Pakistan, US raise militant tempo
KARACHI - With the United States missile attack on an important Taliban compound in Azam Warsak village in the South Waziristan tribal area in the early hours of Thursday, a new phase in the regional "war on terror" - joint Pakistan-North Atlantic Treaty Organization strikes - has begun.
The attack is also a stark reminder to the newly elected Pakistani politicians who recently put their weight firmly in favor of dialogue rather than military operations against militants. This underscores their limited role in the coming months in concentrating on domestic issues while the bigger battles are dealt with by NATO and the Pakistani military command.
The pre-dawn strike by an unmanned US Predator drone demolished a building, killing up to 12 suspected militants. Asia Times Online contacts in the area claim that the drone took off from Peshawar airfield, making it the first Pakistan-NATO military strike.
The attack came as a big surprise to militants as it was a most secret and highly important militant compound: it was disguised as a madrassa (seminary).
Pakistan sifts through election aftermath that NATO and Pakistan have agreed on joint offensives.
Two days after the ATol report, the New York Times ran a similar story, saying that US officials had reached an understanding last month with Pakistan's leaders, including President Pervez Musharraf, of the need to intensify strikes against suspected militants using pilotless aircraft launched in Pakistan. Previously, such raids originated across the border in Afghanistan. Officially, Pakistan says it does not allow the US to operate on its territory.
Learning to fight
Madrassas like the one struck in Azam Warsak are spread all over the border area and nothing is really taught - they are used as a cover by militants.
The tradition of such madrassas is as old as the Afghan resistance against the Soviets in the 1980s. They are portrayed as local centers of basic Islamic learning, and, indeed, youngsters attend them to recite the Koran in the mornings, and people gather five times a day to prayer in adjacent mosques.
But in reality they are used by militants for the transfer of weapons and for high-level meetings.
The madrassa hit on Thursday was, according to ATol contacts, used several weeks ago by Baitullah Mehsud - accused of masterminding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last December - and Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior Taliban commander. It is also said to have been used by Tahir Yuldashev, head of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Such madrassas rarely feature on the radars of US intelligence as they are only used for short meetings, stays or transfers. They are never used for training purposes or for prolonged stays or as hideouts.
The Azam Warsak madrassa was also used for launching guerrilla operations in Paktika province across the border, hence it was stocked with missiles and rockets. It is believed that a fresh group of militants had gathered at the madrassa on Wednesday for such an attack.
The regional theater
There has been widespread speculation that since Pakistan's newly elected politicians have resolved to seek Musharraf's dismissal for his role in the "war on terror" and because of their call for dialogue with militants, operations to preempt the Taliban's spring offensive might be put on hold.
But this does not appear to be the case and preparations are in full swing for coordinated offensives in the region.
On Tuesday, General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the General Staff of the British army, called on the Corps Commander Peshawar, Lieutenant General Muhammad Masood Aslam, at his headquarters.
According to a Pakistani military press release, Aslam apprised Dannatt of the Pakistani army's role in fighting against militancy and terrorism. He was also briefed on development activities undertaken by the army in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Dannatt also visited Peshawar airfield, which will play a central role in the coming months.
Thursday's strike therefore serves as a reminder to militants that, despite what politicians might say, they can expect no breathing space and that a ceasefire is not an option. That is, the changing of the government in Islamabad has nothing to do with the "war on terror".
A top al-Qaeda member of Pakistani origin summed it up in commenting to ATol on condition of anonymity, "We were eyeing developments in Islamabad after the elections [last week] but it seems that nothing is going to change and our new strategy will surface like broad daylight in the coming few days."
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]