December 15, 2010

Al-Qaeda braced for a war without end

From Asian Times Online:

ISLAMABAD - Richard Holbrooke, the United States special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan who died on Monday aged 69, had come to the realization that the nine-year war in Afghanistan had to come to an end.

Stopping the war will not be an easy matter. The situation on the ground is not so simple.

For instance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) claims success against the Taliban in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, but what has happened is that al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have stepped into the vacuum and they will continue the battle.

Similarly, Pakistan claims success in its tribal areas, but a more defiant and more ideologically motivated group has emerged to take ownership of the war.

Wali Mohammad, the brother of slain Taliban commander Nek Mohammad (see The legacy of Nek Mohammed Asia Times Online, July 2004), has taken over command of militants in South Waziristan.

Last week, army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, accompanied by other top brass and members of the media, traveled to South Waziristan to showcase the military's "victory" against militants. They were greeted by four missiles. No one was injured in the attack, but the message is clear - the militants are back.

Before last year's operation in South Waziristan, the army struck a peace deal with the Wazir tribe and singled out the Mehsud tribe led by Hakeemullah Mehsud, the chief of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP - Pakistani Taliban). This isolated the Mehsuds, forcing them to flee to North Waziristan. The military then took control of Mehsud areas such as Ladha and Makeen.

However, in a twist that illustrates the changing ideologies in the tribal regions, Wali Mohammad, a Wazir from South Waziristan who is supposed to be a rival of the Mehsuds, assumed the role of hostility against the army - a move that stunned many observers.

Wali Mohammad is now the commander of the TTP in South Waziristan and head of its suicide-bombing wing.

Review of Afghanistan

United States President Barack Obama is set on Thursday to announce a review of Afghan strategy. "We are in a better place now than we were a year ago," Obama said late last month at a NATO summit. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has said that "by all accounts", progress has been made.

On a visit to Afghanistan last week, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that he was "convinced that our strategy is working and that we will be able to achieve the key goals laid out by President Obama".

The review had been compiled by the National Security Council with input from Holbrooke, General David Petraeus, the US commander in Afghanistan; and other officials. Obama is expected to restate his pledge to begin drawing down US combat troop levels next July, a process now scheduled to be completed by the end of 2014.

According to several administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, its most positive aspects are based on military reports from Petraeus, who has described successful clearing operations in and around the Taliban bastions of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, and southwestern Helmand province. Petraeus has also cited the elimination, through killing or capture, of hundreds of Taliban commanders and local political leaders in raids by US special operations forces.

However, one major development is missing in the assessment.

This month, there was an unsuccessful suicide attack on Nawab Aslam Raisani, the chief minister of southwestern Balochistan province. It was claimed by the LJ - the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami (International) - a sectarian, anti-Shi'ite organization that is split into several groups. The international wing is strongly affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Pakistan's southwest and southwestern Afghanistan are home to the Kandahari clan, which is mostly loyal to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Despite the Taliban's strong presence in Helmand and Kandahar in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Chaman and Quetta regions, al-Qaeda has never been able to find significant traction among the local Pashtuns. It has sheltered in southeastern Afghanistan or the northwestern Pakistani tribal areas.

Balochistan had no history of sectarian violence until after 2003, for which a few ethnic Baloch members of the LJ were accused. The Taliban distanced themselves from the LJ. For the past several years, Pakistan's southwestern regions and southwestern Afghanistan were assessed as Taliban territory.

However, an increasing number of militant attacks in Balochistan on NATO's Afghanistan-bound supplies is a hallmark of al-Qaeda. Most of the attacks have been carried out in ethnically Baloch areas, where the Pakistani security forces now believe anti-Pakistan Baloch insurgents and members of the LJ are collaborating.

The ultra-radical and ruthless LJ already cooperates with the Iranian Jundallah in Iranian Balochistan and it is now expected to spread its operations to Kandahar and Helmand to take over the Taliban's fight.

Former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf wrote in an article on Sunday that he had advised the international community to accept a Taliban government, but it did not listen. In his article in the Wall Street Journal he said, "Had the world heeded my advice, circumstances would have been quite different."

The Americans also never took the advice in 2001 to engage the Taliban and isolate al-Qaeda. By 2010, Holbrooke had come to realize this truth, along with other decision-makers in Washington. But it is too late. The war dispensation in al-Qaeda's caves in the Pakistani tribal areas is set up in such a way that if one group of insurgents is pacified, a fresh one will pop up to fill in. This is a never-ending war.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and author of upcoming book Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban 9/11 and Beyond published by Pluto Press, UK.

Our own analysis of the TTP's origins can be found here.

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