Militants ready for a war without borders
KARACHI - From thinly disguised insinuations against Pakistan following the suicide attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul this month to outright accusations against Islamabad by the Afghan government over the unrelenting Taliban-led insurgency, the blame game has entered a critical time: a major regional battle could erupt in a matter of days.
Last week, US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen paid a sudden visit to Pakistan during which he revealed to Pakistani leaders and military officials the possibility of surgical strikes on Taliban and al-Qaeda networks operating in the border regions and that coalition forces in Afghanistan would not hesitate to conduct hot-pursuit raids into Pakistan.
Mullen urged Pakistani leaders to play their part from their side. He pin-pointed the North and South Waziristan tribal areas as a focal point, along with the areas of Razmak, Shawal, Ghulam Khan and Angor Ada along the border with Afghanistan. Across the divide, Khost province is considered a likely target for carpet bombing and an offensive by the Afghan National Army.
Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani was quick to call in senior strategic analysts, who pointed out that the military would only follow the directions of the civilian government. Yet just days earlier, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gillani had announced that all decisions concerning military operations would be decided by the army chief. This does not bode well for Pakistan's whole-hearted cooperation.
But regardless of how sincerely the Pakistani army fights against the Taliban, the fact is that the Taliban have already staged a virtual coup in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) bordering Afghanistan.
They have established a reign of terror against which the state writ is powerless. In all districts, the Taliban have taken security officials hostage to press their demands that a strict Islamic code be enforced. Many officials have been killed when the Taliban's wishes have not been granted.
As a result, the middle and lower members of the security forces are effectively non-functional and answer to the Taliban's call across NWFP.
This has left the secular and relatively liberal government of the province, led by the Awami National Party, with no choice but to form "defense committees" at the district level to organize civilians against a complete Taliban take-over.
Across the border, a similar situation exists in Ghazni province, close to the capital Kabul, where, apart from the provincial headquarters, the Taliban call the shots in all districts once dusk descends - the district administrations and the police simply give up control, giving the Taliban freedom of movement.
In Kunar and Nooristan provinces, the Taliban are fighting for similar dominance and already most security checkpoints have been abandoned out of fear of the Taliban.
On Monday, a high-level al-Qaeda shura (council) concluded in Miramshah in North Waziristan with instructions to all members with families to retreat to safe locations in expectation of the Afghan war spreading into Pakistan's tribal areas.
Not that this alarms al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. They reason that should coalition forces seriously enter into Pakistan (they have in the past sent unmanned Predator drones on raids into Pakistan), the reaction in Pakistan, even among liberals, would be so fierce that the Pakistani army would not dare to follow up with action of its own. This would leave the militants with a free hand to launch operations inside Afghanistan.
The shura also noted that militant ranks in the region had received their biggest boost since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, including growing numbers from Muslim countries.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]