The militants' resistance is stiffening, with better tactics and communication systems, reinforcements, and arms and ammunition from across the border. Reinforcements are coming from other Agencies in the FATA and from Afghanistan (primarily from the Kunar province). Western diplomatic sources acknowledge that the "level of violence in Kunar has dropped appreciably since the launch of the operation in Bajaur, indicating a planning and operational linkage that overlaps the Durand Line."
The extremists, Army chief Kayani said during his visit to Bajaur on September 28, 2008, were attacking not only security forces and Government installations but were also blowing up girls' schools and health centres.
As has happened elsewhere in Pakistan, the conflict in Bajaur has led to a huge displacement of the civilian population. While there are no accurate figures of the number of refugees, reliable reportage indicates that an estimated 500,000 people have been displaced from the Agency since August 2008. There has also been a flight out of Bajaur by an estimated 70, 000 Afghans, following orders by the local administration to vacate the Agency. Many of the Afghans reportedly have crossed the border into Afghanistan, while others have shifted to the Dir Lower District. The Afghan refugees in Bajaur had been living there since the late 1970s, after fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Despite the widespread violence, displacement and an expansion of the conflict into other areas, including several cities in Pakistan, the Army remains optimistic about reclaiming the territory. The FC Inspector General, Major General Tariq Khan, stated, on September 26, that the situation in Bajaur would be stabilised within two months: "My timeframe for Bajaur is anything from between one-and-a-half to two months to bring about stability." He stated that the troops had killed more than 1,000 Taliban - al Qaeda militants and injured 2,000 others since the offensive began in early August, and that five top commanders were among those killed in the ongoing operations. Among the commanders killed were Egyptian Abu Saeed Al-Masri, Arab Abu Suleiman, Uzbek Mullah Mansoor, and an Afghan commander identified as Manaras. The fifth was a son of Maulana Faqir Mohammad, the top Taliban commander in the region. Some 63 soldiers had died and 212 were injured in the operation so far, Khan disclosed further.
The stakes for the military in Bajaur are immense. As Pakistani commentator Ismail Khan notes, it has "created a surrender-or-die situation for the militants and a now-or-never moment for the country's security forces." Some in the Army believe that 65 percent of the Taliban problem would be eliminated if they were defeated in Bajaur. Describing Bajaur as a 'centre of gravity' for the Taliban, Major General Tariq Khan claimed, "If they lose here, they've lost almost everything." He explained, further: "Why we are calling this a test case? If we dismantle the training camps here, the headquarters, the communication centres, the roots which come in, stop the inter-agency movement and destroy the leadership. Out here we feel that about 65 per cent or so of militancy would have been controlled."
But this optimism is not generally shared, even within the Army. Military operations had been a mixed bag of success and setbacks and no timeframe could be given about the ongoing campaigns, sources in the military said in a media briefing on September 29. "It is a continual operation. It is not going to end in 2008 and it is not going to end in 2009. Don't be optimistic, as far as the timeframe is concerned. It is a different ground and it will take some time."
That the Army has a difficult task is obvious. But the situation is made worse by a trust deficit at the local level which, in turn, has been aggravated by US incursions in FATA. The mounting civilian casualties (which are impossible to estimate at present) and a steadily growing refugee situation have added to the complexities. Further, Islamabad has predominantly relied on an aerial strategy to target militant locations in Bajaur. Noted journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad observes, "the Army, according to sources, was not deployed on the ground because it is not prepared to take casualties. Until the Army gains control of the ground, military operations in Bajaur will remain in limbo."
Government and security officials have disclosed to the media that "they are baffled by the resilience and stiff resistance offered by the battle-hardened fighters, by their tactics and the sophistication of their weapons and communications systems." One senior official noted that "They have good weaponry and a better communication system (than ours)... Even the sniper rifles they use are better than some of ours. Their tactics are mind-boggling and they have defences that would take us days to build. It does not look as though we are fighting a rag-tag militia; they are fighting like an organised force."
There is, moreover, significant apprehension in Islamabad that increasing 'collateral damage' in an augmenting conflict may lead to a severe public backlash across Pakistan, and consequently undermine the political support required for a successful campaign in Bajaur. Reports already indicate that the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which has a "strong political base in Bajaur and has had close ties with Gulbadin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami (which operates in Kunar) has already launched a campaign against the operation."
