Taliban win a fight - and settle scores
KARACHI - When several hundred Pakistani troops backed by paramilitary forces on Friday launched an operation against militants in Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, they received a most unwelcome surprise.
News of the offensive, which proved to be the most bloody this year in Pakistan, had been leaked to the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda militants by sympathizers in the security forces, and the army walked into a literal hail of bullets.
Contacts familiar with the militants told Asia Times Online that every hill had observers as the first military convoys entered Bajaur - the main corridor leading to the Afghan provinces of Kunar, Nooristan, Kapisa and the capital Kabul - and they were quickly under attack.
In just a few hours, 65 soldiers were killed, 25 were taken prisoner and scores more were wounded. Under air cover, the soldiers retreated, leaving behind five vehicles and a tank, which are now part of the arsenal of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
On Tuesday, the Pakistan Air Force, whose air power played a central role in the Bajaur operation, was on the receiving end. Once again on the basis of precise information, eight airmen were killed in a suicide attack near Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Limited fighting continued on Wednesday. The government said that 200 militants had been killed, but a Taliban spokesman confirmed only seven dead. The remainder, he said, were civilians killed during aerial bombardments.
Unconfirmed reports said leading al-Qaeda military commander Abu Saeed al-Masri had been killed. He is said to be number three in the group behind Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, and if indeed he is dead it would be a major setback for al-Qaeda.
The fierce militant response against the army, which is under heavy pressure from the United States to be more proactive, was under the unified command of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, whose base is in the South Waziristan tribal area. The hardline Baitullah does not believe in "limited war" - his goal is full-scale war across the country. Bajaur could be the beginning of this.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Moulvi Omar issued a statement claiming responsibility for the Peshawar attack and warned of more across the country in reaction to the Bajaur offensive.
However, the militants' current tactics are different from those of previous years when they reacted within a few hours or days. Now, the militants spend more time waiting for information on their "daunting foe", the Pakistani security forces and the government, so they can decide on their targets and cause maximum damage. Much of this information comes from informants in the security forces.
In the broader picture, al-Qaeda decides when to switch on the attacks or switch them off in their own version of war and peace. This is the new face of the neo-Taliban - more radical and more strategic - raised on al-Qaeda ideology.
These neo-Taliban don't forget, either.
On Wednesday morning, Haji Namdar, the chief of the "Vice and Virtue" organization in Khyber Agency, a tribal region on the Afghan border, was gunned down in his office by Baitullah's men.
Although Namdar supported the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, he was a strategic asset for the Pakistani security agencies trying to wipe out al-Qaeda-influenced radicals and the neo-Taliban.
In April, he sold out the Taliban after initially agreeing to help them target the North Atlantic Treaty Organization supply lines passing through Khyber Agency. (See Taliban bitten by a snake in the grass Asia Times Online, April 26, 2008.) Namdar had survived an earlier suicide attack in which about 30 people died.
Namdar's death leaves the Pakistani security agencies and the government with only one "precious asset" - Haji Nazeer in South Waziristan. Other than him, they have no choice but to deal with Baitullah's radical face.
Economic and political chaos
Apart from the Peshawar Valley, the whole Pashtun-dominated region of NWFP is effectively under the control of the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies. The chaotic state of the economy plays into their hands as people become increasing disgruntled.
Inflation is running at 25% a year, the Karachi stock exchange has lost 35% of its value since April, there are frequent electricity shutdowns and foreign exchange reserves have fallen from US$17 billion last year to $9 billion, barely enough to cover imports for three months.
These economic woes are compounded by an ongoing political crisis which al-Qaeda is already exploiting.
Zawahiri has issued an audio message critical of President Pervez Musharraf, who is under pressure to resign or else face impeachment. A leading militant from the Swat area, Muslim Khan, has issued a statement that anyone who supports Musharraf during an impeachment process would become the Taliban's enemy. Musharraf is the United States' point man in the South Asian theater of the "war on terror".
In a similar manner, when a military junta recently ousted Mauritania's president Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, al-Qaeda immediately called for a jihad in the North African country to establish Islamic rule. As with Pakistan, this is a bid by al-Qaeda to pitch itself as the only viable choice in Muslim countries.
The Bajaur showdown plays into this scenario. The Pakistani military, as it has every time in other operations in the tribal areas over the past few years, will pull back. Prisoners will be swapped and a hollow ceasefire will be agreed on, backed by cash inducements for the militants and more military aid for Pakistan from the United States.
Battle will break out again. In the meanwhile, the Taliban will increase their strength and boundaries, and al-Qaeda's ideology will draw in new recruits.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org