US homes in on militants in Pakistan
KARACHI - Another piece of the United States' regional jigsaw is in place with the completion of a military base in Afghanistan's Kunar province, just three kilometers from Bajaur Agency in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Pakistani intelligence quarters have confirmed to Asia Times Online that the base, on a mountain top in Ghakhi Pass overlooking Pakistan, is now operational. (This correspondent visited the area last July and could clearly see construction underway. See A fight to the death on Pakistan's border Asia Times Online, July 17, 2007.)
The new US base is expected to serve as the center of clandestine special forces' operations in the border region. The George W Bush administration is itching to take more positive action - including inside Pakistan - against Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda militants increasingly active in the area and bolstering the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has officially rejected US proposals to expand the US presence in Pakistan, either through unilateral covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations or by joint operations with Pakistani security forces, but this is not necessarily the end of the matter, especially as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates. According to reports, Mike McConnell, the director of US national intelligence, and CIA director General Michael Hayden visited Pakistan this month to meet with Musharraf.
A senior Pakistani security official explained to Asia Times Online, "American special forces have carried out clandestine operations in the past, and Pakistan was not informed. The Taliban and al-Qaeda also did not realize what was happening with the quick-as-a-wink hit-and-run operations in the tribal areas. Pakistani intelligence only knew of the operations after they happened. They included the killing of high-value Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders and high-value arrests," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"However, with the new Kunar base, American special forces will carry out extended operations, which means a limited war against Taliban and al-Qaeda assets in the tribal areas. These clandestine operations can be done with or without Pakistan's consent."
In response, the initial militant action is expected to be the relocation of its key leadership away from the immediate danger area. Efforts to disrupt the vital supply lines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)from Pakistan into Afghanistan will be stepped up. A further option is to increase terror operations inside Pakistan as a warning that the militants should be left alone.
The Taliban leadership is aware of the danger posed by the new American base. Several powerful attacks were mounted while it was under construction, but they only managed to cause delays.
The pressing problem is to find a new safe haven for the high profile al-Qaeda leadership. The area on both sides of the border - the Chitral - is characterized by inhospitable jungles and mazes of mountains and rivers, stretching from Noorestan and Kunar provinces in Afghanistan to the Bajaur Valley. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is known to have stayed in the area. It is now a question of finding a safer location for him - if he is still in the area - and his colleagues.
US intelligence spotted bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, twice in Bajaur Agency and attacked the area with Predator drones. Zawahiri was unscathed, but several militants and civilians were killed. Local Taliban sources tell Asia Times Online that Zawahiri had been moving in the area for more than 30 hours before he was spotted and targeted. Apparently, he was to meet with bin Laden.
Going after NATO's arteries
When Pakistani militants occupied Pakistan's strategic tunnel, which connects Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to the cantonment town of Kohat in NWFP, the aim was to attack military convoys. These, the Taliban realized, were transporting supplies to Kohat air base, from where they were being flown to the American base in Khost in Afghanistan.
This move has effectively opened a new front in Kohat and Darra Adam Khel - the biggest arms and ammunition-manufacturing area in the region. There were four attacks last week.
Another senior security official told Asia Times Online, "Pakistan has conceded to many of the [Pakistani] Taliban's demands for peace, such as the release of fellow tribesmen. But if they demand something like the closure of NATO's supply lines from Pakistan, it is beyond Pakistan's orbit. The Americans sought Pakistan's cooperation [in the "war on terror"] , in return they pledged billions of dollars in aid. But they wanted steady supply lines for NATO forces in Afghanistan," the official said.
"Pakistan has stretched itself to the limit for the sake of peace in the country, it has even struck deals with al-Qaeda for it to stop attacking Pakistan. But if they [al-Qaeda and militants] don't appreciate Pakistan's interests and compulsions, then, like [US President George W] Bush said after 9/11, defeat is not an option. This is 2008, and we have the world's most modern army and equipment. This is not the time of British India, when only a regiment could fight against tribals, and defeat them. We can spare far more force and if we want to, we can destroy them," the official said.
Change in militants' tactics
Last week, militants used improvised explosive devices near Peshawar to blow up a military convoy. This is the first such incident of its kind near a city against the Pakistani army. Previously, such events only happened in the tribal areas.
This indicates that while the tribesmen might be facing a modern army, rather than the thin British force of years ago, the army now faces an urban guerrilla battle, not one limited to remote mountains.
Clearly, the militants, linked to a particular branch of al-Qaeda called the Tafkiris, are preparing for an Iraq-style guerrilla battle against Pakistan. The Tafkiris - who class as infidels all non-practicing Muslims - include Tahir Yuldashev, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Sheikh Essa, Pakistani Baitullah Mehsud and some factions of banned Pakistani militant organizations.
The overriding objective of the Tafkiris goes beyond simple terror attacks. They aim to force Islamabad to either follow their dictates or become ensnared in the conflict against NATO. Better. Pakistan would stand neutral in this regional war theater. (See Military brains plot Pakistan's downfall Asia Times Online, September 26, 2007.)
Last Saturday, Pakistani security forces unearthed a militant cell operating from the military city of Rawalpindi and recovered a huge cache of weapons. It is believed militants were planning devastating attacks on military installations. However, massive terrors operations in the federal capital of Islamabad are the biggest fear. Some believe these might be just round the corner.
But the real danger is the aim to drive a wedge between Islamabad and the NATO-Washington nexus, which would leave Pakistan potentially fatally exposed to the militants.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]