The Taliban have Kabul in their sights
KARACHI - As Pakistani politicians scramble to form a coalition government following last week's parliamentary elections, there has been a surge in violence in the Swat Valley and in other parts of North-West Frontier Province, and on Monday a senior army officer was assassinated.
The indications are that whoever takes power in Islamabad - be it the Pakistan People's Party or the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif or a combination of both - the real battle will be in Afghanistan between the Taliban and al-Qaeda-led militants and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its allies.
Army surgeon general Lieutenant General Muhammad Mushtaq Baig and seven other people were killed in a suicide attack in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. It was the most high-profile killing since the death of former premier Benazir Bhutto in the same city last December.
Apart from the Swat Valley, there has been an increase in violence, including bomb blasts, in the North Waziristan tribal area and Bajaur and Manshera agencies, after a brief lull in the runup to the elections. More than a dozen incidents have been reported.
The trigger for this appears to have been planned joint Pakistan-NATO operations in the region against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The militants aim to open up several fronts in Pakistan to dissuade the military from cooperating with NATO.
This situation is an embarrassment to the security apparatus as it was believed that following recent countrywide operations that uncovered militant cells in Karachi, Rawalpindi, Mianwali, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan that the problem was being contained.
The regional war
Asia Times Online investigations show that the Taliban's three-pronged plan for their spring offensive comprises cutting off NATO's supply lines running from Pakistan to Afghanistan, recruiting fresh volunteers and, most importantly, the creation of a strategic corridor running from Pakistan all the way to the capital Kabul.
Since being ousted in 2001 and waging annual spring offensives, this is the first time the Taliban have come up with the idea of creating such a corridor.
The long road to Kabul
As things stand, the Taliban have established pockets of resistance all around Kabul, in addition to more settled pockets across the country. The Taliban roam around freely in the eastern province of Wardak, just 30 kilometers from Kabul.
But now the Taliban want to connect the dots, as it were, to ensure a quick and steady supply of arms and men to reinforce the pockets sufficiently for attacks on the capital.
It is envisaged that the corridor initially starts in Mohmand Agency and Bajaur Agency in Pakistan and then passes through Kunar and Nooristan provinces all the way to the Taghab Valley in Kapisa province in the northeast about 100 kilometers from the capital.
In 2006, the Taliban seized the strategic Taghab Valley - as well as the Musayab Valley to the south of Kabul - with the goal of an assault on the capital, but because of limited supply lines they were only able to maintain their positions for a few months.
This year, the Taliban aim to retake these positions, while having in place secure supply lines starting in the Pakistani tribal areas to maintain a steady stream of men and resources.
Over the past year, the Taliban have increased the number of their fighters in Mohmand Agency to 18,000 and to between 20,000 to 25,000 in Bajaur Agency. Taliban quarters believe this will provide sufficient strength to ensure operation, which is due to run from April to September.
This steady gathering of forces in the two agencies did not go unnoticed by NATO. So, with Pakistani assistance, NATO will increase military operations aimed at nipping the corridor idea in the bud.
American special ground troops have escalated their activities in Kunar and Nooristan provinces and a US base in Kunar, just three kilometers from Bajaur Agency, is now fully operational. Once the operations are in full swing, Pakistan will provide assistance through its air base in Peshawar for attacks on militant bases in the agencies.
"The operation has to start in the month of March as the Taliban have to launch their operation in April," a Pakistani security official told Asia Times Online.
However, Pakistan's plans could still be derailed. A powerful lawyers' movement is scheduled to launch protests on March 9 to pressure the new government into ousting President Pervez Musharraf. This would certainly delay any decision on Pakistan taking on the militants in a big way.
The lawyers are agitating for the reinstatement of members of the higher judiciary "who ceased to be judges" after Musharraf imposed emergency rule on November 3. Musharraf also suspended chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry last March,a move that set off country-wide protests.
Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, will be doing its best to fuel these flames to force Pakistan to back off and leave the way clear for the Taliban's corridor.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]