Bring 'em on: Militants in Pakistan await US
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - Efforts by the Pakistani establishment to defuse the volatile situation in its tribal areas have failed, despite the carrot of large amounts of money being dangled before the Pakistani Taliban there.
Islamabad is now caught between militants spoiling for a fight and US and coalition troops in Afghanistan ready to give them one - and there is little Pakistan can now do to prevent this from happening.
"There is no chance for any peace deal that allows Pakistani troops to stay in the tribal areas. If this situation allows NATO
[North Atlantic Treaty Organization] to enter Pakistan, let them come. It is better to fight against NATO than to fight Pakistani troops. But if they fight together against us, we are ready for that too," Rasool Dawar told Asia Times Online from the North Waziristan tribal agency on the border with Afghanistan.
Dawar is a close associate of Moulvi Sadiq Noor, one of the several hardline Pakistani al-Qaeda leaders who have taken control of the militancy in the area, along with the Pakistani Taliban. Another prominent commander is Moulvi Abdul Khaliq.
As if to back up Dawar's words, on Wednesday militants fired several rockets into the town of Bannu in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), killing 10 people and injuring more than 40.
Since President General Pervez Musharraf sent in the troops against the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad this month to root out militants, Pakistan has sent thousands of troops to the tribal areas, where they have been met with open hostility resulting in the death of scores of military personnel.
The United States has seized the opportunity to threaten its own military action on Pakistani soil against militant targets, which Washington says includes al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Other emerging young al-Qaeda leaders include Gul Bahadur and Baitullah Mehsud. Their opposition is centered in North Waziristan and South Waziristan, where they aim to expel Pakistani troops (or any others who might venture there). In addition, they support the Taliban movement in the cities of Bannu, Tank, Dera Ismail Khan, Swat Valley (all in NWFP) and nearby Bajaur Agency. The ultimate objective is to boot Musharraf from power.
Asia Times Online has learned of increased Pakistani military activity in the Waziristans in preparation for a large-scale operation, possibly augmented by NATO forces from across the border in Afghanistan.
However, given the topography of the region, with its high mountains, there is more likelihood of foreign troops entering Pakistan in Bajaur, from where the largest infiltration into Afghanistan takes place.
For the Waziristans, where the US says it has identified "high-value" targets, pin-point air strikes are a better option. Certainly, the US would prefer quick strikes from safe bases in Afghanistan to committing troops to what would become a protracted battle a la Iraq and Afghanistan.
The balance is tipped
Since 2001, when Pakistan joined the US in the "war on terror", it has tried to strike a balance between its alliance with Washington and the jihadi establishment that the Inter-Services Intelligence had built up.
In this peculiar situation, the world watched as Pakistan helped the US arrest more than 700 al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, mount devastating battles in its own tribal areas against its own tribesmen, kill dozens of militants and have hundreds of its own security personnel killed in return.
Then Islamabad signed a peace deal with militants in the tribal areas that allowed for its troops to withdraw, leaving the militants in charge of stemming cross-border activity - a bit like placing prisoners in charge of their jail keys, and this in an area crucial to the "war on terror".
At the same time, Pakistan looked on (until the Red Mosque saga) as the Taliban consolidated their assets, breeding countless fresh militants to go and fight in Afghanistan, while also appearing deaf to repeated US calls to share intelligence on what turned out to be a highly successful spring offensive for the Taliban in 2006.
Through Pakistan's prism, there was no contradiction here, just a question of safeguarding its national interests, and for several years Musharraf managed not to fall off his tightrope. Now, though, it looks as if he's heading for a plunge as the jihadist networks and the US prepare to confront each other on Pakistani territory - regardless of what Islamabad might want.
Time running out
Musharraf's administration has been on edge since the storming of the Lal Masjid, as it was a confrontation it knew would have unpleasant consequences. And with US war drums beating ever faster, Musharraf became even more nervous. If troops going into the mosque could inflame the tribal areas, imagine the reaction foreign troops in the tribal areas could provoke.
A contact in Rawalpindi familiar with goings-on in the capital's twin city, which is home to the military's top brass, told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity of Musharraf's desperate efforts to speak to Washington at the highest level and request some breathing space.
According to the contact, Washington insisted that Islamabad press on relentlessly by military means against Taliban and al-Qaeda assets in Pakistan, saying that NATO would be supportive. Apparently, a personal request by Musharraf to speak to US President George W Bush about being given time for matters to cool off was declined.
In effect, Washington is brushing aside Musharraf's concerns over an extremist backlash of momentous proportions should foreign forces join in the fray in the tribal areas, let alone threaten the general's hold on power.
But one can understand Washington's determination to force the pace when one of the more notorious architects of the Taliban's military offensive, Libyan Abu Laith al-Libby, is sitting in North Waziristan. The hardened al-Qaeda operator is believed to have come up with the idea of stepping up the number of abductions of foreigners in Afghanistan. The seizure of more than 20 South Korean aid workers is the latest example of this.
The reasoning is that it will force coalition troops deeper into the civilian population to protect them, thereby exposing them to improvised explosive devices, rocket attacks and suicide bombers.
From the perspective of the al-Qaeda hardliners taking control in the tribal areas, they relish a confrontation with foreign troops in Pakistan as they see it as a chance to boost their broader aims in the region.
Such a confrontation would force the Pakistani jihadist community to rise up fully. This happened last year when the Pakistan Army mounted operations in South Waziristan - the ranks of the jihadis swelled by thousands within months. Such renewed fervor could be channeled to Afghanistan, and against Musharraf's administration.
While Washington wants to take action in Pakistan, it does not want the country to turn into a jihadist playing field, so it is preparing for the consequences. This includes the encouragement of liberal democratic forces to step into any power vacuum should Musharraf be forced out or choose to walk into the sunset. Quick regime changes have in the past worked to take the steam out of potentially disastrous backlashes, and given the military time to regroup.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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