Wednesday, July 21, 2004

We are losing the war on terror - Unlearned lessons from Waziristan

Asia Times Online - The best news coverage from South Asia

"Unlearned lessons from Waziristan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Under constant pressure from Washington, since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001 Pakistan has launched several operations of varying sizes in its tribal areas to flush out Taliban and al-Qaeda fugitives, the first major one beginning on June 22, 2002, at Azam Warsak, South Waziristan.

In the Azam Warsak operation, the Pakistani army launched its first-ever attack against al-Qaeda. The assault included paramilitary forces from the Frontier Corps and the Waziristan Scouts. A total of 17 people were killed - 11 members of the security forces and six Chechen and Uzbek militants. More than 50 foreigners are believed to have fled the attack.

Before that operation, Pakistani security forces clashed with foreign militants on December 20, 2001, when they intercepted a group of 60 militants while they were crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan. The militants were taken to jail, where they managed to snatch some rifles and in an ensuing gunfight 13 people were killed, including six security people and seven foreign fighters. The rest of the militants escaped.

The June 22 operation failed because of the sympathy of the Pakistani tribals toward the defeated Taliban regime and foreign fighters, and extreme anger at the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. When the Pakistani armed forces tried to catch the fleeing members of al-Qaeda, the rage also turned toward Pakistan's rulers. In particular, the Mehsood tribe heavily resisted the military, and provided safe passage to the foreign fighters.

The chief of Waziristan and other tribal elders clearly warned Pakistan of retaliation. The said the operation was US-sponsored and any further ones would be tantamount to open war against the tribals.

On June 27, 2002, Pakistani army officers, including Shaukat Hayat and Colonel Saeed Khan, met with the tribal jirga (council) and pledged that before any further action was taken against al-Qaeda, the tribals would be taken into the military's confidence, and then the tribals themselves could take action against the militants. The army would only enter the fray if the tribals failed to deliver.

Nevertheless, Pakistani security forces and the local political administration continued to undertake small operations in which a few foreigners were arrested. The tribals expressed their anger, but did not resist.

Then on October 2, 2003, Pakistan blatantly violated its agreement with the tribals when, without any warning, it air-dropped 2,500 commandos into the village of Baghar, near Angor Ada, with aerial support from 12 helicopter gunships. According to local residents, some of the helicopters flew from Machdad Kot US air base from across the border in Afghanistan. According to witnesses, 31 Pakistani soldiers and 13 foreign fighters and local tribals died. A large number of militants fled.

The operation left behind deep resentment against the Pakistani army, which itself now became a target. Previously the militants - often led by former Taliban commander Nek Mohammed - would only attack US targets in Afghanistan, then melt back into the Waziristan tribal areas. Now the Pakistani army and US forces were an "equal enemy". The militants also received renewed support from angered tribals.

On February 24 this year the Pakistani army launched another operation against the panthers and the wolves of the terrain - during British rule, the Mehsood tribals of Waziristan were called wolves, and the Wazirs panthers. During this operation, US helicopters were clearly seen overhead supervising the operation. Twenty-five people were arrested, but all were released as none of them were "high-value" targets.

By this time, the Pakistani army had lost its moral and political ground in Waziristan, and the tribals were actively opposed to it: military camps, patrolling vehicles, army installations and scout forts were all now the targets of heavy weapons and rocket launchers.

The Pakistani army intensified its action against militants, but unfortunately it targeted two passenger vehicles in which 13 people were killed and six wounded. Initially, the Army Inter-Services Public Relations claimed that the dead were militants, but later admitted that it was a case of mistaken identity and announced monetary compensation to the families.

Then President General Pervez Musharraf declared (falsely, it later proved) that top al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy Aiman al-Zawahiri, were hiding in the tribal areas, and Musharraf alleged that a murder attempt on his life had been hatched in South Waziristan. For the first time, Musharraf also admitted to the presence of US officials in South Waziristan providing intelligence support to Pakistani security forces. At the same time, the US Army commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General David Barno, admitted that US forces were pinpointing targets for the Pakistani army.

These factors further convinced the tribals that the Pakistani army's presence in the tribal areas was US-sponsored and Pakistan would have to go through with it at all costs, and that negotiations would only be a showcase.

