September 10, 2008
KARACHI - Seven years after the United States led the invasion of Afghanistan in search of al-Qaeda and to topple the Taliban government, US President George W Bush has added neighboring Pakistan to the list of countries that are "a major 'war on terror' battleground", while also announcing a "quiet surge" of troops into Afghanistan.
Bush, in remarks prepared for delivery to the US National Defense University and released by the White House late on Monday, said Afghanistan, Iraq and now Pakistan "pose unique challenges for our country" in the worldwide conflict against terror and that it is in Pakistan's interests to "defeat terrorists and extremists".
What Bush didn't spell out is that it is also in the US's interests that Pakistan get tough on militants, and that the US is increasingly taking matters into its own hands inside Pakistan. In the the latest incident on Monday, at least 25 people were killed in a missile attack by unmanned Predator drones on a Pakistani village near the Afghan border.
The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier has moved into the Persian Gulf. Contrary to comments by US officials that it is to relieve the USS Abraham Lincoln, Asia Times Online has learned it is part of a new task force, separate from the Lincoln, which will allow the US to increase air sorties in the South Asian war theater. The Bush administration, critics say, is desperate to notch up a major terror success ahead of the presidential elections in November.
Pakistan, under president-elect Asif Ali Zardari, is on board with the US's war strategy, but, to the surprise of Islamabad and with potentially devastating consequences for Pakistan, the US has trained its guns on the "good" Taliban based in Pakistan with deep connections to the Pakistani establishment.
In Monday's drone attack, several missiles were fired at an Islamic madrassa (seminary) and the house of powerful Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani in Dandi Darpa Khail in the North Waziristan tribal area near the border with Afghanistan.
Jalaluddin, the spiritual leader of the Haqqani network and legendary figure in the Afghan mujahideen in the fight against the Soviets in the 1980s, and his son, Sirajuddin, the operational head of the most powerful component of the present Afghan resistance, had left the area. Most of those killed were woman and children from the families of the Haqqanis.
Earlier, three strikes, two on South Waziristan and one on North Waziristan, targeted Pakistan-friendly commander Haji Nazeer's area. Haji Nazeer operates the biggest Taliban network in the neighboring Afghan province of Paktika.
Monday's was the fourth attack this month inside Pakistan either by US drones or by US special forces and clearly indicates that the US has already opened up a war theater in Pakistan.
In the line of US fire
That the US set its sights on the Haqqanis is perplexing, and - given the failed outcome - indicates that it struck with inadequate, if any, input from Pakistan.
Although Sirajuddin Haqqani's network is the most resourceful and the strongest component of the Taliban-led Afghan national resistance, the Haqqanis - like Haji Nazeer - have long-standing links with Pakistan.
The US's information on the network was clearly sketchy. The madrassa targeted on Monday had been closed for some time and the Haqqanis are known by people in the area to have left the tribal region as they were on the US's radar.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) publishes posters saying Sirajuddin Haqqani is a wanted man, but it does not have a photograph of him - merely a portrait of his father.
NATO headquarters and US intelligence have tried to gain information on Sirajuddin by interviewing people from his Zadran tribe in Khost and Paktia provinces in Afghanistan. But the people accessible to NATO only interacted with Sirajuddin several years ago when he was militarily naive and irrelevant. (The reclusive Sirajuddin gave Asia Times Online a rare interview - see Through the eyes of the Taliban May 5, 2004.)
The Haqqanis have always been on good terms with the Pakistani security apparatus. Jalaluddin Haqqani was persuaded by Pakistan to surrender to the Taliban after the student militia emerged from southern Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and reached Khost and Paktia, Haqqani's domain.
Haqqani remained an outsider under Taliban rule, but he never betrayed them. After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US and the invasion of Afghanistan a few months later, the only name Pakistan discussed with Washington in terms of regime change in Afghanistan was Jalaluddin Haqqani.
He was invited to Islamabad and urged to become Taliban leader Mullah Omar's replacement in Kabul, but he declined and returned to the mountains of Paktia, Paktika and Khost to organize a guerrilla war against the Americans.
After five years, Haqqani's network emerged as the leading component of the resistance and he was reckoned as Mullah Omar's rival (a charge he always denied).
This once again brought hope to Islamabad that if the Americans decided to abandon Afghanistan, Haqqani, who is friendly with top Afghan leaders, especially in the north, would be a most useful connection in Kabul.
It is most likely then that the US acted on its own in going after this key Taliban network.
However, in militant and jihadi circles the perception is that the new government in Islamabad is fully cooperating with the US, including going after the "good" Taliban. As a result, for the first time, there is a chance of enmity between the Pakistani establishment and the Haqqani network. Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the chief of the Taliban in North Waziristan and a close ally of Haqqani, was quick to announce that they would avenge the attack.
A similar backlash could occur in South Waziristan, where the US's recent attacks were aimed in Taliban commander Haji Nazeer's area, rather than at the biggest Taliban network, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Taliban led by anti-Pakistan Baitullah Mehsud, or his associates in other tribal areas. Mehsud has been branded in the US media as the world's most dangerous person.
Haji Nazeer runs the biggest jihadi network in the Afghan province of Paktia and has always been close to the Pakistani establishment and he is a rival of Mehsud and his al-Qaeda allies. In January 2007, at Pakistan's instigation, Haji Nazeer led a massacre of Uzbek militants in South Waziristan, killing over 200 of them and forcing the remainder to flee.
Jihadis in the Haji Nazeer camp are bitter that the US has targeted them and for the first time recently carried out attacks on the Pakistani security forces in retaliation.
This American focus on "good" Taliban has blunted Pakistan's bid to create divisions within the Taliban as all groups are uniting under the umbrella of the Emirate of Mullah Omar - and all their guns are now trained on Pakistan.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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