Al-Qaeda's got a brand new bag
WASHINGTON - Al-Qaeda is back - with a vengeance of sorts. Listen to Mustafa Abu al-Yazeed - a senior al-Qaeda commander in Afghanistan, in a very rare interview with Pakistan's Geo TV, shot in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan.
"At this stage this is our understanding - that there is no difference between the American people and the American government itself. If we see this through sharia [Islamic] law, American people and the government itself are infidels and are fighting against Islam. We have to rely on suicide attacks which are absolutely correct according to Islamic law. We have adopted this way of war because there is a huge difference between our material resources and our enemy's, and this is the only option to attack our enemy."
The interview is not only about defensive jihad. Yazeed delves into classic al-Qaeda strategy - inciting a cross-border Taliban jihad against the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces and blasting a state, in this case the government of Pakistan. According to him, "Sadly, it is the government of Pakistan which has most damaged our cause. President [Pervez] Musharraf violated the trust of Muslims and contributed to the destruction of the Islamic government of Afghanistan ... Musharraf and his government have made big mistakes, there is no such example in other Islamic states."
Yazeed also said al-Qaeda was responsible for the suicide car bombing on the Danish Embassy in Islamabad in early June, when six people were killed.
So why is al-Qaeda feeling so emboldened to have one of its top commanders on camera - and on a foreign TV network to boot, not as-Sahab, al-Qaeda's media arm?
I want my emirate
Jihadis now assess that the new Afghan jihad - against the "infidel" US and NATO troops combined - is more important at the moment than Iraq. So in this sense, Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama has got it right - Afghanistan, and not Iraq, is "the central front in the war on terror".
But it's much more complicated than that. The central front is actually in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda basically wants a pan-Islamic caliphate. The neo-Taliban, based in Pakistan, are not that ambitious. They already have their Islamic Emirate - it is in the Waziristan tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. What they want most of all is to expand it. They also know they would never stand a chance of taking over the whole of Pakistan. A Pakistani expert on the tribal areas, currently in Washington, describes it as "a class struggle - almost like an evolving peasant revolution. Baitullah Mehsud [the neo-Pakistani Taliban leader] is but a peasant from a poor family."
What is startling is that the neo-Taliban are now practically in control of North-West Frontier Province on the border with Afghanistan - whose capital is fabled Peshawar. They already control several Peshawar suburbs.
The Pakistani state has virtually no power in these areas. The Taliban enforce strict sharia law. If local security people refuse to obey, they are simply killed. No wonder the neo-Taliban now have subdued scores of middle- and low-ranking Pakistani officials. They even issued a deadline to the new secular and relatively progressive regional government to release all Taliban prisoners - or else. As for the government, the only thing it can do is to organize some sort of neighborhood watch to prevent total Taliban supremacy. This state of affairs also reveals how the Pakistani army seems to be powerless - or unwilling - to fight the Taliban.
Across the border, in Kunar and Nuristan provinces in Afghanistan, the Taliban now control almost all security checkpoints. No wonder Yazeed - speaking for al-Qaeda, envisions a war without borders. He said, in his Geo TV interview, "Yes, we cannot separate the tribal area people from Afghanistan which are part of Pakistan and the Pakistani people. Yes, we are getting support from tribal people in Pakistan, and in fact it is obligatory for them to render this help and it is a responsibility that is imposed by religion. It is not only obligatory for residents of the tribal regions but all of Pakistan."
In a recent high-profile al-Qaeda meeting in Miramshah in North Waziristan, the al-Qaeda leadership made it clear it not only expects - it wants the new Afghan war/jihad to spill over to the tribal areas in Pakistan.
And this is what al-Qaeda will get - according to what Obama told CBS News' Lara Logan, "... what I've said is that if we had actionable intelligence against high-value al-Qaeda targets and the Pakistani government was unwilling to go after those targets, then we should."
The Pentagon for its part is preparing the battlefield - it has already sent Predator drones, repeatedly, over the tribal areas. An air war is in the works - not to mention scores of Pentagon covert special ops.
Al-Qaeda's strategy is to suck in the US military - this is classic Osama bin Laden ideology, according to which the US should be dragged to fight in Muslim lands. Al-Qaeda is reasoning that an attack on the tribal areas, in fact a real third front in the "war on terror" (so dreaded by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen) will have Pakistani public opinion so outraged that the Pakistani army would be powerless to follow the US track. And al-Qaeda, in the end, would be left with an even freer hand.
Obama and Osama
How does that fabled phantom, bin Laden, fit into this strategy? Is he alive or just ... a phantom? Hassan Ibrahim from al-Jazeera television recently told independent journalist Kristina Borjesson "bin Laden is alive. The kidney failure and dialysis machine stories are nonsense, CIA rumors. In 2002 one of his wives was interviewed for a Saudi magazine and she categorically denied the dialysis story. After Tora Bora [in Afghanistan when the US invaded in 2001], his fourth wife asked for a divorce. He took on a new wife in April 2005, with whom he now has a son. Her father is a powerful Saudi businessman from Hejaz who announced in his mosque that his daughter had married bin Laden."
There's also chatter in the jihadi underground related to an ongoing theological debate with direct participation by bin Laden.
Obama for his part still cannot have grasped the full, complex, picture of what is going on the tribal areas - in his current world tour he's only been to Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, and only for a few hours. But he's on a learning curve - although, for the moment, he seems to be playing to the US military establishment galleries, pledging to add 10,000 US combat troops to the Afghan theater of war. Al-Qaeda will be delighted.
What Obama has certainly accomplished for now is a certified three-pointer - turning George W Bush administration and neo-conservative rhetoric about the "war on terror" in Iraq upside down and applying it to Afghanistan. Obama has been emphasizing the "growing consensus at home that we need more resources in Afghanistan".
In his press conference in Jordan, Obama also emphasized his decision to make Afghanistan the first stop on his world tour because it's the "central front in the war on terror," the place "where 9/11 was planned" and where "terrorists" are "plotting new attacks against the United States".
And here's the clincher - straight out of the neo-con playbook, "We have to succeed in taking the fight to the terrorists." But that's not all. Obama's political jiu-jitsu has mixed this hardcore rhetoric with a global, multilateral vision - not to mention forcing Republicans to accept his own take on the "war on terror". As for the tribal areas, he projects the impression he is allowing himself time to fully understand their complexity.
So what's left to self-described national security expert and Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain? Well, he did manage to tell ABC's Diane Sawyer the new al-Qaeda and Taliban configuration is "a very hard struggle, particularly giving the situation in the Iraq-Pakistan border".
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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