Friday, February 1, 2008

One wing of the Taliban movement wants to give its top priority to demoralizing and evicting the U.S. and its NATO allies from Afghanistan. The other, led by Baitullah Mehsud, who is said to have ordered Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, wants to focus on the Talibanization of Pakistan. Mullah Mohammad Omar, the one-eyed Taliban leader whose movement was deposed and who has been in hiding since the U.S.-led invasion a month after September 11, 2001, resurfaced — long enough to fire Mehsud.

Mehsud, a Pakistani Talib warlord, let be known that while he remained loyal to Mullah Omar, he also remained “the Amir of Tehrik-Taliban Pakistan” and it wasn’t much longer before both sides denied his expulsion.

He certainly echoed Mullah Omar when he spoke with an Al Jazeera television reporter: “What crime did the weak and the women of Japan commit that made America kill them when it dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Washington did not care about [them]. We now fear America will use a nuclear bomb against the Muslims… so we fear the American bomb, but not the Pakistani bomb. At least it’s in the hands of Muslims. We pray to Allah the Muslims will take over all the nuclear bombs from infidels, whose hands are soiled with the blood of the innocent.”

As for al Qaeda, he said, “I have the utmost love and respect for Osama bin Laden and [Ayman] al-Zawahri because of their enmity toward the Jews and the Christians … the Islamic zeal that runs in their veins is very rare. … We will serve them, even if they ask us to sacrifice our heads for their sakes.”

The apparent split that wasn’t one convinced Pakistan’s new Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani to order up some 100,000 troops.

Thoroughly demoralized after humiliating losses at the hands of Taliban guerrillas last fall, which coincided with Pakistan’s constitutional crisis and the bloody expulsion of pro-Taliban fanatics from the Red Mosque in downtown Islamabad, the regular army had stood down and turned things over to the ill-equipped Frontier Corps (FC). Drawn from these same Pushtun mountain tribes, the FC had no stomach for fighting their kith and kin and surrendered or deserted by the score.

Pakistani regulars have long been convinced they are drawing long stints in the now snow-covered mountains to carry out American orders relayed through President Pervez Musharraf. Gen. Kiyani will have a tough time convincing them otherwise. U.S. ideas on joint operations with U.S. Special Forces have been flatly rejected by Mr. Musharraf and Gen. Kiyani.

The compromise reached is to loan small numbers of U.S. Special Forces to train Pakistanis on how to use new equipment designed for mountain recon and detection of armed guerrillas. Future U.S. military assistance will be geared almost entirely to enhancing their counter-guerrilla tactics.

Last week, four out of six army ammunition trucks were hijacked by Taliban fighters near Darra Adamkhel, the fabled gun-making town where local craftsmen copy Kalashnikovs and other hand-held weapons from all over the world. It took a 70-man bomb disposal squad and 20 sniffer dogs several days to clear the 2 kilometer-long Kohat tunnel through which the guerrillas escaped. Two Pakistani army captains were captured. The only equipment recovered was an anti-aircraft gun and 70 pounds of explosives. The rest is now in Taliban hands.

Taliban fighters then fired rockets from a hillside straight into the Kohat military cantonment. It took the army three days to dislodge them. But they popped up again to blow a bridge on the Kohat-Rawalpindi road, then a power station in Darra Adamkhel from which they had just been chased out. One-third of the Northwest Frontier province lost electricity.

Baitullah Mehsud also told Al Jazeera the Pakistani army had deceived Taliban militants by initiating talks with one group while attacking in other parts of FATA. The government’s story was that the Talibanis in Miramshah, the capital of FATA’s North Waziristan tribal agency, had agreed to talk. Taliban now dominates four of FATA’s seven tribal agencies.

Agreements between the Pakistani army and Taliban guerrillas, posing as tribal chiefs, were signed at least twice in the last two years only to be ignored by Taliban chiefs.

For the immediate future, Mr. Musharraf and Gen. Kiyani are focused on growing countrywide turmoil, including suicide bomber attacks and other acts of terrorism. After three months of fighting, the Pakistani army is yet to complete the liberation of the Swat Valley, one of the country’s most scenic tourist attractions in the Northwest Frontier province.

Only this last week security forces regained control of the Durshkhela fort, which had surrendered last October when some 100 men had run out of ammo. Before abandoning the fort, militants beheaded a local police chief and set his house on fire. There is still a dusk-to-dawn curfew throughout the 70-mile-long valley.

Under present circumstances, it is difficult to see how fair and free elections can be held Feb. 18 as now scheduled. Even in normal times, Pakistani balloting has been tweaked, if not rigged. And this time, authorities have already placed the blame on “foreign hands” for rampant terrorism.

By Mr. Musharraf’s reckoning, only a tiny 1 percent of the population, or 1.6 million people, are extremists — and 10 percent, or 16 million, active supporters of extremists. That’s only 11 percent of the population, Mr. Musharraf reassures himself. But in addition to FATA, it holds sway over two of Pakistan’s four provinces. While Pakistan isn’t Kenya or Sudan, it remains one of the world’s eight nuclear powers. And as long as Taliban controls FATA, there is no possible solution for Afghanistan.

Lest anyone still doubt their global strategy, Mehsud spelled it out: “We will wage jihad in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Bosnia and Iraq as well. There are no borders in Islam. We fight the Jews and Christians in Afghanistan out of ideological motives.”

NATO allies are already tiring of the Afghan campaign. Canada now says it will only extend its mission there if Germany, France, Spain or Italy agree their soldiers should also be involved in harm’s way missions. NATO’s future is now clearly at stake in the Pakistani-Afghan mess.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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