In this environment, on March 16 the army began a new offensive centered on Wana involving the Frontier Corps, the Baloch Regiment, the Punjab Regiment, the Waziristan Scouts, the Khasadar Force and elite commandos of the Special Services Group of the army.

Just a day before the operation began, in Kalosha village, all top al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders gathered, including legendary commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, al-Qaeda commander Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, alias Abu Mohammed, Qari Rashi Maqtoom of al-Qaeda's special training cell, Taliban commander Abdul Bari Sayyaf, and the supreme commander of the Harkatul Islami Uzbekistan, Tahir Yuldevish. By the time the offensive began, they had all fled, apart from Tahir Yuldevish, who got away after sustaining some injuries.

The offensive ended after 10 days, with several hundred soldiers and tribals killed. According to sources in the army, 500 soldiers surrendered, either because they came under attack or because they refused to fight their countrymen. They now face court-martial. Asia Times Online has acquired a letter written on a General Headquarters Pakistan letterhead, part of which says:
It was the first time in the history of the Pakistan army when officers and soldiers refused to fire bullets on their fellow nationals. As a result, help from US forces was sought and tribals were brutally killed. At present, a big number of soldiers and officers belonging to 37 Division - 313 Brigade - 24 Sindh, 31 Baloch Regiment, 12 Punjab Regiment and Frontier Corps Peshawar have been arrested. These people have been detained in Gujranwala, Mangla and Jhelum and they will be court-martialed.
As a consequence of the Wana operation, 20 candidates at the Pakistan Military Academy had their beards forcibly shaved. A similar thing happened at the Naval Academy.

The only outcome of the Wana operation was the arrest of 163 tribals, but once again they turned out to be local people. Eleven of them were released on April 29 and 78 on May 1. Several of the arrested included school-going children. No Taliban or al-Qaeda suspects were apprehended.

Worse, the operation caused a severe backlash. A religious ruling signed by 500 leading scholars called militants who died in the action martyrs, and warned the public not to say prayers for the dead soldiers "who died for the cause of the US". The ruling demoralized the army and gave a moral boost to the insurgent tribals.

On April 24, the Corps Commander Peshawar endorsed the failure of the operation and confirmed Pakistan's retreat when he declared an amnesty for all wanted people. Nek Mohammed was even decorated with garlands of flowers, and the officer vowed not to operate in the tribal areas again.

But such euphoria was to be short-lived. The Pakistani army once again put its troops in forward positions and on June 9 a new operation was launched. It continued for several days, culminating in the death of Nek, who sustained fatal injuries when the house in which he was sheltering was attacked with laser-guided missiles, which many believe were fired by US forces.

At the time of his death, Nek had become somewhat isolated, with tribes going their different ways and differing over the presence of the foreign militants in the area. However, his end brought all the tribes together again under his slogan, "No compromise on the question of foreigners." That is, no handing them over to the authorities.

In this context, the comments of a former US Central Intelligence Agency official are pertinent. Writing under the name Anonymous, his book Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror dismisses two of the most frequent boasts of the Bush administration: that bin Laden and al-Qaeda are "on the run" and that the Iraq invasion has made the United States safer.

In a recent interview with a British newspaper, the official described al-Qaeda as a much more proficient and focused organization than it was in 2001, and predicted that it would "inevitably" acquire weapons of mass destruction and try to use them. He said bin Laden was probably "comfortable" commanding his organization from the mountainous tribal lands along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Pakistani army claimed a big success in the "war against terror" with the killing of Nek, who was one of al-Qaeda's protectors in Waziristan. But Anonymous, who had been centrally involved in the hunt for bin Laden, said: "Nek Mohammed is one guy in one small area. We sometimes forget how big the tribal areas are." He believes that Musharraf "cannot advance much further into the tribal areas without endangering his rule by provoking a Pashtun revolt".

Yet this is exactly what the US is forcing Pakistan to do, with a major attack expected any time soon. Anonymous believes that President George W Bush is taking the US in exactly the direction bin Laden wants, toward all-out confrontation with Islam under the banner of spreading democracy.

The first steps down this deadly path could well have been taken already in Pakistan's tribal areas. "

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