US strike hits Pakistan's raw nerve

Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online, June 13, 2008

KARACHI - The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has for a long time been split over strategic questions in Afghanistan. These divisions will be further sharpened following Tuesday evening's attack by United States warplanes on a Pakistani military post in Mohmand Agency in which 11 Pakistani paramilitary soldiers were killed.

Indications that Pakistani soldiers were fighting alongside Taliban forces against Afghan army and US units in the border area will also bolster critics of US policy who argue that the Pakistani military is playing a "double game" and can no longer be trusted. All the same, should NATO "lose" Pakistan, it would be a devastating setback.

While the precise circumstances of the incident remain unclear, an eye witness, Taliban spokesman Zubair Mujahid, who represents the Taliban's commanders for Kunar and Nooristan provinces in Afghanistan, told Asia Times Online by telephone: "The multiple Taliban groups operating on both sides of the border - in the Afghan Kunar Valley and in Mohmand Agency - spotted NATO forces launching into Mohmand Agency's mountain-top Sarhasoko military post (photo at

"We realized the Pakistani troops were struggling against the NATO forces so we activated our networks all over the area," Zubair said.

"The Pakistani security forces were under siege and were at the point of being evacuated from the post when we opened fire on them [NATO] from several positions. Our attack was so unexpected for NATO that they had to retreat. The Pakistan army lost 11 soldiers, the Taliban lost eight and NATO lost 20 soldiers during the operation."

An official Pakistani armed forces release called the air strikes "unprovoked and cowardly" and added that "the incident had hit at the very basis of cooperation and sacrifice with which Pakistani soldiers are supporting the coalition in [the] war against terror".

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, meanwhile, said, "Although it is early, every indication we have is that it was a legitimate strike in self-defense against forces that had attacked coalition forces."

Damning report
The timing of the attack coincides with the release of a report this week by the US Defense Department-funded RAND Corp, entitled "Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan", which said that some active and former officials in Pakistan's intelligence service and the Frontier Corps - a paramilitary force - directly aided Taliban militants.

Significantly - as happened on Tuesday - the report suggested direct NATO operations in the Pakistani tribal areas to root out the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Confusingly, at the very moment the Taliban went to aid Pakistani security forces - which will boost respect for them among the lower- and middle-order cadre of the armed forces - the Taliban kidnapped seven security personnel in Dera Adam Khail in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and in Mohmand Agency they exchanged fire with security forces at a checkpoint.

This contradiction highlights the complex relationships between the Taliban, militants and the Pakistani establishment: nothing can be read as black and white. What can't be ignored is that ethnic Pashtuns are natural Pakistani allies and the Pashtun heartland is overwhelmingly under the influence of the Taliban, a factor Pakistan has to factor into its regional relationships.

The case of Taliban commander Haji Nazeer illustrates the point. Al-Qaeda leaders, Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud and even Uzbek warlord Qari Tahir often praise his services for fighting some of the toughest battles against NATO in Afghanistan. Yet they also curse him for his links to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), for which he acts as a point man to work against Uzbeks, the network of Baitullah Mehsud and Takfiri Arabs - those who take it on themselves to decide who is a true Muslim and who is not.

Haji Nazeer is not the only example of this, several big and small operators receive support or patronage from the Pakistani security forces, which allows think-tanks such as the Rand Corporation to blame Pakistan for actively supporting and facilitating the Taliban fight against NATO.

From 2006 onwards, US officials and NATO have on several occasions provided evidence directly to Islamabad on Pakistan's support for the Taliban. Yet the crux is, Pakistan needs to do this.
The US does the same in Iraq, where it struck deals with former Ba'athist elements to take on al-Qaeda, knowing that Sunni-nationalist Arab tribes would continue to fight against them, though with low intensity.