On its side, the Taliban appears to be determined to defend Bajaur till the last jihadi. More importantly, however, they are clearly escalating the conflict in Pakistan's cities. The latest instance of this strategy was visible on October 9, when a bomb blast destroyed the headquarters of Pakistan's Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) in Islamabad, though there were no casualties (four policemen were reportedly wounded) since there were few Policemen at the location at that time. The bomb, which was disguised as a packet of sweets, was allegedly sent by Waliur Rehman, a Bajaur-based commander of the Jaish-e-Islami Pakistan, a militant group aligned with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Waliur Rehman was reportedly wounded on September 25 when helicopter gunships targeted his hideout in Khar, headquarters of the Bajaur Agency. A note left at the ATS office said: " Human bombs would continue to target the security forces personnel if the Pakistani authorities do not stop fighting the US-led war against terror." Even the suicide bombing at Hotel Marriott in Islamabad on September 20, in which 60 people were killed, was a clear indication that the Taliban have brought the battle to Pakistan's cities. An emboldened Taliban also abducted Abdul Khaliq Farahi, Afghanistan's Ambassador-designate to Islamabad, from the upscale Hyatabad area in Peshawar, capital of the NWFP, in broad daylight on September 22, after killing his driver. Till the time of writing, Farahi remains missing.
Islamabad, evidently, has limited choices, and the options are circumscribed further by the immense pressure that is currently being exerted by Washington. Even as Operation Sherdil continues, sources indicate that preparations are underway to begin an all-out campaign in North Waziristan, where some militant leaders are believed to have shifted.NATO reportedly favors the operation in North Waziristan because, "like Bajaur, it is a nest of Afghan resistance, mainly of (the) pro-Pakistan Jalaluddin Haqqani (faction)." Significantly, the neutralization of any 'high-value target' in the FATA is expected to have considerable impact on the campaign strategy of Republican candidate John McCain in the U.S.
An eventual failure in Bajaur or the abandonment of Operation Sherdil midway (as has been the case for military operations in South Waziristan, Darra Adamkhel and Swat on earlier occasions), will undermine the entire effort to restore some measure of order along the frontier - and indeed, across Pakistan. The campaign in Bajaur is crucial to successes in the other provinces and will impact on the strategy of the Taliban - al Qaeda combine both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
[Description of Source: New Delhi Outlook India.com in English -- Website of weekly magazine specializing in foreign affairs; URL: http://www.outlookindia.com]
Article on Afghan Government-Taliban Contacts, Iranian, Pakistani Ambitions
GMP20081021825004 London Al-Hayah (Internet Version-WWW) in Arabic 21 Oct 08
[Report by Jamal Isma'il, from Islamabad: "On the Basis of US Failure, British Grumbling, and Iranian Preparation, The Blocked Horizon of Karzai-Taliban Negotiations Awakens the Ambitions of Afghanistan's Neighbors"]
The announcement by Afghan President Hamed Karzai that he intends to seek the help of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdallah Bin Abd-al-Aziz in conducting negotiations between the Kabul Government and the Taliban Movement has constituted a new turning point in the Afghan situation. This is particularly true as this request is coupled with the announcement that there are two delegations from the Kabul Government and the Taliban Movement in Saudi Arabia, and that they have met under the auspices of the Kingdom to discuss the means for a political solution for the current crisis in Afghanistan.
This Afghan official request has come just a few weeks after the change at the top of government in neighboring Pakistan, which is usually accused by Afghanistan of nurturing the Afghan conflict, and supporting and arming Taliban and Al-Qa'ida. The new leadership in Pakistan, represented by President Asif Ali Zardari, and commander of the army General Ishfaq Parvez Kayani, has pledged not to allow such support. Moreover, Kayani has traveled to Kabul to meet the NATO commanders in Afghanistan, and to inform the Afghan Government about the efforts undertaken by the Pakistani army in the tribal regions. The Pakistani Government has sent Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to Kabul to talk to the Afghan Government, and to reassure it that Pakistan supports all the government's efforts to establish stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan followed this up by replacing the director of its military intelligence, who was accused of involvement in supporting Taliban, by another general known for his call for a military settlement against the Pakistani armed groups, and for his demand for halting any activities by Afghan Taliban on the Pakistani territories, even if it were peaceful activities.
Domestic and Foreign Necessities
Since the toppling of the Taliban Government at the hand of the US and coalition forces at the end of 2001, Afghan President Hamed Karzai has continued to describe the Taliban fighters, and the movement in general, as "enemies of the people, murderous and terrorist groups supported by foreign powers," and so on. Karzai has rejected any dialog with Mullah Mohammad Omar and those who he describes as Mullah Omar's clique conspiring against the Afghan people, and the US forces and US allies from other countries rejected any dialog with the Taliban Movement.
