A sting in Pakistan’s al-Qaeda mission
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI – The Pakistani military has halted operations in Bajaur Agency in the northwest of the country, saying “the back has been broken” of the militancy there.
A military spokesman said that in light of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on Sunday, all action would stop, which would allow about 500,000 displaced people to return home. Officials claim that in three weeks of fighting 560 militants have been killed, with the loss of 20 members of the security forces.
The ground reality, though, is that the operation failed in its primary objective, to catch the big fish so wanted by the United States – al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. This would have been the perfect present for Islamabad to give the George W Bush administration in the run-up to the US presidential elections in November.
Pakistan said they had Zawahiri in their sights, but he evaded them. Zawahiri, who has a US$25 million bounty on his head, escaped a US missile strike in January 2006 near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
The Bajaur operation was a comprehensive joint show of power by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Pakistan forces as they were convinced that the al-Qaeda leaders and other senior Taliban militants were in an area spanning Kunar and Nooristan provinces in Afghanistan and the Bajaur and Mohamad agencies immediately across the border in Pakistan. (See Ducking and diving under B-52s Asia Times Online, May 22, 2008.)
NATO and the Pakistani military had hoped that a pincer operation would force their prey to move their base, thereby exposing them. The thinking was that the militants would seek refuge inside Pakistan, where they could be cornered.
The mission began disastrously, though. Two days before troops were ordered from the corps headquarters of Peshawar in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) early last month, news of the impending attack was leaked to the militants and the al-Qaeda leadership was hastily moved. The Pakistani forces also received an unwelcome – and unexpected – reception when they began operations in Bajaur; the militants were armed and waiting.
The al-Qaeda leaders were taken under the wing of Qari Ziaur Rahman, a senior Taliban leader and regional commander of Nooristan, Kunar and adjoining Pakistani regions. Over the past few months he has emerged as a key figure and has generated considerable publicity by staging public executions in Kunar and Bajaur of suspected spies for the Americans. Rahman even took the unusual step of contacting the Pakistani press to claim responsibility for successful attacks on Pakistani troops.
Pakistan and NATO had placed high store on a successful mission, launching the heaviest-ever aerial bombardment inside Pakistan’s tribal regions – hence the high level of displaced persons. The militants claim that many dozens of paramilitary troops were killed and many captured, along with their heavy weapons and tanks.
The assault continued for several more weeks, but on August 28 during a secret meeting on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, and the chief of the Pakistani Army Staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, it was agreed the Bajaur mission had failed. No key militants had been hit and they had now completely fallen off all radar screens.
Inter-Services Public Relations of the Pakistani army then issued a statement confirming that the leading militants had escaped from Bajaur and that the army did not have any idea where they had gone, be it Afghanistan or elsewhere.
The Pakistani government then changed tack and lavished millions of rupees on tribal chiefs through its political agents to form lashkars (groups) to fight against the Taliban and militants. This experiment had earlier failed dismally in the North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal areas, resulting in the assassination of over 200 tribal chiefs and religious clerics. The survivors fled to the cities, leaving the self-acclaimed Pakistani Taliban to take charge of those areas. There is no reason to believe the story will be any different in Bajaur.
The Bajaur operation was carried out at a time when the Taliban’s offensive in Afghanistan was winding down for Ramadan. The militants tend to fast and sleep in peace for the month until Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan.
By this time winter has set in and, as they do each year, the Taliban gradually leave Afghanistan and melt into the Pakistani tribal areas.
Unlike previous years though, the militants are unlikely to remain inactive during their winter break from the battlefields of Afghanistan.
The Bajaur operation, mainly because of the severity of the aerial bombing that caused widespread civilian displacement, has aroused intense anger in militant circles and bloody reprisal attacks can be expected within Pakistan.
The initial skirmishes have already started in NWFP, where members and political allies of the ruling Pashtun sub-nationalist Awami National Party have been targeted. Four top leaders have already been killed and many homes have been gutted. Scores of anti-Taliban political workers have fled from the Swat Valley and other areas.
Taliban sources have confirmed to Asia Times Online that high-level targets are also planned, including army chief Kiani, the leader of the lead party in the ruling coalition, the Pakistan People’s Party’s Asif Zardari and Rehman Malik, the powerful advisor to the Ministry of Interior. Zardari has vacated his private Islamabad residence in favor of the prime minister’s house and he has also curtailed his public appearances.
On Wednesday, shots were fired at Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s motorcade, his spokesman said. The attack took place on the road to the airport in Islamabad. Gilani was not believed to be in the motorcade.
The Bajaur operation, which was intended to eliminate key figures in the “war on terror”, could end in leading figures in Pakistan being killed.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org