A lesser evil
By late 2003, foreign elements, especially Egyptians and Uzbeks, had regrouped in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal area and established two organizations. One was for international operations, the Jaishul al-Qiba al-Jihadi al-Siri al-Alami, the other, specifically aimed to operate inside Pakistan, was Jundullah. See The legacy of Nek Mohammed Asia Times Online, July 20, 2004.)
Between them, the two groups masterminded operations such as the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings and the July 7, 2005, London bombings and several attacks on the life of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as well as other officials and security installations.

Pakistan mounted several military operations against the groups and killed many commanders, including Nek Mohammed, but the insurgency intensified and new faces emerged, such as Baitullah Mehsud, and they established even better facilities for al-Qaeda operations.

These new commanders did not restrict their activities to South Waziristan, they spread their networks across the country. The previously calm Swat Valley in NWFP and the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad became two important bases for them.

The new self-proclaimed "Pakistani Taliban" quickly eliminated the local networks of the tribal elders, the only reliable front on which Islamabad could deal with the new militant movements. Over 130 tribal chiefs were killed and dozens fled to different cities. Any cleric who spoke in favor of harmony with Pakistan risked being killed and ending up with a message attached to his body: "A lesson for CIA-ISI proxies."

By 2005, suicide attacks began in Pakistan and the Pakistani security apparatus was at a loss over how to deal with the militants - neither the military nor the political approach worked.

Then an ISI network based in Balochistan province succeeded in making a connection with now slain Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, who, after a lot of negotiation, agreed to play a role in South Waziristan. He acquired a letter from Taliban leader Mullah Omar in which he emphasized that all groups in South and North Waziristan should focus on the jihad in Afghanistan rather than become involved in other regional and global operations.

Then Pakistan-friendly and legendary mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani was announced as the military leader of the Taliban's spring offensive of 2006 and he led all factions into Afghanistan. Before this, he had signed a ceasefire agreement with Pakistani forces in the tribal areas. The upshot was that the Taliban had their most successful season since being ousted in 2001 and Pakistan saved itself from a major catastrophe.

Nevertheless, Uzbeks and a group of Egyptians under the uncompromising Sheikh Essa and his Pakistani adherents Sadiq Noor and Abdul Khaliq Haqqani were still obsessed in fermenting an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. They were not ready to move into Afghanistan to fight against NATO, they wanted to continue the fight against Pakistani security forces.

So Pakistan had little choice but to follow the American example of the Sunni Awakening Councils in Iraq and what the British did in Helmand province in Afghanistan: divide and rule.

Ideological affiliations and tribal rivalries co-exist in South Waziristan. While most support the Taliban, Wazir tribesmen were wary of the growing strength of the Mehsud tribe's new strongman, Baitullah Mehsud. Baitullah had the support of his tribe, but his greatest support was several hundred Uzbek warriors who made Baitullah the biggest commander in the region.

The ISI exploited this situation and they tapped up Haji Nazeer, in particular playing on the fact that the Uzbeks did not fight in Afghanistan. Haji Nazeer was given US$150,000 to strengthen his network and also received truck loads of ammunition and a guarantee of free movement into and out of Afghanistan.

In January 2007, Haji Nazeer and his men carried out a massacre of Uzbeks, killing at least 250 of them and expelling the rest from South Waziristan. Haji Nazeer attracted many Arabs, such as Abu Ali Tunisi, who influenced scores of Pakistani jihadis to join Haji Nazeer, whose now-expanded network only fights against NATO.

A similar case is that of Haji Namdar, (See Taliban bitten by a snake in the grass Asia Times Online, April 26, 2008 and Taliban claim victory from a defeat Asia Times Online, May 3, 2008.) He is the biggest recruiter of warriors in Khyber Agency to fuel the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan and he raises funds for the Taliban. The ISI had to solicit his help, though, to break a Taliban network in the agency which was crippling NATO supply lines into Afghanistan (the attacks have since resumed).

NATO was aware of this contradiction but did not have any choice but to go along with the ISI.

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

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