Two years ago, the United States rejected an agreement that the British forces had signed with the tribal leaders in the Sangin District in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan on behalf of Taliban forces in the region. The US pretext was that negotiating with Taliban Movement would strengthen it, and bestow legitimacy on it in the Afghan street. What has taken place to make President Hamed Karzai change his stance toward Taliban Movement and invite Mullah Mohammad Omar to work with him, and to form a joint government in Afghanistan to work toward stabilizing the situation and restoring calmness to the country?
The Deteriorating Situation
According to the statements of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban operations have increased by 50 percent during the past months, the number of the civilians killed as a result of the bombings carried out by the coalition forces, especially the UN forces, has risen to more than 3,000 during one year, while the unemployment rate among the Afghan people has reached more than 80 percent. According to the UN reports, and the US statistics, 45 percent of the Afghan people do not have enough money to buy proper food this winter. The reports point out that 80 percent of the population in northern Afghanistan is near starvation this year. Washington spends 100 million dollars every day on the war in Afghanistan, but only 5 percent of this money is directed to the support of the Afghan people, and 40 percent of this 5 percent goes to the donor countries in the form of salaries to their employees in Afghanistan. While the salary of the Afghan employee does not exceed 14 dollars per month, the Afghan Government says that Taliban gives its fighters the equivalent of 200 dollars per month. This increases the deterioration of the situation for the government of President Hamed Karzai.
A report by US Intelligence this spring points out that the territories under the control of the central government in Afghanistan and of the coalition forces supporting this government do not exceed 30 percent of the area of Afghanistan. Moreover, the widespread corruption in the state organizations, the nepotism, the bribery, and the bad administration are all benefiting Taliban, as many Afghans now reminisce about and miss its era. According to the former commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, General McNeil, "The situation in Afghanistan is not good. However, the NATO forces have achieved some progress in increasing the number of Afghan students registered at schools, also reduced the number of child death, and increased the numbers of the NATO forces in Afghanistan."
In its turn, Taliban has increased the number of its attacks, and has been able to spread its control over many of the rural areas until it reached the outskirts of the capital, Kabul. The western journalists in Kabul report that the population of the Logar Province and Wardak Province, which neighbor the capital, now resort to Taliban and its shari'ah courts rather than resort to the government and its feeble administrative apparatus and bureaucracy, which are financially corrupted.
The motive of Afghan President Karzai for pursuing the negotiations with Taliban might be his need to renew his term next year. According to sources in the Afghan Northern Alliance, Karzai was, and still is in touch with Golboddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e Eslami and former prime minister, who leads armed opposition in east Afghanistan, and former President Sibghatullah Mojaddedi is the link between the two sides. The Northern Alliance offers as proof of these contacts the fact that the Karzai Government has recognized officially the Hezb-e Eslami, allowed it to operate and to fight the elections where it won 43 seats in the current parliament, which makes it the largest parliamentary bloc, also six ministers in President Karzai's Government have the background of belonging to the Hezb-e Eslami, and 13 of the governors of the 32 Afghan provinces are former leaders of the Hezb-e Eslami.
Therefore, nearly seven years after toppling the Taliban Government, the Afghan Government and the coalition forces supporting it have reached a dead end in their attempt to destroy the Taliban armed men. Rather than destroying those armed men or cutting them to size and restricting them to a specific region, the Taliban fighters have been able to expand the area of their operations to reach regions in the Afghan north, not to mention their expansion into the east, south, and west of Afghanistan. The Afghan fighters have exploited the increasing popular anger caused by the bombing, to which civilians in various regions have been exposed, in order to turn this anger into an endless source for providing the movement with cadres and fighters in its operations against the foreign presence and against the current government in Kabul. This has made British Prime Minister Gordon Brown say that his government is looking for a strategy to get out of Afghanistan, it does not want to continue with an endless war, and it does not support the US escalation of the war as an alternative to political settlement in Afghanistan.
According to Brigadier Mark Carlton-Smith, commander of the British forces in Afghanistan, if the Taliban Movement were ready to look for a political settlement, this would rid Afghanistan of the armed rebellion. However Smith stresses that the aim of the negotiations between Taliban and the Kabul Government ought to be separating those with whom it is possible to reconcile, who are ready to become a part of the future of the country, from those with whom no reconciliation is possible.
