Ceasefire: A lull before the storm

Posted in Broader Middle East , Pakistan | 11-Feb-08 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

Pakistani soldiers.
PESHAWAR, North-West Frontier Province - The ceasefire deal between the Pakistani security forces and a leading member of the al-Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, brokered by two stalwart Afghan commanders who persuaded Mehsud to stay in Afghanistan, is just the lull before a big storm and the beginning of a new chapter of militancy in Pakistan.

On Thursday, the government officially announced a ceasefire in the restive South Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan. At the same time, Mehsud's spokesperson announced a ceasefire throughout the country.

"A ceasefire has been agreed. This is why there has been little by way of major exchange of fire in the past few days," a senior Pakistani official said on Thursday night.

Over the past few months, Mehsud, a hardline Takfiri - a believer in waging war against any non-practicing Muslims - has become isolated from the Taliban leadership, with Mullah Omar "sacking" him because of his fixation in waging war against the Pakistan state. Mehsud has widely been accused of complicity in the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpinidi on December 27.

The ceasefire deal, brokered by Taliban commanders Sirajuddin Haqqani and Maulvi Bakhta Jan, is face-saving for both the militants and the security forces and provides them with breathing space; they had reached a stalemate in South Waziristan.

The militants had laid siege to the main military camps at Razmak Fort and Ladha, and were firing missiles and mortars from three sides into the camps, at the same time cutting off their supply lines.

Earlier, commandos from Pakistan's Special Services Group launched an operation to catch Mehsud, but the mission only resulted in them losing several score men and the militants about a dozen.

At this point, Islamabad reached the conclusion that its only option was to unleash an aerial assault on suspected militant camps. However, local tribal elders intervened and assured the authorities they would get Mehsud to retreat.

Once this was guaranteed, the authorities accepted with alacrity, mindful of the parliamentary elections scheduled for February 18 and the demoralization of their troops in the bitterly cold weather and harsh terrain.

It's not over yet
The Afghan Taliban see the ceasefire as the ideal opportunity to step up their preparations for their annual spring offensive - they rely heavily on the Pakistan border areas for manpower and provisions.

Acutely aware of this, the US State Department has indicated its disapproval of the ceasefire. A ceasefire in North Waziristan in September 2006 - after partial ones beginning in April of that year - led to the Taliban's strongest showing in the battlefield since being ousted in 2001.

Even before Thursday's ceasefire, the Taliban's preparations in the strategic backyard of Pakistan were well underway. This included the isolation of Mehsud and appointing a new team of commanders in the Pakistani tribal areas. Most of the new appointments are Afghans, to signify the importance of fighting a war in Afghanistan rather than in Pakistan. The two main commanders are Abdul Wali in Bajaur Agency and Ustad Yasir in Khyber Agency.

A key component of the Taliban's offensive this year will be to counter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) plans against them and al-Qaeda.

Last year, the New York Times published a story of a classified US military proposal to intensify efforts to enlist tribal leaders in the frontier areas of Pakistan in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This was to be part of a broader effort to bolster the Pakistani forces against an expanding militancy, US military officials said.

This would include pumping more military trainers into Pakistan, providing direct finance to a tribal paramilitary force that until now has proved largely ineffective, and providing funds for smaller militias to fight against the militants. The US currently has only about 50 troops in Pakistan, according to the Pentagon, and this number could grow by dozens under the new approach.

A contact affiliated with al-Qaeda told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity, "Pakistan has already tried to revive an outdated tribal system to counter the Taliban, but by killing tribal elders in Waziristan, the Taliban effectively stopped that scheme. Now the Americans and the Pakistani government are working on tribal elders of the Shinwari and Afirdi tribes of Khyber Agency, which is the main route of NATO supplies to Afghanistan. Approximately 80% of supplies pass through this route.

"But since the Taliban want to chop off NATO supplies from Pakistan into Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban have warned these tribal elders to stay away from the conflict. However, the elders have received huge bribes [funds] from NATO, and so they are obsessed with providing protection to the supply convoys. Therefore, the Taliban will increase their activities in Khyber Agency, which means a war with the elders of the Shinwari and Afirdi tribes," the contact said.

The second sector of Taliban activity will be in Nooristan and Kunar provinces in Afghanistan, where US forces are conducting huge counter-insurgency operations.

"This year, the Taliban will focus their main attention on a new plan specifically aimed at Kunar and Nooristan. The details of the plan cannot be revealed at this point," said the contact.

The contact said that the al-Qaeda camp in Pakistan is convinced that American pressure will be so strong that the ceasefire will not be long-term.

This perception is not without substance. Wana military airfield in South Waziristan and Miranshah airfield in North Waziristan have been upgraded from makeshift airstrips into proper runways with backup facilities, which indicate plans for a powerful air operation.

The deployment of US forces at Lowari Mandi and Ghulman Khan checkpoints (both on the Afghan side of the border near North Waziristan) and the construction of a new military camp near Shawal (North Waziristan), on the Afghan side, indicate that the US is not planning on peace for very long.

The only real issue is which side will strike first, and where.

PART 2: The next battlefield

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com