Apr 25 2008
With al-Qaeda losing its last grip on Iraq – as it is being pushed out of that country by an alliance of Sunnis and Shia rising up against al-Qaeda, aided by US forces – the areas al-Qaeda can operate from in relative safely are shrinking fast. As I pointed out the other day the Taliban are also losing ground in Afghanistan were 75% of that nation is pacified (and there is more here on the cleansing of Afghanistan of extremists). There the extremists are being pushed southward towards Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Both fronts are forcing al-Qaeda and Taliban extremists to retreat into Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border and adjust their efforts to take on the West. One of these new efforts was to attack the supply chain running from Pakistan to Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass. While initial efforts were spectacularly successful, these successes simply refocused US, Pakistani and Afghan efforts on the new threat – which resulted in a serious failure for the extremists.
The Taliban and their al-Qaeda associates, in what they considered a master stroke, this year started to target the Western alliance’s supply lines that run through Pakistan into Afghanistan.
Their focal point was Khyber Agency, in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a key transit point for as much as 70% of the alliance’s supplies needed to maintain its battle against the Afghan insurgency.
The Torkham success was followed by a number of smaller attacks, and the Taliban’s plan appeared to be going better than they could have expected.
Then came this week’s incident in which the Taliban seized two members of the World Food Program (WFP) in Khyber Agency, and it became obvious the Taliban had been betrayed, and all for the princely sum of about US$150,000.
After coming under intense pressure in its traditional strongholds in the North and South Waziristan tribal areas, al-Qaeda and the Taliban staged a joint shura (council). This meeting concluded that they had to be especially careful of local political parties and tribals who were all too ready to sell themselves in the US’s quest to find Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. The council pointed to the example of Iraq, where the US’s policy of courting Sunni tribes to turn against al-Qaeda has had marked success.
At this point, the council hit on the idea of taking the initiative and turning Taliban and al-Qaeda attention on Khyber Agency with the aim of bleeding the Western coalition without having to launch major battles.
This was fine in theory, but there were practical difficulties: the agency is the most unlikely place for “Talibanization”. The majority of the population is Brelvi-Sufi Muslim, traditionally opposed to the Taliban’s Deobandi and al-Qaeda’s Salafi ideology. Being an historic route for armies and traders, the population is politically liberal and pragmatist, not easily swayed by idealist and Utopian ideology such as the Taliban’s and al-Qaeda’s.
So the Taliban sent in its own fighting corps gathered from other tribal areas, and drafted in Ustad Yasir, a heavyweight Afghan commander, from Afghanistan.
The Americans were fully aware of the Taliban’s designs on Khyber Agency and invested a lot in the tribes to protect the route. In response, the Taliban threatened tribal chieftains, and launched a suicide attack on a jirga (meeting) convened to discuss eradicating the Taliban from the area. Over 40 tribals were killed.
Unlike in previous Taliban attacks in the area, local paramilitary forces chased the Taliban after this incident. The Taliban retaliated and five soldiers were killed, but then their ammunition ran out and they surrendered the two workers and tried to flee, but they were blocked.
The Taliban called in reinforcements, but so did the paramilitary troops, and a stalemate was reached. Eventually, the Taliban managed to capture a local political agent (representing the central government) and they used him as a hostage to allow their escape.
They retreated to their various safe houses, but to their horror, paramilitary troops were waiting for them and scores were arrested, and their arms caches seized. A number of Taliban did, however, manage to escape once word got out of what was happening.
The only person aware of the safe houses was Namdar, their supposed protector: they had been sold out.
Their worst suspicions were confirmed when Namdar broke his cover and announced on a local radio station that Taliban commanders, including Ustad Yasir, should surrender or face a “massacre”, as happened when local tribes turned against Uzbek fighters in South Waziristan in January 2007.
Al-Qaeda and the Taliban immediately called an emergency shura in North Waziristan to review the situation. Al-Qaeda’s investigations revealed that the CIA and Pakistani intelligence had got to Namdar and paid him $150,000 in local currency.
This may be the context in which we see the tribes now suing for peace under very strict requirements regarding protecting terrorists in their midst. While some may worry about such arrangements, in my mind they make action taken against those who violate the agreements credible and defendable. It means the tribes better shape up or find massive responses heading their way both from Pakistan and from US forces inside Pakistan and on the other side of the border in Afghanistan.
There is also another wild card in the mix in the form of another islamist warlord who is in play in Khyber, but refuses to ally with the Taliban and other extremists. He too must make sure to follow the proper path and not get involved with terrorists needing safe haven to wage jihad on the West and our allies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Update: More here from the BBC on the new arrangements between the Pakistan government and the local tribes.