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Volume 4, No. 8 - June - July 2005

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The American Commander of the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno stated on April 18 that terrorists were infiltrating into Afghanistan from Pakistan and Islamabad had been asked to begin a fresh operation against remnants of Taliban and al-Qaeda presently hiding in the Waziristan region of Pakistan.

However, Peshawar Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain was quick to dismiss Barno's claim on April 20, describing it as a highly irresponsible remark: "Lt. Gen. Barno should not have made that statement. It was a figment of his imagination. There is no bloody operation going on until we have the right intelligence", Safdar said, while ruling out joint military operations with the US-led coalition forces, adding, "My strategy is to achieve the end goal without firing a shot".

The Peshawar Corps Commander's statement was followed by Director General Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan's rejoinder, claiming, "no such military operation is being launched, and we decide for ourselves what needs to be done and when and where". Barno made his statement during a meeting of Tripartite Commission of the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan that was held in Islamabad on April 18.

According to Pakistani media reports, the US General claimed during the meeting that the remnants of Taliban and al-Qaeda were planning to stage some high visibility attacks over the next six to nine months, which would get them back on the scoreboard after suffering major strategic reversals. "The coming spring would therefore see a fresh operation in North Waziristan
to nip their planned offensive in the bud", Lt. Gen. Barno was quoted as saying.

Ten days later, on April 28, Lt. Gen. Barno in an interview to The New York Times (
NYT) stated further: "The Americans have been training Pakistanis in night flying and airborne assault tactics to combat foreign and local fighters in the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border." Significantly, this was the first time the American military acknowledged the training. Barno further admitted that the presence of American troops in Pakistan was regarded as extremely delicate, adding that he had visited the Special Services Group headquarters of the Pakistan Army at Cherat, near Peshawar recently, where he watched a display by the units trained by the Americans in their new Bell 4 helicopters.

However, the NYT report also quoted ISPR Director Maj. Gen. Sultan as saying that there were no American military trainers at Cherat and that Barno had probably been referring to joint military exercises between the two countries. He told the newspaper in a phone interview, "The Pakistan Army has been training with many countries of the world. We have also been conducting joint military training with the US Army many a time earlier. They benefit from each other's experience. They learn from each other. That's what has been happening, and nothing else." Yet, contrary to the claims of the Pakistani Generals, the report stated that the Pakistan Army was gearing up to go into the last redoubts of al-Qaeda and foreign fighters - the tribal areas of North Waziristan near the border with Afghanistan.

In all likelihood, Lt. Gen. Barno's statement was not a 'figment of his imagination'; he just made public something General Safdar and his superiors did not want the Pakistani people to know. The Pakistan Army has been fighting the invisible enemy in Waziristan without much success, often giving an impression of failure. Whatever the truth, statements and counter statements by American and Pakistani Generals clearly indicate that the troubles in Waziristan are far from over. Since the military authorities have banned the entry of newsmen into the region, nobody knows what is actually going on in Waziristan. The only available source of information is the ISPR spokesman, whose claims are always contested by the Opposition and the media in public.

US intelligence sleuths stationed in Pakistan evidently believe that the country continues to be a potential site of militant recruitment and training, and al-Qaeda's 'operational commander' Abu Faraj al-Libbi, presently hiding in Pakistan's tribal belt, continues to hire local recruits to bolster up his terrorist organisation's manpower, which continues to grow in strength despite the capture of over 500 of its operatives from within Pakistan over the past two years. According to intelligence sources, most of the al-Qaeda fugitives on the run from Afghanistan are being sheltered by the heavily armed populace on the Pak-Afghan border, where they are being trained in terror.

US intelligence findings indicate specifically that some of the al-Qaeda training camps have already been reactivated along the southeastern side of the Pak-Afghan border. These reports further suggest that Osama Bin Laden, and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may also be in the region. Meanwhile, General Pervez Musharraf also confirmed that Osama Bin Laden is not only alive, but is residing in the Pak-Afghan tribal area. "Osama is alive and I am cent percent sure that he is hiding in Pak-Afghan tribal belt", stated during an April 22, 2005, interview with CNN. Similarly, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the American Special Presidential Envoy and Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, have repeatedly alleged that terrorists continue to operate against Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Lt. Gen. Barno's apprehensions that "the Taliban and al-Qaeda can launch their big offensive from North Waziristan in next nine months", consequently, appears to carry weight and belies repeated claims by Pakistan that the Waziristan area has returned to normalcy after successful Army operations. As a matter of fact, the Peshawar Corps Commander, Lt. Gen. Hussain, had declared in January 2005 that the 'back of the terrorists has been broken' and that only a few of them had survived, "roaming around in small batches". The Corps Commander's statement came two years after the Pakistan Army started operations in South Waziristan in January 2003. The Army had to launch the operations after being alerted by the Americans to the presence of Taliban and al-Qaeda elements in the Waziristan region. Lt. Gen. Hussain had further announced in January 2005 that out of the 6,000 foreign terrorists, 600 had already been captured and another 150 killed. He also admitted that, during the operations, 200 Pakistan Army personnel had been killed at the hands of the terrorists.

