Al Qaeda's Pakistan Sanctuary
Musharraf appeases the Taliban.
Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By BILL ROGGIO
The security situation in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province continues to deteriorate. Once again, Western pressure on the government of President Pervez Musharraf has failed to prevent Pakistan from handing over territory to the Taliban, this time to a group called the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws. On March 17, a Pakistani "peace" committee struck a verbal agreement with the Mohmand tribe, under which the government promised to cease military activity in Bajaur in exchange for the tribe's promise not to shelter "foreigners" or allow cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.
A look at the players shows this agreement to be another pact with the devil. The tribal militants are led by Faqir Muhammad, government sources told Dawn, an English-language Pakistani newspaper, the day the agreement was made. Faqir Muhammad is a senior leader of the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws, which provided the ideological inspiration to the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. Faqir's group sent over 10,000 fighters into Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001. His two sons and two cousins were arrested by Pakistani authorities after returning from Afghanistan.
The Jamestown Foundation refers to Faqir Muhammad as "al-Zawahiri's Pakistani ally." His home in the village of Damadola was targeted by a joint U.S.-Pakistani airstrike in January 2006 after al Qaeda senior leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was believed to have been there. Zawahiri and Faqir escaped death, but Abu Khabab al-Masri, the chief of al Qaeda's WMD program, and several other senior al Qaeda leaders were killed in the attack.
In October 2006, Faqir called Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar "heroes of the Muslim world" and vowed joint efforts to fight the "enemies of peace" in Bajaur. Days later, the Chingai madrassa, which doubled as an al Qaeda and Taliban training camp, was hit by a U.S. airstrike, killing 84 Taliban, including Faqir's deputy, Liaquat Hussain. Faqir responded by attacking the Dargai military base with a suicide bomber.
Under the leadership of Faqir Muhammad, whom the Pakistani government refuses to arrest, Bajaur has become an al Qaeda command and control center for launching operations into eastern Afghanistan. Kunar, the adjacent Afghan province, is one of the most violent in the country.
None of this will come as a surprise to anyone tracking the situation in northwestern Pakistan. Since the signing of the Waziristan Accord on September 5, 2006, essentially ceding North Waziristan to the Taliban and al Qaeda, attacks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have skyrocketed. Afghanistan has seen an increase in attacks of more than 300 percent, and battalion-sized groups of Taliban fighters have been hit while crossing the border from Pakistan. Cross-border raids are up more than 200 percent, and NATO forces have repeatedly engaged in hot pursuit across the Pakistani frontier. U.S. artillery has begun to strike at large Taliban formations in Pakistani territory. Suicide bombings in Afghanistan increased fivefold from 2005 to 2006. This year, there have already been more suicide attacks in Afghanistan than in all of 2006.
The situation has gotten so bad that in February, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan, called "a steady, direct attack against the command and control in sanctuary areas in Pakistan" essential to preempt the expected Taliban spring offensive. Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, voiced similar concerns last month, saying, "Long-term prospects for eliminating the Taliban threat appear dim so long as the sanctuary remains in Pakistan, and there are no encouraging signs that Pakistan is eliminating it."
The rise of North and South Waziristan as hubs for Taliban and al Qaeda activity has not only damaged Afghan security and reconstruction. Unwilling to confine its activities to the border areas, the Pakistani Taliban also has designs on the settled regions of the North-West Frontier Province, an area the size of Florida. This was clear as long ago as March 2006, when Aftab Khan Sherpao, the Pakistani interior minister, sounded the alarm. "The Taliban's sphere of influence has expanded to Dera Ismail Khan, Tank, and the Khyber Agency, where clerics of the area have started to join them," Sherpao said. "There has been a sharp increase in attacks on heavily defended military targets in these areas as well."
Asfandyar Wali, leader of the secular, democratic Awami National party, has also been trying to arouse concern about the Taliban's growing power in the North-West Frontier Province. Wali recently went on Pakistani television and reported that the district of Kohat is now under Taliban control.
