November 15, 2009

Taliban Hideout?

Are they that easy to find? According to Adnkronos, the TTP's leadership has relocated to Shawal, a village complex in North Waziristan next to the Afghan border.

Shawal is old Taliban country so the choice makes sense as a hideout. Journalists flocked to its mountains as the “War on Terror” kicked into high gear in Iraq and Afghanistan. The village was a natural choice for them too - Pakistani intelligence sources believed Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri lived here.

“Intelligence agencies had proof that Osama was in Shawal till June 2003,” the sources claim. “The Osama and Al-Zawahiri videotapes, which were released by Al-Jazeera channel, were also shot in Shawal,”

At the same time, local tribes denied any refuge to al-Qaeda and stood on the American side, mostly for the cash.

Khandan, a landowner, told the SF Chronicle in 2003, “Some other tribes have complained about this, but our jirga decided to cooperate, and we've got three new roads, 300 new jobs for tribal policemen, and are awaiting water pumps and schools. All we have to do is keep our eyes open for al-Qaeda and throw them out if they come. They know our area won't welcome them, so they avoid us,”

When asked about the Taliban, Khandan replied, “They are good guys. If Musharraf wants them, he'll have to provide evidence of their guilt."

The hills tell the real story. “It is here that US authorities believe about 500 Arab, Chechen, Uzbek and Chinese Muslim fighters have formed a base, from which they carry out attacks on US targets in the eastern Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika,” the South Asian Times reported in 2004.

Notoriety attracts attention and the Pakistan army finally reasserted control over the territory in 2006. "We have set up our posts at almost every kilometer and a half,” Brigadier Imtiaz Wyne, military commander in Shawal, said as two of his soldiers watch the border with Afghanistan. “I have now almost full control over the area.”

He admitted the army had launched 10 operations since it secured the area last year. Sporadic fighting still occurs today, meaning a possible Taliban retreat is certainly possible, but it seems an obvious location to regroup and plan suicide attacks.

Is Hakimullah riding openly around Shawal - is the TTP in control - or is he underground?

Such a strategy on his part suggests he chose survival and urban warfare over mountain guerrilla warfare. The Pakistani army likely designed units specifically to climb over mountains, TTP style, and attack its positions. It seems the TTP is ceding territory for the moment, although Hakimullah and his circle don't necessarily need to stay in the battle zone.

What his strategy is after winter remains to be seen. The TTP appears to have taken refuge in Hafiz Gul Bahadur territory. He is, after all, not just commander of North Waziristan but the second ranked amir after Hakimullah. The deal between Bahadur and Pakistan was bound to cause trouble.

That this information went public is a sure sign that the American and Pakistani government’s know TTP commander’s locations if they're in Shawal. Do you leave them alone or break the deal and fire?

No major militant has fell from a drone yet, a surprise in some ways. Faqir Mohammad was targeted and missed in Bajaur agency, but the drones are killing blanks. At this point leaving the commanders alone is wiser, which could be the strategy in play. America, for better and worse, is willing to kill a few people to save the many. Strategic sacrifice, so the theory goes.

Leave the TTP command structure intact instead of taking it out instantly. If the battle is lopsided then let the Pakistani army continue killing militants by the thousands. Keep 24 hour surveillance on the commanders and take them out at the last moment.

Obvious downsides include a reversal in battle, losing the targets, the death of innocents, and many other time-related, insurgency induced traps. Or reports of the TTP’s whereabouts could be inaccurate. Maybe the leadership wants everyone to think they're in Shawal.

Deception, courtesy of Hakimullah?

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