Talibans spring offensive: DETAILS
Talibans plans for the spring offensive.
The best analysis I've seen so far.
I don't agree with everything but I think
the overview is accurate G
REVOLT IN PAKISTAN'S TRIBAL AREAS, Part 1
Ceasefire: A lull before the storm
By Syed Saleem Shahzad Feb 9, 2008 Asia Times Online, Hong Kong
PESHAWAR, North-West Frontier Province - The ceasefire deal between the Pakistani security forces and a leading member of the al-Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, brokered by two stalwart Afghan commanders who persuaded Mehsud to stay in Afghanistan, is just the lull before a big storm and the beginning of a new chapter of militancy in Pakistan.
On Thursday, the government officially announced a ceasefire in the restive South Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan. At the same time, Mehsud's spokesperson announced a ceasefire throughout the country.
"A ceasefire has been agreed. This is why there has been little by way of major exchange of fire in the past few days," a senior Pakistani official said on Thursday night.
Over the past few months, Mehsud, a hardline Takfiri - a believer in waging war against any non-practicing Muslims - has become isolated from the Taliban leadership, with Mullah Omar "sacking" him because of his fixation in waging war against the Pakistan state. Mehsud has widely been accused of complicity in the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpinidi on December 27.
The ceasefire deal, brokered by Taliban commanders Sirajuddin Haqqani and Maulvi Bakhta Jan, is face-saving for both the militants and the security forces and provides them with breathing space; they had reached a stalemate in South Waziristan.
The militants had laid siege to the main military camps at Razmak Fort and Ladha, and were firing missiles and mortars from three sides into the camps, at the same time cutting off their supply lines.
Earlier, commandos from Pakistan's Special Services Group launched an operation to catch Mehsud, but the mission only resulted in them losing several score men and the militants about a dozen.
At this point, Islamabad reached the conclusion that its only option was to unleash an aerial assault on suspected militant camps. However, local tribal elders intervened and assured the authorities they would get Mehsud to retreat.
Once this was guaranteed, the authorities accepted with alacrity, mindful of the parliamentary elections scheduled for February 18 and the demoralization of their troops in the bitterly cold weather and harsh terrain.
It's not over yet
The Afghan Taliban see the ceasefire as the ideal opportunity to step up their preparations for their annual spring offensive - they rely heavily on the Pakistan border areas for manpower and provisions.
Acutely aware of this, the US State Department has indicated its disapproval of the ceasefire. A ceasefire in North Waziristan in September 2006 - after partial ones beginning in April of that year - led to the Taliban's strongest showing in the battlefield since being ousted in 2001.
Even before Thursday's ceasefire, the Taliban's preparations in the strategic backyard of Pakistan were well underway. This included the isolation of Mehsud and appointing a new team of commanders in the Pakistani tribal areas. Most of the new appointments are Afghans, to signify the importance of fighting a war in Afghanistan rather than in Pakistan. The two main commanders are Abdul Wali in Bajaur Agency and Ustad Yasir in Khyber Agency.
A key component of the Taliban's offensive this year will be to counter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) plans against them and al-Qaeda.
Last year, the New York Times published a story of a classified US military proposal to intensify efforts to enlist tribal leaders in the frontier areas of Pakistan in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This was to be part of a broader effort to bolster the Pakistani forces against an expanding militancy, US military officials said.
This would include pumping more military trainers into Pakistan, providing direct finance to a tribal paramilitary force that until now has proved largely ineffective, and providing funds for smaller militias to fight against the militants. The US currently has only about 50 troops in Pakistan, according to the Pentagon, and this number could grow by dozens under the new approach.
A contact affiliated with al-Qaeda told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity, "Pakistan has already tried to revive an outdated tribal system to counter the Taliban, but by killing tribal elders in Waziristan, the Taliban effectively stopped that scheme. ( My sources say the Taliban killed 108 tribal leaders, who opposed them. G ) Now the Americans and the Pakistani government are working on tribal elders of the Shinwari and Afirdi tribes of Khyber Agency, which is the main route of NATO supplies to Afghanistan. Approximately 80% of supplies pass through this route.
"But since the Taliban want to chop off NATO supplies from Pakistan into Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban have warned these tribal elders to stay away from the conflict. However, the elders have received huge bribes [funds] from NATO, and so they are obsessed with providing protection to the supply convoys. Therefore, the Taliban will increase their activities in Khyber Agency, which means a war with the elders of the Shinwari and Afirdi tribes," the contact said.
