Al-Qaeda keeps its eyes on Afghanistan
NORTH-WEST FRONTIER PROVINCE, Pakistan - An al-Qaeda-linked cell led by veteran Kashmiri guerrilla commander Ilyas Kashmiri had completed all plans for the assassination of Pakistan's chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, in 2008, but when the matter was sent to the top al-Qaeda hierarchy for approval, it immediately ordered the plan to be shelved.
Al-Qaeda, the ideologue said, felt at the time that had the assassination attempt been carried out, Pakistan would have been turned into a battle ground between the Pakistani security forces and militants - and the chief beneficiary would have been India and the United States.
Al-Qaeda cells were therefore advised to work on a much broader strategy to defeat the Western forces in Afghanistan. They were told that any al-Qaeda action against Pakistan, India and Iran was not aimed at destabilizing these countries, but to deter them from supporting the US-led "war on terror" in an effort to create a balance in favor of the anti-Western resistance.
As it has turned out, the Pakistani military, largely as a result of US pressure, is conducting a massive military operation against militants in the Swat area of NWFP.
Pakistan has deployed tens of thousands of troops backed by air power to fight about 4,000 militants in Swat and neighboring districts. They are accused of not honoring a peace accord signed in February and last month they advanced toward the capital Islamabad.
On Friday, Bloomberg reported that Pakistani officials had claimed that fighters from Uzbekistan and Chechnya were among foreign forces helping the Taliban. The fighting over the past 10 days has forced nearly 2 million people to flee the area, this in addition to about 500,000 refugees who fled earlier fighting.
Sights on Kiani
Kiani's daily visits to a gym in 2008 were tracked by an al-Qaeda cell, which noted a security breach that left him vulnerable to a suicide bomber as he stepped out of his car. A plan was drawn up to take him out, and a team, picked from Brigade 313's Junudul Fida group, was selected.
But that is as far as it went after al-Qaeda leaders had had their say.
"There is a shariat [Islamic law] under which his murder could have been justified. But then there is a hikmat [strategy] under which his murder could have been a serious blunder," said the ideologue.
"The Pakistan army could then have launched an all-out war in the tribal areas, and we could have retaliated with equal strength. In that process, Pakistan would have become a battleground and enemies like India and the US would have received the chance to intervene. Although in our files Pakistan does not exist, we of course don't want enemies of Islam to take advantage of any situation."
Al-Qaeda's main priority is to use natural landmarks as boundaries against the security forces. The first success has been in securing an area all along the Hindu Kush mountains from Terah Valley in Khyber Agency up to the Turban district of Pakistan's Balochistan province bordering Iran.
The second target is to push Pakistani forces back beyond the Indus River. The source of the Indus is in Tibet; it begins at the confluence of the Sengge and Gar rivers that drain the Nganglong Kangri and Gangdise Shan mountain ranges. The Indus then flows northwest through Ladakh and Baltistan into Gilgit, just south of the Karakoram range. The Shyok River, Shigar and Gilgit streams carry glacial waters into the main river. It gradually bends to the south, coming out of the hills between Peshawar and Rawalpindi in Pakistan.
It essentially means that militants would allow the writ of the state up to Punjab and Sindh provinces, but they want complete control in parts of NWFP and parts of Balochistan.
The ideologue stressed that al-Qaeda doesn't mean any hostility against the state of Pakistan or its state institutions. This message was passed on by al-Qaeda leaders when they met a top Taliban delegation in the North Waziristan tribal agency on the border with Afghanistan a few weeks ago.
The delegation was headed by Mullah Bradar and he conveyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar's message that al-Qaeda hostilities against the Pakistani security forces should be avoided. The delegation even warned al-Qaeda in a muffled way that if hostilities against Pakistan and the Pakistani security forces were not stopped, it would be seen as damaging the cause of Islam.
Al-Qaeda repeated that its goal was to make the Pakistani security forces neutral in the "war on terror". The overall object is to win the war in Afghanistan. To this end, al-Qaeda will continue to engage the security forces in the Swat area.
The simple reason is that al-Qaeda fears that the military, under US pressure, has plans in place to move into North and South Waziristan, where al-Qaeda and the Taliban have key resources vital to their struggle in Afghanistan. So it is better to keep the military pinned down in Swat.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]