North Waziristan is not al Qaeda’s endgame, the entire border region is the target
With the Pakistani government ceding authority (but not autonomy) to the Taliban and al Qaeda, Coalition and Afghan forces will now be placed in a more difficult tactical situation along the Afghan-Pakistani border. With the threat of the Pakistani Army removed in North and South Waziristan, the Taliban and al Qaeda can now consolidate power and focus their efforts on attacking coalition forces in Afghanistan, as well as expand further into the greater North West Frontier Province. Operations such as Medusa in Kandahar and an offensive in the Konrangal River Valley in Kunar will become less of offensive actions and more like holding actions as the Taliban continue to operate from safe havens within Pakistan.
As we noted in January, Osama bin Laden was clear about his objectives along the Afghan-Pakistani border. His words were not bluster:
The 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.”
While there has been much speculation that the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan would give U.S. Special Forces and Air Force a green light to take out al Qaeda targets in the emirate, this is not an option due to political considerations in both Pakistan and the United States. North Waziristan, while under control of the Taliban, is still part of a nuclear armed Pakistani state. During his visit to Afghanistan, President Musharraf recognized that any major strikes inside Pakistani territory will result in great political unrest and his eventual ouster. “On our side of the border there will be a total uprising if a foreigner enters that area,” he said. “It’s not possible at all, we will never allow any foreigners into that area. It’s against the culture of the people there.”
Pakistan and the Taliban signed a similar “peace agreement”in South Waziristan during the spring of 2004, which quickly broke down. South waziristan is now under de facto Taliban control, with its own Shura, recruiting centers and religious police to enforce Shairah. Bajaur considered a Taliban and al Qaeda base of operations, and was the location of a U.S. airstrike against Ayman al-Zawahiri in January of 2006. Tank, Khyber, Peshawar and Dera Ishmal Khan are contested agencies,and now that the Taliban has had success, they will be targeted with greater effort.
Despite any “truce” signed in North Waziristan, the Taliban are quite active elsewhere in region. Within 24 hours after the agreement was signed, Taliban forces attacked a pro-government cleric in Bajaur. The cleric survived, but a 12 year old girl was killed in the incident. “Authorities believe militants may have wanted to attack Mabood because he supports government efforts to hunt down militants,” reports the Times of India. “Authorities have said al-Qaida-linked foreign militants and local tribesmen sympathetic to them operate in Bajur.”
Newsday touches on a crucial aspect of the truce: the agreement does little to stem the flow of Taliban to and from Afghanistan. The local tribes, and not the Pakistani Army, will control the vital border crossings into Pakistan.
The accord asserts that “there will be no cross-border traffic for military activities,” but contains the loophole that “for traffic … for trade, business and family visits, there will be no restriction, according to the customs and traditions” of the border area. In practice, the ethnic Pashtun tribes on both sides of the border cross with little attention paid by Pakistani border guards, who traditionally are members of those same tribes.
Under the deal, Pakistan agreed that tribal paramilitary forces, rather than army troops, will handle border control duties, as they did before the recent army offensive. The poorly trained, underpaid paramilitaries have proved no barrier to Taliban infiltration past the border, U.S. troops say.
The Times Online incorrectly states “A key provision of the deal is that tribesmen will expel foreign fighters from the area.” “Foreign fighters,” or “miscreants” as the Pakistanis refer to al Qaeda, are allowed to remain in the region if they pledge to be “peaceful.” Dawn reports “The agreement envisages that the foreigners living in North Waziristan will have to leave Pakistan but those who cannot leave will be allowed to live peacefully, respecting the law of the land and the agreement.” The loophole exists, and will be exploited. Over 130 Taliban and “miscreants” have been released from custody, and there has been no effort to deport the “foreigners.”
Syed Saleem Shahzad reports al Qaeda commander Ghulam Mustafa, who “once close to bin Laden and has intimate knowledge of al Qaeda’s logistics, its financing and its nexus with the military in Pakistan,” will be released from Pakistani custody, along with a host of al Qaeda members. An American intelligence source confirms this report.
Newsday also notes that the “peace deal has left the Taliban running a parallel government that has largely displaced Pakistan’s administration. The militants there openly recruit, train and send men to fight over the borders against the Americans.” This “parallel government” is the Mujahideen Shura we mentioned yesterday, and this future for the rest of the Northwest Frontier Province if the Pakistani government doesn’t halt the appeasement of al Qaeda and the Taliban.