Taliban bitten by a snake in the grass
KARACHI - The Taliban and their al-Qaeda associates, in what they considered a master stroke, this year started to target the Western alliance's supply lines that run through Pakistan into Afghanistan.
Their focal point was Khyber Agency, in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a key transit point for as much as 70% of the alliance's supplies needed to maintain its battle against the Afghan insurgency.
The spectacular blowing up on March 20 of 40 gas tankers at Torkham - the border crossing in Khyber Agency into Afghanistan's Nangarhar province - sent shock waves through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led (NATO) coalition. So much so that it made a deal for some supplies to transit through Russia, a much more arduous route.
The Torkham success was followed by a number of smaller attacks, and the Taliban's plan appeared to be going better than they could have expected.
Then came this week's incident in which the Taliban seized two members of the World Food Program (WFP) in Khyber Agency, and it became obvious the Taliban had been betrayed, and all for the princely sum of about US$150,000.
Their Khyber dreams are now in tatters.
With friends like this ...
When the Taliban's new tactic emerged, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) - which Pakistan's intelligence community says maintains its biggest South Asian presence in Pakistan - sprung into action and staged a coup of its own.
But that's getting ahead of the story.
After coming under intense pressure in its traditional strongholds in the North and South Waziristan tribal areas, al-Qaeda and the Taliban staged a joint shura (council). This meeting concluded that they had to be especially careful of local political parties and tribals who were all too ready to sell themselves in the US's quest to find Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. The council pointed to the example of Iraq, where the US's policy of courting Sunni tribes to turn against al-Qaeda has had marked success.
At this point, the council hit on the idea of taking the initiative and turning Taliban and al-Qaeda attention on Khyber Agency with the aim of bleeding the Western coalition without having to launch major battles.
This was fine in theory, but there were practical difficulties: the agency is the most unlikely place for "Talibanization". The majority of the population is Brelvi-Sufi Muslim, traditionally opposed to the Taliban's Deobandi and al-Qaeda's Salafi ideology. Being an historic route for armies and traders, the population is politically liberal and pragmatist, not easily swayed by idealist and Utopian ideology such as the Taliban's and al-Qaeda's.
So the Taliban sent in its own fighting corps gathered from other tribal areas, and drafted in Ustad Yasir, a heavyweight Afghan commander, from Afghanistan. These predominantly Pashtun fighters consider the Afridi and Shinwari tribes, the natives of Khyber Agency, as materialist and non-ideological, but all the same a local host was essential for their operation.
The Taliban hit on one of the few Salafis in the area, Haji Namdar, as their point man. Namdar is not a traditional tribal, he's a trader who has worked in Saudi Arabia. His Salafi ideology and the fact that he is a practicing Muslim lent him credibility - and trustworthiness - in the eyes of the Taliban.
Namdar came on board, offering to provide the Taliban with sanctuary for their men, arms and supplies along the main road leading to the border area. He gave these assurances to Taliban leaders in his own home.
The Americans were fully aware of the Taliban's designs on Khyber Agency and invested a lot in the tribes to protect the route. In response, the Taliban threatened tribal chieftains, and launched a suicide attack on a jirga (meeting) convened to discuss eradicating the Taliban from the area. Over 40 tribals were killed.
US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte also visited Khyber Agency to meet with chiefs, but out of fear for the Taliban only six tribal elders showed up. It appeared the Americans had been outwitted, but their game was not over.
Anyway, with the Taliban's arrangement with Namdar, the stage was set and they steadily stepped up their attacks on convoys heading for Afghanistan, leading to the capture of the two WFP members and their vehicle on Monday.
Things start to go wrong
Unlike in previous Taliban attacks in the area, local paramilitary forces chased the Taliban after this incident. The Taliban retaliated and five soldiers were killed, but then their ammunition ran out and they surrendered the two workers and tried to flee, but they were blocked.
The Taliban called in reinforcements, but so did the paramilitary troops, and a stalemate was reached. Eventually, the Taliban managed to capture a local political agent (representing the central government) and they used him as a hostage to allow their escape.
They retreated to their various safe houses, but to their horror, paramilitary troops were waiting for them and scores were arrested, and their arms caches seized. A number of Taliban did, however, manage to escape once word got out of what was happening.
The only person aware of the safe houses was Namdar, their supposed protector: they had been sold out.
Their worst suspicions were confirmed when Namdar broke his cover and announced on a local radio station that Taliban commanders, including Ustad Yasir, should surrender or face a "massacre", as happened when local tribes turned against Uzbek fighters in South Waziristan in January 2007.
Namdar said that he had the full weight of the security forces behind him, and he did not fear any suicide attack.
Al-Qaeda and the Taliban immediately called an emergency shura in North Waziristan to review the situation. Al-Qaeda's investigations revealed that the CIA and Pakistani intelligence had got to Namdar and paid him $150,000 in local currency.
The immediate result is that Taliban operations in Khyber Agency have been cut off. This in itself is a major setback, as the attacks on supply lines had hit a raw NATO nerve.
In the broader context, Namdar's betrayal vividly illustrates the dangers of traitors within the ranks of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The fear is that the various peace deals being signed now between the Islamabad government and selected tribal leaders could lead to a whole new batch of betrayals.
The conclusion, therefore, is to go all-out to stop the government's dialogue process with militants and tribals.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]