- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 10, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | A Pakistani offensive against an Islamic group near the strategic Khyber Pass could backfire with dire consequences for a key U.S. supply route to Afghanistan, analysts warn.

Last week, the paramilitary Frontier Corps initiated a major military operation against Lashkar-e-Islami (LI) in the Khyber tribal district. The Pakistani government says more than 100 militants have died in the past week.

According to retired Capt. Tariq Hayat, administrator of the Khyber agency, the offensive is aimed at eliminating a variety of militants and criminals.

“The offensive is not against any specific organization and would continue till it achieves its task,” he said.

While LI has been accused of numerous attacks and is similar to the Taliban and al Qaeda in its intolerance of other faiths and more liberal types of Islam, the organization so far has not targeted NATO supplies passing through the Khyber tribal district.

Speaking on his FM radio station, Mangal Bagh, leader of LI, called the Pakistani offensive “illegal” and warned that if it continued, he would “allow” the Taliban into the Khyber tribal agency and Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

According to Pakistani media, Mangal is No. 6 on the country’s list of the 10 most-wanted terrorists. Early this year, his men attacked unarmed villagers in Sheikhan, near Peshawar, killing dozens, according to the News, a Pakistani newspaper.

For a time, his organization was allied with another militant leader, Haji Namdar, who had turned against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Namdar subsequently was killed by a Taliban suicide attack.

If Mangal carries out his threat to welcome the Taliban and al Qaeda into the Khyber agency, that would be a major blow to Pakistan and the United States, said Imran Wazir, a specialist on the tribal areas.

He said the government offensive might persuade Mangal to merge his organization into the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the major Taliban alliance in Pakistan. That would “strengthen the latter at a time when it has come under repeated attacks from U.S. drones and needs critical support,” Mr. Wazir said. A U.S. drone attack killed TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud last month.

A Taliban resurgence in the Khyber agency also would threaten Peshawar and could pose a threat to the national capital, Islamabad, about 100 miles from Peshawar. Several airlines from Arab Gulf countries have suspended flights to Peshawar out of concern that the fighting will spread.

Analysts expressed surprise at the offensive against LI at a time when the new Taliban chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, has expressed his desire to bring the Khyber agency under his control.

“The timing of operation against LI is not at all appropriate,” said Shaukat Khan, a terrorism researcher at University of Peshawar. “The situation in the Pakistani tribal areas is such that if a militant-criminal organization is in control of a particular area and the government has taken action against it, the outright terrorist organizations such as the TTP replaced it, creating more trouble.”

In the past, the TTP has absorbed low-profile militant and clerical organizations following government attacks. In South Waziristan, for example, the TTP expanded its influence after security forces killed local leaders Nek Mohmmad Wazir in 2005 and Abdullah Mehsud in 2007.

While the security forces have launched the offensive in Khyber, they have yet to mount a promised full-scale operation against the Taliban and al Qaeda in their stronghold of South Waziristan.

An Interior Ministry spokesman in Islamabad said a ground offensive in Waziristan has been put on hold.

Pakistan’s senior military commander, Lt. Gen Nadeem Ahmed, told reporters last month that the Pakistani army was trying to create the “right” conditions for a full-blown offensive in South Waziristan by imposing a tight blockade on entry and exit points and pounding Taliban targets from the air.