South Asia
Oct. 5, 2007
Taliban poised for a big push
by Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Following the success of their 2006 spring offensive, the Taliban were expected to make even further gains in Afghanistan this year. It never happened, due to strong pre-emptive action by Western coalition forces in Afghanistan and Pakistani military action against Taliban bases in the Pakistani tribal areas.

However, plans for a mass uprising on the back of renewed insurgency activity are far from shelved, and could be implemented with vigor at the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan next week, with tens of thousands of freshly trained men pouring into Afghanistan.

The key lies in Pakistan's tribal areas, from where the Taliban draw recruits, have training camps and run their logistics.

The Pakistani Taliban and Islamabad signed peace agreements in February 2005 and September 2006, under the terms of which the Pakistani Army cut back its troop levels in the tribal areas in return for militants stopping their attacks on the Pakistani Army and forces in Afghanistan.

In July the Taliban abandoned the treaties following the storming of the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad by government troops. The mosque was an outspoken supporter of the Taliban movement and many militants used it as a sanctuary.

Since then, the Pakistani military has re-engaged militants in the tribal areas, severely choking their supply arteries.

In the past 10 days, however, militants have launched at least nine carefully planned operations against security positions in both North Waziristan and South Waziristan, and in towns in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), including Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan, and in the Swat Valley.

As a result, all security operations against the Taliban and their al-Qaeda colleagues in the tribal areas have stopped, and by all accounts the army is running scared. It is estimated that Pakistan has 100,000 troops and 1,000 military posts along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

From the military's perspective, the situation is exacerbated by a political hiatus in Islamabad. President General Pervez Musharraf stands for re-election in Saturday's presidential polls, after which he is expected to step down as military head and prepare over the next few months for a civilian consensus government, most likely with former premier Benazir Bhutto. No new plans to tackle the problems in the tribal areas can be expected until this situation is settled.

The Taliban and their supporters now have the breathing space to replenish stocks and prepare for their new push into Afghanistan. It is envisaged that at least 20,000 fully trained fresh men from at least 16 entry points along the Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan will be sent into Afghanistan.

According to people who spoke to Asia Times Online and who are familiar with the planning, the main points will be Noshki (in Balochistan province), Ghulam Khan (North Waziristan), Angur Ada (South Waziristan), Shawal (North Waziristan), and Chitral and Bajuar agencies.

The new forces will go to the front lines in Afghanistan in the southeastern provinces of Ghazni, Khost, Gardez, Paktia and Paktika, and many of them will be trained suicide bombers.

The action has already picked up in Ghazni. On Wednesday, hundreds of Taliban occupied the remote district of Ajristan, killing at least two policemen and forcing the rest to flee. The Taliban have occupied numerous other remote areas. Wednesday's attack came a day after a suicide attack on a police bus in the capital, Kabul, killed 13 people.

The strategy to attack the Pakistani Army is being orchestrated by a cabal of former army officers who have joined up with the militants in Waziristan. (See Military brains plot Pakistan's downfall Asia Times Online, September 26). They draw inspiration from the guerrilla strategy used by Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap against the French and the Americans. Given the backoff by the Pakistani military, their plans are working, at least for now.

Military under attack
From the daring attacks on Frontier Constabulary forts in Bannu in NWFP, where fresh hostages were taken, to suicide attacks on military and paramilitary convoys in the Swat Valley, the militants' intelligence network is doing its job.

In all cases, the targets have been accurately pinpointed, and the operations carried out according to plan. The attacks have swiftly reached into the Swat Valley and send a clear message to the commanders in their barracks in Peshawar to pull back their troops or face the music.

Indeed, the latest offensive against the army has sent shockwaves through military headquarters in Rawalpindi, and it is even feared that they could spread to big cities such as Karachi, Lahore and the capital Islamabad.

Pakistani officials have admitted to more than 1,000 of the country's forces being killed in the tribal areas. Large-scale kidnappings also have a demoralizing effect on troops. To date, more than 500 troops have been abducted in different operations, the most recent being the capture of 22 in Bannu. Some of them have been swapped for Taliban prisoners, while some are still in captivity.

This week, while in the United States pleading for more time in taming the tribal areas, Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Riaz Muhammad Khan acknowledged his country had an "image problem".

Clearly it's more than just image. Pakistan's reaction - or inaction - in the tribal areas will have a direct bearing on the Taliban's offensive in Afghanistan, and the longer its troops are on the defensive, the better the chances of the Taliban.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at
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