The heavy losses suffered by the Pakistan Army eventually compelled its High Command to suspend the military campaign and pursue peace pacts with the local tribes. The first such accord was signed at Shakai with Waziri warlord Nek Mohammad in April 2004. Nek Mohammad reneged and was killed by an American guided laser missile. The second agreement was signed at Sararogha in February 2005 with Baitullah Mahsud, the chieftain of the Mahsud tribe. The deal was mediated by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, at a ceremony that ended with shouts of "Death to America". Interestingly, the pact with Baitullah Mahsud did not forbid Abdullah Mahsud, the most wanted fugitive from the Mahsud tribe, from attacking the US forces across the border in Afghanistan. Despite reports of his being killed in a Pakistan Army ambush in February 2005, the fact remains that Abdullah is still alive and remains the foremost militant commander in the Waziristan area.

Interestingly, the Sararogha peace pact did not require that Abdullah surrender the foreign terrorists allegedly taking shelter with him; it simply bound him not to attack the Pakistan Army and not give shelter to foreign terrorists. It did not bind him to lay down arms or not fight across the Durand Line. The man swears allegiance to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban ameer (chief); he moves around in a bullet-proof car and is followed by some 30 armed guards; he owns two castle-like houses in North and South Waziristan
. As Abdullah Mahsud has apparently failed to honour his side of the bargain, the Pakistan Army has once again been asked by the Americans to launch fresh operations in its territory. Earlier, Lt. Gen. Barno had declared, in February 2005, after the signing of the Sararogha agreement with Baitullah Mahsud: "The foreign fighters in the tribal belt had to be killed or captured instead of being given amnesty through so-called peace accords."

Interestingly, however, both the peace accords make no mention of the Pakistan Army's previous condition that the tribal militants must produce foreigners hiding in
Waziristan and ensure their registration. The Army's insistence on this condition had led to the collapse of the Shakai agreement signed between the Peshawar Corps Commander and 'Commander' Nek Mohammad's militant group, in April 2004. The militants' failure to produce the foreign militants hiding in the area had triggered a new round of fighting that ended up in Nek's death on June 19, 2004.

The February 2005 peace agreement took an intriguing turn on February 8, 2005, with Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain claiming that tribal militants demanded Rs. 170 million during the course of peace negotiations, and eventually settled for Rs. 50 million to repay debts they owed to al-Qaeda-linked foreign militants. The BBC quoted the Corps Commander as saying that the four former wanted militants had insisted they needed the money to pay back huge sums to al-Qaeda. Haji Sharif and Maulvi Abbas received Rs. 15 million each, while Maulvi Javed and Haji Mohammad Omar were each paid ten million rupees.

The disclosure fuelled speculation that the Government had been paying money to buy-off militants in South Waziristan. However, Haji Omar, on behalf of the Wana militants, denied the Corps Commander's claim and made it clear that he and the four other militants had only been paid Rs. 4.2 million by retired Colonel Inamullah Wazir and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) officials who negotiated with him and the other four militants on behalf of the Army, and this amount was for rebuilding their houses that had been destroyed during the military operations. "Each of us received around Rs. 800,000. My brother Haji Sharif and I got a total of Rs. 1.6 million, while our third brother, Noor Islam, who wasn't part of the peace agreement, didn't receive any money. This amount was far less than the losses we incurred as a result of the damage suffered by our apple orchards and demolition of our family houses plus a hospital in Kalooshah that alone was worth more than Rs. 4 million," he added.

The ongoing 'war on terror' being waged in the Pakistani tribal areas has clearly not been without its share of controversies, charges and counter-charges. This was inevitable given the difficult nature of the military operations and the enigmatic relationship of the partners involved in fighting terror. But the angry public exchange between the Peshawar Corps Commander and the Commander of the US forces in Afghanistan could easily have been avoided with a little discretion. Given the strong public sentiments against the Bush administration in Pakistan, especially in the areas bordering Afghanistan, such controversies are bound to evoke strong public reaction and embarrass the Government. These are, indeed, testing times for the Pakistan Government, the Army, the security apparatus and the people of Pakistan.

COURTESY: South Asia Terrorism Portal

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