The second sector of Taliban activity will be in Nooristan and Kunar provinces in Afghanistan, where US forces are conducting huge counter-insurgency operations.
"This year, the Taliban will focus their main attention on a new plan specifically aimed at Kunar and Nooristan. The details of the plan cannot be revealed at this point," said the contact.
The contact said that the al-Qaeda camp in Pakistan is convinced that American pressure will be so strong that the ceasefire will not be long-term.
This perception is not without substance. Wana military airfield in South Waziristan and Miranshah airfield in North Waziristan have been upgraded from makeshift airstrips into proper runways with backup facilities, which indicate plans for a powerful air operation.
The deployment of US forces at Lowari Mandi and Ghulman Khan checkpoints (both on the Afghan side of the border near North Waziristan) and the construction of a new military camp near Shawal (North Waziristan), on the Afghan side, indicate that the US is not planning on peace for very long.
The only real issue is which side will strike first, and where.
Al-Qaeda sets sight on the next battlefield;
PESHAWAR, North-West Frontier Province - Despite last week's ceasefire agreement between the Pakistani security forces and the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas, it is clear that a major regional battle between al-Qaeda and the Western coalition is still pending, starting in Pakistan.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, during a visit to Germany on Sunday, did not mince his words in saying that al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Pakistan's northwest frontier region pose a direct threat to the Islamabad government.
The remaining issue is who strikes first, and against whom.
"Undoubtedly, we are under observation, especially those who live in the cities," says a Pakistani and a member of al-Qaeda's shura (council) who spoke to this correspondent in Peshawar.
"We can sense a big operation is being planned against us in Pakistan's cities, but perhaps the security agencies will not get the chance to strike first," says the man, speaking under the nom de plume of Abu Haris.
"Pakistan's fears are not without basis. After Lal Masjid [Red Mosque operation in Islamabad last year in which the radical mosque was stormed], Sheikh [Osama bin Laden] personally appointed an amir [chief] for Pakistan for khuruj [revolt]. The decision got the approval of the shura and then an organization was set up in various Pakistani cities," the al-Qaeda member says.
"They were given resources and recently a new amir was appointed [the change was due to some unavoidable circumstances]. However, the greatest shock [for us] was in Karachi, where members of Jundullah [Army of God - a militant organization that targets the Pakistan state] were arrested. But we will recover and the arrests did not expose the identities of others as we have worked a lot to plug loopholes in our organization," Abu Haris says. (See Shootout echoes across Pakistan Asia Times Online, January 31, 2007.)
He says different people have different tasks and although the cells do meet together in the Waziristan tribal areas, they are not aware of each other's locations or precise tasks and operations.
Abu Haris believes this approach has saved the organization from being penetrated by intelligence agencies, which is why the rate of arrests of al-Qaeda members has dwindled in recent months.
Abu Haris is assigned by al-Qaeda to Pakistan, which means the cities, not the tribal areas. He says al-Qaeda has not only revived the structure that was destroyed after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but has greatly expanded its work.
Largely known as an Arab organization, al-Qaeda has now absorbed thousands of former members of Pakistani jihadi organizations, given them representation in the shura and delegated them operations in Pakistan.
Abu Haris is an example of this. He was a member of the banned Lashkar-i-Toiba, which concentrated its operations on Kashmir, but he is now a member of al-Qaeda's shura and in charge of a cell operating in the Peshawar Valley.
"The nature of operations and policies is different in Afghanistan, entirely different from those in the tribal areas, and now we have a completely different approach in Pakistani cities," Abu Haris said.
The post-ceasefire suicide bombing in the town of Charsadda in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) at the weekend illustrates this. At least 25 people were killed and more than 40 injured in an attack on a rally of the Awami National Party - a secular, ethnic Pashtun group - ahead of national elections scheduled for February 18.
The plan of khuruj
The addition of former jihadis, who were trained by Pakistani intelligence to fight in Indian-held Kashmir, and some retired Pakistani army officers to al-Qaeda's ranks has brought about a major change in the group's operational approach.
Al-Qaeda began to concentrate more on strategic matters and an intelligence and review committee was formed. This is run by Pakistanis based in Pakistani cities. One of their tasks is to cull media sources for items on issues ranging from United States and European Union policy to matters concerning al-Qaeda. They then prepare summary papers and analysis which is passed on to members of the shura and high command.