And in the last six months, the Taliban has conducted a concerted roadside and suicide bombing campaign in the settled regions of Pakistan. Suicide bombings have occurred in Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta, Mir Ali, Dera Ismail Khan, and Dera Adamkhel. Pakistani security forces were attacked by the Taliban with roadside bombs and ambushes in Tank, Dera Ismail Khan, Bajaur, and North and South Waziristan. A Pakistani military base in Dargai was hit by a suicide attack, which killed over 45 recruits exercising outside the base. Faqir Muhammad was responsible.
Throughout the North-West Frontier Province, schools, nongovernmental organizations, foreign banks, barber shops, and music and video stores have received notices ordering them to shut down or face attacks--a standard Taliban modus operandi. Some shut down, others were destroyed by bombs.
All the while, the Taliban is working to consolidate its power by removing anyone who remotely opposes its radical agenda. Tribesmen are routinely found murdered, often with their throats cut, stabbed multiple times, or beheaded. They always have a note pinned to their body identifying them as a "U.S. spy." More than 250 "spies" have been murdered in the past year. The network of pro-Western tribal leaders in the region has essentially been dismantled, according to an American military intelligence official.
The mastermind of this terror and bombing campaign is Baitullah Mehsud, the most powerful Taliban leader in South Waziristan. He is estimated to have an army of over 30,000 trained fighters. The Pakistani government negotiated yet another of its "peace" deals with Baitullah back in 2005, in which he agreed to cease attacking Pakistani security forces and sheltering "foreign fighters." Baitullah never lived up to the agreement.
In January, one of Baitullah's training camps in the small town of Zamazola was hit by an airstrike, purportedly by Pakistani security forces. It is widely accepted, however, that U.S. Special Operations Forces conducted the attack. Baitullah then embarked on the recent suicide campaign, killing scores nationwide. "They launch airstrikes on us and we respond with suicide attacks," Baitullah told a crowd after the strike on Zamazola. He also promised to continue the fight in Afghanistan, saying, "The holy warriors will give a tougher fight this year than last year." Pakistani police traced the string of suicide strikes directly to Baitullah--yet the Pakistani government sent negotiators to meet with him, and they accepted his protestations of innocence. Baitullah is untouchable.
To illustrate just how badly the Waziristan Accord has failed, last week a powerful Taliban commander fought with an al Qaeda-linked Uzbek group in South Waziristan. More than 160 Uzbeks and Taliban are reported killed. The Pakistani government was quick to represent this fight as proof that the accord was working: In the government's version of events, pro-government tribes had battled foreign jihadists to enforce the agreement. But nothing could be further from the truth. The fighting began after Uzbeks killed an Arab al Qaeda fighter supported by the Taliban. To settle the conflict, the Taliban sent in senior commanders, including Baitullah Mehsud and Mullah Dadullah Akhund, military leader of the Afghan Taliban, to negotiate a truce between the factions.
Now, the Taliban and al Qaeda openly rule in the tribal lands. Terror training camps are up and running, secure from harassment by Pakistani security forces. Al Qaeda leaders are thought to be sheltered in the region, as Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, confirmed in February.
The Bajaur agreement signals once again that the Pakistani government is unwilling to police its own borders, and is prepared to hand over even more territory to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Behind the agreement is the hidden hand of General Hamid Gul, the former chief of Pakistan's shadowy intelligence service, the ISI.
Gul, an Islamist, is credited with laying the groundwork for the establishment of the Taliban and is said to be friends with Mullah Omar. The 9/11 Commission believed he had warned Osama bin Laden prior to the 1998 missile strike launched by President Clinton, allowing bin Laden to escape. Last year, Gul sought an injunction from the Pakistani supreme court to prevent Pakistani military action in Bajaur. President Musharraf's dismissal of the chief justice on March 9 is rumored to be related to this case.
The United States smashed al Qaeda's base of operations in Afghanistan in 2001, only to see it transferred to northwestern Pakistan. The refusal of the Musharraf regime to deal with this situation, and the active participation of elements of the Pakistani military, intelligence, and political elites in supporting our enemies, are worrisome for our efforts in the war on terror--and threaten the very existence of a non-jihadist Pakistani state.