Taliban Sanctuaries Must End to Resolve Conflict

Friday, 21 May 2010 03:17 PM

By Arnaud De Borchgrave

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The Pakistani army showed no hesitation about pursuing and killing Taliban insurgents everywhere except in North Waziristan, one of the seven tribal areas where different terrorist groups have long enjoyed a privileged sanctuary.

When Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was in Washington six weeks ago, he briefed his American interlocutors on the army's plan for North Waziristan. He didn't want to produce another flood of refugees and his Special Forces were operating stealthily against known hideouts in the tribal agencies. Close, but no cigar.

The bottom line, which he couldn't spell out without betraying the Inter-Services Intelligence agency: Some of the insurgent groups, such as the Taliban, operating against the United States and NATO in Afghanistan continue to maintain secret links with ISI, the organization that midwifed them in the first place in the early 1990s.

Pakistan was also one of only three countries (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the other two) that recognized the Taliban regime when it took over most of the country in 1996, until toppled by the U.S. invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Kayani agreed "in principle" to large-scale operations in North Waziristan but on Pakistan's own time line. This wasn't good enough for the U.S. side. The longer the Taliban enjoys privileged sanctuaries in North Waziristan, the longer the U.S. and NATO forces will remain stuck in an inconclusive conflict.

The state of Pakistan has borne the brunt of harboring terrorists, including the sectarian variety, for many years. Now that the state is finally taking some terrorists head on, it is already well past the time when the sectarian outfits should be brought to book for spreading hate and murderous terror throughout the country. The banned sectarian organizations like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan are now part and parcel of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

TTP has now provided a common umbrella for most of the banned sectarian and militant organizations. Both LJ and TTP claimed responsibility for recent terrorist attacks. This was further evidence that Qari Hussain now holds a commanding position within the TTP. He is known as Ustad-e-Fedayeen or master-trainer of suicide bombers. He is also known for his anti-Shiite sectarian stance. Indirect contacts with Taliban by this reporter reveal that the militants consider Shiite Muslims as potential security risks. They say Shiites, being fundamentally anti-Taliban, have been spying on them.

After being kicked out of the Mehsud area of South Waziristan by the Pakistani army, and moving to North Waziristan (which the army has spared thus far), TTP-LJ is now forcing out Shiites and warning them they would be killed if they attempted to return later.

The militants in North Waziristan, led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, are constantly being referred to as "pro-government" or nonlethal due to their Afghan-specific militancy. When we hear he is in army custody that simply means he is conferring with his ISI handlers.

The army claims to have trounced TTP militants in Bajaur and Mohmand agencies but ongoing incidents of government schools destroyed and the assassination of anti-Taliban tribal chiefs in these two tribal zones disprove official claims.

It is now increasingly obvious that the army's hesitancy over North Waziristan is what prompted U.S. national security adviser James L. Jones and CIA Director Leon Panetta to cancel speaking engagements and suddenly fly off to Islamabad for another session with Pak Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. He had headed a high-powered delegation to Washington six weeks ago and the U.S. side understood the army would roll over North Waziristan in the very near future. The overall objective is to deprive the Afghan Taliban of its safe havens in the tribal agencies along the border.

The more military pressure on the Taliban, the better the chance of a favorable negotiated settlement. No one believes Taliban can be defeated with a clear victory for Western coalition forces.

Talks about talks have been under way ever since Saudi King Abdallah hosted a dinner for both sides in Mecca Sept. 27, 2008. One of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brothers and the former foreign minister of Taliban represented the two sides.

More recently, seven Talibanis have been meeting in the Maldives islands in the Indian Ocean with several representatives of the U.S.-backed Kabul government. A three-sided coalition of Taliban, including neutrals aligned with neither side, and Karzai's representatives, is being talked about in U.N. circles in Kabul.

The average Afghan has little use for a Taliban regime. But one also hears the refrain that a reformed Taliban is preferable to an endless war. Reformed would mean medieval theocrats who would not allow al-Qaida to stage an Afghan comeback, but would allow girls to go to school, and boys to have educational opportunities besides madrassas.

For the immediate future, the White House is worried about Pakistan's faltering military campaign in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas against TTP, the terrorist organization that seeks to reconquer Afghanistan. It has killed almost 10,000 Pakistanis in the past three years. But first they have to be defeated in FATA in general and North Waziristan in particular.

Since the Pakistani army pushed the insurgents back from 60 miles outside the capital of Islamabad, rolled them out of the Swat valley and moved into two of FATA's seven tribal areas — Bajaur and South Waziristan — men and equipment are exhausted, short of critical equipment. They have only a dozen old Russian helicopters to move troops around some of the world's most forbidding terrain.

Black Hawk helicopters are flown in 42 countries but the United States can't spare any from the Iraq and Afghan theaters and other commitments in Djibouti, South Korea, and the Persian Gulf. Pakistani pilots have long been regarded as among the best in the developing world.

Not winning in a counterinsurgency campaign like Afghanistan is tantamount to losing. Resupplying widely scattered troop contingents from 42 countries has become a logistical nightmare. The United States now has 87,000 troops in Afghanistan alongside 47,000 soldiers from other countries. There are 400 U.S. and coalition bases in Afghanistan — from the huge Bagram air base to small camps, forward operating bases and isolated combat posts.

President Barack Obama is committed to start bringing troops home from Afghanistan by July 2011. Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, and others don't plan to stay longer.



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