RECENT EVENTS in Afghanistan, notably the temporary seizure of the Afghan towns of Garmser and Naway-i-Barakzayi, have once again provoked a wave of speculation concerning a renewed Taliban offensive. The ability of the Taliban and their allies in al Qaeda and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami to organize such attacks suggests that they have succeeded at establishing a new safe haven--in northern Pakistan.
Contrary to the optimistic pronouncements of the Pakistani military, the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies have been able to establish control of a broad swath of territory across northern Pakistan, particularly in the Waziristan region that was described to Newsday by American and Afghan officials in February 2006 as "the primary engine of the continued Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan." Quoting Pakistani journalist Behroz Khan, Newsday reported that "The Taliban controls the roads, acts as the police force and judicial authority and openly runs offices to recruit fighters to their ranks." These claims appear to be verified by Taliban propaganda distributed both online and via CD, which according the Italian news agency Adnkronos International, shows the following:
Thousands of young men wearing turbans are seen moving with their weapons. Their commanders select a squad among them to carry out a guerrilla mission to attack the US base in the south-eastern Afghan province of Khost. The men are seen wearing headbands bearing the slogan: "There is no God but one God, Mohammed is the messenger of God".
The youths then emerge out from their bases in the night and attack a US base in Khost. After a 30-minute battle, the US base is in flames and the members of the squad return to their base.
Their animosity has not been limited to the United States. Taliban and al Qaeda propaganda outlets have begun distributing execution videos of individuals purported to be thieves, drug dealers, or American agents. Yet while other governments might be concerned by the establishment of a known terrorist sanctuary on their soil, the Pakistani response has been surprisingly lax, particularly in comparison to how they dealt with the ethnic-based insurrection in neighboring Baluchistan. Even while the Pakistani military has been actively fighting the Taliban in North Waziristan, the local newspaper Daily Times reports that "Local Taliban in South Waziristan have been allowed to establish an office in Wana to "help restore law and order" in the area" and that their leader Maulvi Abbas "was wanted by the government until he signed an agreement last year not to participate in or encourage attacks on security forces." Yet despite this agreement, the problem remains to such an extent that in April 2006 Federal Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao was reported as having stated that:
The local Taliban have killed as many as 150 pro-government tribal leaders [Maliks] in North and South Waziristan and openly challenging the writ of the federal government and engaging a number of security forces' personnel in the area.
. . . So great has been the impact that the local "Maliks" and political administration have all been limited to their houses and offices, reports the Daily Times.
"The Taliban's sphere of influence has expanded to DI Khan, Tank and the Khyber Agency, where clerks of the area have started to join them. There has been a sharp increase in attacks on heavily-defended military targets in these areas as well," said Sherpao.
. . . The local Taliban have taken control of most of North and South Waziristan and enforced a strict Islamic code, including a ban on sale of music and films. They have also ordered the men to not shave off their beards.
While they have established an Islamic court in Wana, headquarters of South Waziristan, replacing the traditional jirga, in Miramshah, capital of North Waziristan, curfew has been imposed after bloody clashes between federal forces and alleged Al Qaeda militants.
THE TALIBAN CONTINUE to retain their alliance with al Qaeda. The Daily Times reported last month that Maulana Faqir Muhammad, the leader of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz Shariah Muhammad and a major figure within the Pakistani Taliban, narrowly escaped the American missile attack on Damadola, which targeted a number of al Qaeda leaders (including bin Laden's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri). And while both al-Zawahiri and Muhammad survived the Damadola attack, Abu Khabab, the head of al Qaeda's wmd program did not. The fact that Muhammad and other senior members of the Pakistani Taliban continue to openly associate with both their Afghan brethren and some of the most wanted terrorists on the planet is evidence enough that their rise to power inside Pakistan constitutes a threat. For instance, one of the senior Taliban commanders killed by the Pakistani military in March 2006 was the Chechen Emir Asad; other senior commanders of note within the group include Tahir Yuldashev of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Sheikh Essa al-Masri of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, both of which are tied to al Qaeda's international jihad.
It is time to acknowledge the continuing threat of al Qaeda's rear bases and discuss how to deal them, whether or not it makes the Pakistani government uncomfortable.
Dan Darling is a counterterrorism consultant.