For instance, recently the committee analyzed the issue of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, which has been much in the spotlight amid Western fears of it falling into militant hands. There has even been talk of the US trying to take control of it. However, the al-Qaeda assessment was that staff at the nuclear facilities was "patriotic, clean and better Muslims than the military leadership" and that any intervention by the Americans would be strongly resisted. ( What also seems to be unsaid is any intervention by the Taliban would be strongly resisted, also. G )
Al-Qaeda's shura makes all decisions, including the religious and strategic assessment of any project, for instance the decision to stage a khuruj was approved by Bin Laden last year.
The shura discussed the religious justification of khuruj and after long debate agreed it was essential for Pakistan. The religious requirements to launch khuruj include the appointment of an "amir of khuruj".
According to sharia law, khuruj against rulers can only be launched when the chances of success are good. ( So al Qaeda and the Taliban some how convinced them they could win. G )
"It [khuruj] will be different from isolated attacks, rather it will be collective actions of revolt throughout Pakistani cities. This is what khuruj is by strategy and according to the demands of sharia," Abu Haris said.
All the same, al-Qaeda is aware it doesn't have the following such as the Iranian revolution had in 1979 when the Shah was swept out of power. Al-Qaeda's strength in urban centers is estimated at not much more than a few thousand. ( So if it looks like they are going to loose
there goes khuruj. G )
All the same, Abu Haris is confident. "Just a few steps would be enough to break the binding forces of the country, and then it will fall into our hands," he says. "For instance, there are two major [oil] refineries in the country. If we were to blow them, the country would face a severe energy crisis. Everything would come to a halt and riots would erupt. There are already so many divisions in the country that the riots would bring it to the verge of collapse.
"The Pakistani army would be incapable of containing this. The 1965 war [with India] is evidence. Pakistan opened up a front in Indian Kashmir and in retaliation the Indians went for large-scale war ... the fact is that the Pakistani army was demoralized and desertions were rampant.
"We assess that any large-scale operation would break the army and Pakistan, and this would be a blessing for us. Of course, the Indians would take advantage of the situation and that's why we have a plan to immediately spread this war to the whole region, including India and Afghanistan," Abu Haris explains, basing his arguments on information from al-Qaeda's intelligence and review committee.
Pakistan in peril? Pakistan and al-Qaeda have had an informal agreement that al-Qaeda will not be targeted if it respects the sanctity of Pakistan. ( We also have said this. G ) Certainly, the Pakistani security forces - mostly under US duress - have launched many operations in the tribal areas, but the militants have generally responded by only fighting against the security forces.
However, the recent arrests in Karachi stunned General Headquarters in Rawalpindi as they came to appreciate the full extent of al-Qaeda's plans for sabotage in the cities.
Pakistani intelligence agencies were aware to some extent of the problem of militancy, but preferred not to tackle it head-on lest it explode in their faces.
Another incident also jolted the Pakistani army. Intelligence had been reporting for the past year of the presence of militants in Dara Adam Khail, in NWFP, but the army ignored the warnings. However, when militants seized the strategic Peshawar-Kohat tunnel, which cut off NWFP from the rest of the country, and with it military supplies, the army was shocked.
Retired Brigadier Mehmood Shah, a former secretary of FATA (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas) , commented to a national TV network, "I don't think that ordinary Taliban are behind such a sophisticated military strategy, which cuts off military supply lines. Only national armies can plan such operations. I think there is some external hand behind that operation."
However, this assessment ignores developments. The forms of militancy have changed. It is nothing like the tribal rebellion against British India when guerrilla war meant firing on military convoys from behind rocks. The touch of the military brains (see Military brains plot Pakistan's downfall Asia Times Online, September 26, 2007) has brought sophistication to the militancy.
In addition to mainstream al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban, many unnamed militant groups operate with different agendas, and they are little-know to Pakistani intelligence.
Many analysts believe Pakistan has undergone a major shift in its policies in the tribal areas and that last week's ceasefire is a manifestation of this.
"It is an illusion to think Pakistan has changed its policies. American pressure is so immense that Pakistan just would not dare to change its policies. They will definitely come after us, but this time we will not give them the chance of first strike," Abu Haris says.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com