Pakistan goes for militants' jugular
ISLAMABAD - Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari can be well pleased with his recent visit to New York, securing US$1.5 billion annually for five years in non-military aid and gaining unprecedented political support from over two dozen heads of states under the Friends of Democratic Pakistan initiative.
Now it is the turn of the military to deliver following its successful campaign this year in the Swat Valley in North-West Frontier Province: it is poised for a major operation in the heart of Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda territory, the North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.
The need for this operation in the two Waziristans, over which the Pakistani armed forces had previously expressed grave concerns, was agreed on in a meeting in New York last week between the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other US security officials and Zardari, who is also the supreme commander of the armed forces.
The director general of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, has been in the US to coordinate the operation with the US. The aim, simply, is to conclusively defeat al-Qaeda at its global headquarters in the Waziristans.
Adding urgency to task was the brazen attack on Monday by a suicide bomber dressed as a member of the paramilitary Frontiers Corps on the United Nations' World Food Program's headquarters in the capital Islamabad, killing at least five aid workers.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on Tuesday that the Taliban carried out the attack to avenge the August 5 killing in a US Predator drone missile attack in South Waziristan of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. "We should expect a few more [attacks]," he said.
Asia Times Online has learned that the operation in the Waziristans will be actively supported with technical and intelligence support from the CIA for Pakistani ground troops as well as the air force.
Pakistan is confident that the chances of success are higher than ever, even though the military will be venturing into dangerous territory and that previous operations in other tribal areas have proved highly divisive and unpopular across much of the country.
Malik told Asia Times Online recently in New York that the time was now ripe as it is believed all of the top al-Qaeda commanders of the South Asian region, in addition to commanders who have fled Iraq, are now based in the Waziristans.
The Pakistani political establishment is also upbeat in that there is a new positive mood in the country; even the stock exchange has surged to its highest levels in one-and-a-half-years. But most importantly, the tone in the military establishment has changed.
Immediately after the president's return to Pakistan, armed forces spokesman Major General Athar Abbas, who had earlier rejected the idea of an operation in the Waziristans, speaking from the garrison city of Rawalpindi, confirmed that the tribal areas would be attacked.
"It [the operation] is only a matter of time, which of course, the military will not disclose or give any hint about."
Abbas did hint hint, though. He said the weather could be one of the many factors that planners were taking into account - the winter snows are well set in by late November.
"The rudderless leadership of the terrorists provides an ideal opportunity to launch operations and inflict a severe blow to the terrorists," Abbas said, presumably referring to the killing of Baitullah Mehsud.
The army has mounted several operations in the two Waziristans, but they have all resulted in heavy casualties. As a result, the military has tended to sign peace deals, most of them on the militants' terms and conditions. This gave a morale boost to the militants, and after each operation their numbers increased, and numbers which were pumped into Afghanistan to aid the insurgency there.
This time, the stage is better set for the military. With the help of the CIA, many of al-Qaeda's and the militants' leaders have been eliminated, with drone attacks being particularly effective.
The military is also buoyed by its operation in Swat. In late April, the military began a massive offensive and by early June declared that most of Swat had been freed from the Taliban and that Mingora, the main town of Swat, was in complete government control. In the process, though, millions of people were displaced, causing a major humanitarian crisis. Ironically, the attack in Islamabad on Monday targeted the very United Nations organization that had helped with this tragedy.
The Swat operation also saw the military fully commit to its task - indeed, some say it displayed a level of ruthlessness not seen since its crackdown on Bengali separatists in the former East Pakistan, a struggle that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
This was so much so that several Western media outlets, including the British Broadcasting Corporation, have released videos of torture allegedly committed by the armed forced against the Taliban, including extra-judicial killings.
In addition to all this, however, is the key part played by the Pakistani Interior Ministry, which resolved that the best way to sap the strength of al-Qaeda and the militants lay in cutting their financial arteries.
This is not a novel approach to root out militancy, but one that has not successfully been implemented by Pakistan.
Soon after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation targeted financial institutions and charities that supported al-Qaeda, with some success.
However, US institutions were unable to track the Taliban's financial arteries as these are mostly primitive, based on non-banking and non-traditional financial sources and tribal connections. Asia Times Online has documented how difficult it is to disrupt this flow of money. (See How the Taliban keep their coffers full Asia Times Online, June 10.)
Interior Minister Malik recognized the problem, and tackled it head-on, first with Baitullah's Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP - Taliban Movement of Pakistan).
In an interview in New York, Malik confidently claimed that over 80% of the financial arteries of the TTP and al-Qaeda's funds coming from the Middle East had been blocked.
"The TTP's approach was unique in all aspects and it could have been very hard to trace. First, the TTP gathered information from Mehsud tribal people living in the Middle East. They were mostly skilled and unskilled labors who sent money to their families through hundi [non-banking money transfers]. The TTP contacted these labors, individually, and warned them that a certain percentage of the money they sent to their families should be remitted to the TTP," Malik said.
"We carefully studied the whole mechanism before we moved for a clampdown. The first thread of the strategy was the scanning and subsequent clampdown on illegal money transfers through hundi businesses. We studied all the business deals of the money exchange companies who were mostly involved in such transfers.
"Previously, Pakistan received US$3 billion to $4 billion [in remittances] through banking channels. After our operations on the money exchange companies, you will see that our [foreign exchange] reserves have soared [from $7 billion to $8 billion] to $14 billion to $15 billion as we have not left any choice to the remitters except to send their money through [regular] banking channels," Malik said, implying that the money the country now received from remittances had doubled.
"However, in this broader operation, we traced a triangular syndicate based in Pakistan comprising al-Qaeda, the TTP and the jihadi organizations, like the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi. Sometimes they got financial support from Middle Eastern philanthropists. Our intelligence agencies tracked the whole mechanism of how the money traveled from one hand to the other, so, for instance, money aimed for al-Qaeda benefited the whole syndicate. This syndicate had so strongly knitted its financial arteries together that they [militants] were able to hire a fighter for $500 per month," Malik said.
"After 9/11, security institutions tried to break down financial arteries. They spotted several institutions and successfully blocked their financial support. However, in the past few years, the dynamics of the money supply to those terror networks changed. They split themselves into segments and they developed a human chain network which could pass on cash from one hand to the other.
"In the past year, the situation became more complicated as the financial arteries feeding the insurgencies to this region and to Iraq were merged in our region," Malik said, adding that it happened because after the US military operation in Iraq against al-Qaeda, all top al-Qaeda operators relocated in North Waziristan and South Waziristan.
Having begun the process of strangling the financial lifeblood of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Islamabad now feels it is in a position to go for the jugular with an all-out military offensive. In Pakistan's eyes, this battle will be the start of the endgame. The militants might view it differently, as just the beginning of a real war.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]