Cross-border militants strike back

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    Cross border militants strike back - Asia Times Online
    By Syed Saleem Shahzad

    ISLAMABAD - As a lone suicide bomber approached a convoy of security personnel after walking through a crowded market he detonated the bomb strapped to his body. Eleven people were killed and more than 35 injured in the massive blast on Monday in the Nishat Chowk district of Mingora, the capital of Swat in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

    Gruesome scenes of bodies being recovered amid billowing black smoke, burning vehicles and shattered buildings are not new to Pakistan; similar - and much bigger - attacks occur regularly. What was significant about Monday's attack was that it was the first in six months in the Swat area.

    The return of violence to Swat is a direct result of the Taliban gaining control of the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan across the border in Afghanistan, sources in an al-Qaeda-led militant group tell Asia Times Online.

    In a series of operations in the tribal areas that started last year, beginning in Swat and culminating in the offensive in North Waziristan, the Pakistani military rolled back the extensive advances make by the Pakistan Taliban and al-Qaeda. The militants were dispersed, with most disappearing into the wilds on both sides of the border.

    Then, towards the end of last year, United States troops evacuated their main bases in Nuristan and border posts in Kunar and handed over responsibility for security to the Afghan National Army (ANA). In November, the Taliban struck a ceasefire deal with the ANA under which the Taliban agreed not to attack provincial capitals in return for the ANA not attacking Taliban bases in the two provinces. (See Taliban take over Afghan province Asia Times Online, October 29, 2009.)

    This, say the militant sources, allowed militants from across the border to regroup, and Monday's attack is the first of what the sources say will be many more in Swat, as well as other tribal areas. This includes the restive belt of Bajaur Agency, Mohmand Agency and Dir and Swat in NWFP. There has already been a revival of activity in Bajaur and Mohmand over the past few weeks.

    The militant sources say that the fighters who have gathered in Kunar and Nuristan have split into several groups to fight in Afghanistan and in Pakistan on a rotational basis to make the optimum use of their human resources.

    A senior militant linked with al-Qaeda told Asia Times Online by telephone that the new assault in Pakistan would start in earnest once the weather improved in the next few weeks, while the battle in Afghanistan would continue.

    "If you remember, the Soviets also sent additional forces [to Afghanistan] in the last days [late 1980s], but within a short period they decided they could not beat the mujahideen and they withdrew. The US has done the same [with its 30,000 troop surge] and will soon face so many losses it will not have any choice but to withdraw," the militant said.

    Al-Qaeda and the Taliban arrests
    The arrest over the past few days of several senior Taliban figures plays into the hands of al-Qaeda, a militant connected with al-Qaeda tells Asia Times Online. He says that as a result of the arrests, the Taliban have severed all links of communication for dialogue - be it with Afghanistan, Pakistan or the US - and they will now work more closely with al-Qaeda.

    Those arrested include the Taliban's supreme commander in Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar; the former governor of the Afghan province of Nangarhar, Moulvi Abdul Kabeer; Mullah Abdul Salam, the shadow governor of Kunduz; and Mir Muhammad, also a shadow governor in northern Afghanistan.

    Apart from Baradar, these Taliban handed over to the US were very much "assets" of the Pakistan military, which had direct links to them. Kabeer was known to be in contact with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) up until his arrest at the weekend. Because of these links, he would not visit North Waziristan for fear of reprisals from al-Qaeda militants. He was nevertheless on the Taliban's command council.

    Similarly, Salam had links to the ISI dating to the mid-1990s shortly before the Taliban took control of Kabul - he represented the Taliban militia at the ISI's headquarters in Islamabad and he remained an asset.

    Baradar was not directly in contact with the ISI, but his movements were known and security agencies turned a blind eye as he was considered one of Pakistan's future strategic assets in Afghanistan.

    "They [those arrested] were aces in the hands of the Pakistan military, which could have used them to its favor, but now they are lost," a militant leader told Asia Times Online. "Why? We are all wondering, but the fact is that now the Taliban realize that they have no option but to join forces with al-Qaeda in a regional battle against the US and all its allies, including Pakistan and India," the militant said.

    Commenting on the arrests, a senior strategic expert told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity, "Undoubtedly, they were Pakistan's assets and their arrest might have dire consequences for Pakistan. In my opinion, some very narrow vested interests led to the arrests. Pakistani chief of army staff General [Ashfaq Pervez] Kiani is scheduled to retire on November 27. He cannot make a decision on an extension of his own service, it has to be done by the government with the consent of Washington, and therefore Kiani agreed to make former friends the scapegoats," the analyst said. Kiani has developed very close ties to the US military and has effectively taken over "war on terror" responsibilities from the civilian government.

    Sections in the military that are not as keen as Kiani on close ties with the US do not want to see his term extended, preferring one of their own to be promoted. Aware of this, the ISI's counter-terrorism branch explained that Baradar's arrest "was a mistake" and that intelligence officials were not aware of his presence when they made the raid that led to his apprehension.

    Nonetheless, with the other arrests that followed, especially that of Kabeer, the Taliban are not buying this line and instead are looking to the regrouped militants in Afghanistan to do their talking in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]
     
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