The airstrike on al Qaeda leadership in the town of Damadola has done more than just kill up to five senior al Qaeda commanders, including Abu Khabab, the chief of al Qaeda’s WMD program; it has shone a light on the largely hidden war occurring on the Afghan-Pakistani border, the pervasiveness of al Qaeda and the Taliban in the tribal belts, and Pakistan’s struggles in fighting al Qaeda in the region.
The Jamestown Foundation’s Akram Gizabi highlights the difficult situation Pakistan faces as the Taliban has deep ties in the tribal regions and local customs that work in al Qaeda’s favor. Faqir Mohammed, who sponsored the dinner in Bajaur, has been cooperating with the Taliban for well over a decade:
Faqir Mohammed is a leader of the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Sharia, a religious group that forcibly imposed Islamic religious laws in the Pashtun tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan in the 1990s… The group still has some influence and occasionally sets up temporary tribal courts to try cases such as fornication, alcohol consumption and selling narcotics. In 1996, when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, the group established a close working relationship with Mullah Omar’s regime.
This group is also believed to have recruited thousands of ethnic Pashtuns to fight in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban when the United States attacked the country in December 2001. Many of these volunteers later died in prison camps in northern Afghanistan.
ABC’s Brian Ross reports on the resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaeda, and Asia Times’ Syed Saleem Shahzad states Osama bin Laden’s most recent video tape “marks [al Qaeda’s] announcement that the new strategy it has been developing is now very much in place,” which includes a reorganization of al Qaeda’s structure and “the acquisition of various bases in the shape of small pockets” in the tribal regions “along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas, including Khost-North Waziristan, South Waziristan, Kunar-Chitral and Kunar-Bajur.” Strategy Page posits that the upsurge in violence is due to the “Kashmir Effect’, a glut of domestic Pakistani fighters out of a job as Pakistan and India are making peace overtures in Jammu and Kashmir.
The airstike in Damadola was one of several high profile missions in the region, which includes the capture of Abu Musab al-Suri and the Predator strike that killed Abu Hamza Rabia. Najam Sethi, the Editor of Pakistan’s Daily Times states the Damadola strike “was impossible for the US to have carried out the air strike in Bajaur Agency without prior information from Pakistani intelligence agencies.” The quick response of Pakistani intelligence to gather DNA evidence in Damadola lends credence to this view. ABC‘s Brian Ross provides a much more interesting theory, that a sleeper cell within the Pakistani ISI called the Spider Group is feeding the United States intelligence:
Musharraf has created, inside his own intelligence agency, a minor intelligence agency. It is called “The Spider Group” made up of “trusted Pakistani intelligence agents, CIA agents, and a number of wealthy business men who have funded privately a group that is tracking bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.”…The Spider Group is spreading a lot of money around, developing relationships to try and find out the details of the comings and goings of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.
The contradictions in statements between President Musharraf and Prime Minister Aziz about the effectiveness of the Damadola strike become clearer if the existence of “The Spider Group” is accurate.
President Musharraf recently acknowledged the presence of al Qaeda and the need to eliminate them, “These foreigners are there and we need to eliminate these foreigners.” Prime Minister Aziz also recognizes this and states, according to Reuters, that “Pakistan is building roads and improving communications in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan in an effort to develop a round-the-clock capability to hunt militants…” But Mr. Aziz, as Andrew Cochran of The Counterterrorism Blog points out, is also trying to paper over the problems in the tribal regions; “We’ve taken over their sanctuaries. Where they were in the hundreds, now they are only in the dozens around in the mountains and we are chasing them. Which country in the world has arrested 700 Al Qaeda people, all the important ones? Only Pakistan.”
Pakistan has indeed arrested and killed hundreds of mid-level and senior al Qaeda leaders within their borders. But until Pakistan stops refusing to crack down on domestic terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, who work hand in hand with al Qaeda, and addresses the problems within the tribal belt, there will continue to be problems with “foreign fighters” and “miscreants”. Pakistan, despite efforts to crack down on foreign terrorists, remains a breeding ground and base of operations for al Qaeda and the Taliban, and threatens Musharraf’s government, the nascent democracy in Afghanistan and peace on the subcontinent and beyond.