US, Pakistan mission on target
KARACHI - Ahead of their groundbreaking meeting in Washington this week, the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Michael Hayden, and the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, will be buoyed by the killing of an al-Qaeda leader in Pakistan.
Militant sources have confirmed to Asia Times Online that Moroccan Khalid Habib, the head of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, was killed two weeks ago in a missile attack by an unmanned US Predator drone in the South Waziristan tribal area. His death has not been officially confirmed by either Islamabad or Washington.
The meeting between Hayden and Pasha is significant in that under the rule of president General Pervez Musharraf up until the end of last year, the ISI - which was frequently accused of having pro-militant tendencies - was kept away from US intelligence at the top level, with Musharraf personally handling all tactical matters.
The two top spymasters are expected to discuss a policy under which Pakistan and the US will continue to aggressively go after top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in an attempt to weed out hardliners from the Afghan national resistance and pave the way for communication with the remaining "moderates". The killing of Khalid is a notable success under this plan.
To date this year, the US has launched 25 cross-border attacks from Afghanistan into Pakistan, compared with 10 strikes in 2006 and 2007 combined. Eighteen of these attacks - most of them by drones - have occurred since August 31.
Soon after the meeting between Hayden and Pasha, General David Petraeus, the new US strategic commander for both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, will visit Pakistan to finalize military plans in light of the intelligence sharing that took place in Washington.
Khalid was installed as the chief of al-Qaeda in Pakistan by Osama bin Laden after the death in January of Abu Ubaida al-Misri (Abdul Hameed) through hepatitis. Abu Ubaida had been declared Ameer-i-Khuruj (commander for a mass rebellion) after the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation in Islamabad last July, in which a mosque with strong ties to militants was stormed by the security forces.
Khalid's task was to continue the coordination between various militant groups for a war against US interests as well as the pro-US government in Pakistan. The initiative was behind the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto last December.
Khalid, who was listed by the CIA as the fourth-ranking person in al-Qaeda's hierarchy, was successful in consolidating ties at a regional level between al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani militants, a grouping that has emerged as the neo-Taliban. These militants have absorbed al-Qaeda's ideology of global struggle, while at the same time defending al-Qaeda's and the Taliban's bases against military operations, apart from the insurgency in Afghanistan.
There is no inkling yet of who will replace Khalid, who had staunchly resisted any notion of dialogue between the Taliban and the Western coalition.
With Khalid dead, the next likely target is veteran Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose suspected bases in North Waziristan have been targeted on several occasions. Jalaluddin is the spiritual leader of the Haqqani network and a legendary figure of the Afghan mujahideen's struggle against the Soviets during the 1980s. Several of his family and aides have been killed in the attacks, but both Jalaluddin and his son Sirajuddin remain at large, possibly even in urban areas in Pakistan.
Former Afghan premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar could also be on the hit list. He is a former friend of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and had been contacted by Kabul through intermediaries over the possibility of initiating dialogue with the Taliban.
However, he refuses to become involved in any back-channel discussions for peace until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan, although he did assure Karzai that once the foreigners left, he would work with his administration in the political mainstream.
Hekmatyar, given his past links with the Pakistani establishment, was also approached by Pakistan, but he refused point-blank to talk with President Asif Ali Zardari's administration, branding him and the Pakistani military establishment as American agents.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org