tuesday’s air assault on the al-Qaeda forces, "The Pakistanis, it seems, are trying to tell the world that they are serious about their commitment to fighting terror." And to be sure, that is exactly what the Musharraf government wants to convey to the United States, Canada and the rest of NATO.
But there is a problem.
Major General Shaukat Sultan, who publicly claimed the strike as a Pakistani strike Tuesday, is not new to claims of precision airstrikes that were only later revealed as US strikes. Nor is he new to inconsistent recitation of facts and Pakistani positions.
General Sultan tried to spin the Bajur madrassa strike by claiming that there were no Taliban or al-Qaeda present in the madrassa. But right on the scene and brazenly speaking to NBC reporter Mushtaq Yusufzai was none other than local al-Qaeda commander Faqir Mohammed, who boasted that the strike had missed him, though he confirmed his deputy, Maulana Liaquat Ali Hussain, was in the building at the time of the strike and killed.
Rather than the simple religious school the madrassa was portrayed as, Ali Hussian was a leader within the 'school' that was itself "known as a strong supporter of the Taliban" according to locals in the area. The activities going on at a 'school' with al-Qaeda leaders among its own leadership go far beyond religious teachings and represent part of what counterterrorism expert Andrew Cochran calls the 'Madrassa Myth'.
In what ThreatsWatch described in September as Pakistan's New 'Hands-Off' Agreement With al-Qaeda, General Sultan also once said in an interview with ABC News that Usama bin Laden would be allowed to stay in Pakistan if he were “being like a peaceful citizen.” Though he quickly denied the widely reported words, the actual ABC transcript of the telephone interview belied his denial.
Regarding General Sultan’s claims Tuesday of a Pakistani attack on al-Qaeda in South Waziristan, appearing in the eighth paragraph of a widely carried Reuters report was a short description by one of its reporters who "saw seven helicopters including at least two U.S.-built Cobras leave from Tochi Fort's helipad in Miranshah less than an hour before the attack and returned shortly after."
This is consistent with Sultan’s claims of helicopters performing ‘mop-up’ operations after an initial ‘precision strike.’ But Pakistan’s military is not known for its precision strikes on al-Qaeda or other foes, though they have in the past flown attack helicopter missions soon after. Such claims in the past have been later revealed as US strikes, often via Hellfire missiles launched from unmanned Predator drones. A local in the area was quoted as seeing a drone flying above the area before the strikes.
It is within this context – though not centered on it – that urgent consideration of the crisis brewing in Pakistan is critically important, as the implications of potential near-term future developments can scarcely be overstated.
While noting that Pakistan is an important ally, US National Intelligence Director John Negroponte also said in written testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee Friday that al-Qaeda is benefiting from "a secure hideout in Pakistan, from which it is rebuilding its strength." Pakistani officials denied this vehemently, as foreign office spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said, "In breaking the back of al-Qaeda, Pakistan has done more than any other country in the world."
While the Musharraf government in Pakistan has been and remains a critically important ally in this global conflict, it must be conceded that nearly all major terrorist attacks since and including those on September 11, 2001, have ties that lead directly or indirectly back to Pakistani origins. Nor is the Musharraf government’s recognized status as an American ally in the war against such terrorism a qualification to dismiss the fact that Pakistan has clearly wavered in the face of a resurgent Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance, deeply rooted within the embattled nation’s own borders.
Since Pakistan ceded North Waziristan to the Taliban in September, the North and South Waziristan Provinces, the North West Frontier Province and surrounding areas have become a virtually unchallenged refuge for both al-Qaeda and their Taliban allies. What was billed by Pakistan to have been a ‘peace accord’ with the terrorists has netted a Pakistani military withdrawal of ground forces and a 300% increase in cross-border attacks on NATO troops and civilians in Afghanistan from the region.
Part of the ‘peace accord’ that ceded control of Pakistan’s North Waziristan over to the Taliban was the included release of over 2,500 foreigners held prisoner since the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. Among that number were virtually all al-Qaeda prisoners in Pakistan’s custody, effectively put back into circulation in attempts to stave off what many see as an inevitable confrontation with the increasingly more powerful Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance currently taking ownership of swaths of Pakistani territory, inching patiently but steadily toward Islamabad.
It is believed that the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance in Pakistan has amassed a force of fighters that is over 200,000 strong, organized principally around seven key terrorist leaders, including key local al-Qaeda commander Faqir Mohammed, who escaped the US strike in Bajur mentioned above.
With news that Afghani intelligence agents captured “one of the most high-profile Taliban spokesmen,” Mohammad Hanif (aka Abdul Haqiq), it is the latest indicator that the vast majority of captures and strikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces operating in or from Pakistan’s own territory have come from American, Afghani or NATO operations. With the September release of virtually all imprisoned al-Qaeda operatives by Pakistan, the Musharraf government is clearly loathe to restock its prison system with these who have clear designs on his demise and the establishment of an Islamic State of Pakistan, complete with the existing nuclear arsenal of the only nuclear-armed Muslim nation in the world.
The United States has taken the initiative before in Pakistan via airstrikes, almost certainly with Pakistani acquiescence. Tuesday’s attack may prove eventually to be no different. Yet, the Pakistani government is not at fault for failing to recognize the threat al-Qaeda and the Taliban pose to it. Rather, Musharraf appears frozen by a fear that is fueled by a perceived inability to do much about it. And so, just as the Pakistani government acquiesces to American exercise of power through the air in its own skies, it also cedes unbalanced (and largely ignored) agreements with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
These agreements have included delivering the Taliban and al-Qaeda control of territory, released fighters, withdrawn Pakistani troops and cash retributions. These agreements embody the threatening situation of which John Negroponte speaks.
When it comes to dealing with the al-Qaeda threat, Musharraf has made such agreements and will likely make more in other territories in hopes of placating them today. But with an al-Qaeda-Taliban force in the hundreds of thousands of fighters, Musharraf may only be avoiding today what appears to intelligence observers as a seemingly inevitable outcome in the relatively near future.
Appearing at present a strong likelihood, if and when that day passes and the Musharraf government falls, it will be to a murky cooperative of the 200,000-strong al-Qaeda and Taliban, the Islamist powers within the Pakistani intelligence (ISI) and aligned Pakistani generals and wil result in the creation of the Islamic State of Pakistan.
Those who perceive themselves already at war with neighboring India and the United States as well as the rest of the West will control the world’s first terrorist nuclear power. Regardless of the ground situation in Iraq or the state of domestic political discourse in the United States, all bets may well then be off.
For all combatant nations and non-state actors, the face of the global conflict will shift with a sudden and violent urgency not seen since the weeks that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001, which by design drew America actively into this conflict.