On the other hand, the Afghan defense minister stresses that the talks ought to aim at finding a political settlement with the Taliban movement to guarantee its acceptance of the current Afghan Constitution, and of the peaceful alternation of power through democratic means, which is something that Taliban has not yet announced that it accepts.
The situation has reached the stage that the British side said through the British ambassador to Kabul that the US presidential candidates ought to avoid any more discussion of Afghanistan, and he described the foreign forces in that country as the blood of life for the Kabul regime, and he added that any additional forces would complicate the crisis, and that Washington's strategy in Afghanistan was doomed to failure.
From this background we can understand President Karzai's invitation to Mullah Mohammad Omar and Taliban to negotiate with his government, and to reach a peace agreement.
What happened? How did the negotiations start? Are the negotiations really between Taliban and the Karzai Government?
Mediators Facilitated the Meetings
After the US plans in Afghanistan collided with the reality of the Afghan mountains, and after the stumbling of the relations between the Northern Alliance, led by former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and General Mohammad Fahim, and the President Hamed Karzai Administration, as a result of Karzai resorting to restricting the role of the Northern Alliance, the alliance started to weave the fabric of future relations with Taliban by calling for dialog with it, and for involving it in the political decision. Engineer Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, former Afghan prime minister, was the first one to talk about involving Taliban in the government or engaging in a dialog with it. He was followed in this call by former President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Al-Hayah learned that Engineer Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai tried during his last visit to Pakistan to convince the three countries that recognized the Taliban Government - Pakistan, UAE, and Saudi Arabia - to undertake any action in order to start negotiations between Taliban and the Afghan Government through the activation of the role of the Organization of the Islamic Conference for this purpose. According to what Engineer Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai said, the US and coalition forces and the Karzai Government have failed completely in Afghanistan, and if Taliban were to return to government, it would not be the same Taliban whose government was toppled in 2001, because of the changes in viewpoints at domestic, regional, and international levels. Ahmadzai said that the best that could happen to Afghanistan would be the drawing of a timetable for the withdrawal of the coalition forces in exchange for replacing these forces by Islamic peacekeeping forces from countries other than the neighbors of Afghanistan. Engineer Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai proposed the participation of forces from Indonesia, Malaysia, and other Muslim countries from Africa in the peacekeeping forces, because these countries do not have special interests in Afghanistan.
Collective Breakfast or Arranged Meeting
The first public meeting between officials from the Karzai Government and Taliban was at a breakfast table. The banquet was attended by Mawlai Arsalan, special adviser to President Hamed Karzai, who previously occupied ministerial posts in the Taliban Government and in the previous Mujahidin Government, and who was a well-known commander and had close links with Jalaluddin Haqqani, Taliban official in East Afghanistan. The breakfast was attended by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the last Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, who currently resides in Kabul. The meeting was attended also by Dr Ghayrat Bahir, brother-in-law of Engineer Golboddin Hekmatyar, and former Afghan ambassador to Islamabad; and a number of other Afghan dignitaries.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was said to represent Taliban, did not say a single word about his representation of the movement at any current negotiations with the government. Moreover, Taliban Spokesman Qari Muhammad Yousaf Ahmadi announced that there would be no negotiations with the Karzai Government, which he described as "puppet in the hand of the occupation." This took place simultaneously with the announcement by Mullah Mohammad Omar, first leader of the Taliban Movement, that the movement was ready to give the foreign forces in Afghanistan safe passage if they were to decide to withdraw completely from Afghanistan, that there would be no negotiations with the Karzai Government, and that Taliban would not accept half solutions in Afghanistan.
Stances of Regional Sides
As soon as this ended, Iranian Foreign Minister Menouchehr Mottaki hastened to visit Islamabad, and announced, together with his Pakistan opposite number Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the commencement of a strategic dialog between Tehran and Islamabad for the purpose of cooperating over the situation in Afghanistan and its developments.
Despite the fact that this announcement could be understood as an attempt by the Iranian people to play with more than one card in the face of the western pressure (especially from the United States and Britain) calling for the imposition of siege on Tehran because of its nuclear program, any Iranian-Pakistani understanding over the future of the conflict in Afghanistan might spare that country falling again into wars on behalf of Iran, Pakistan, and the other world powers, as it happened since the fall of the communist rule in Afghanistan until the fall of the Taliban regime.
Moreover the Pakistani-Iranian strategic dialog is considered also an indication of the beginning of moves by the regional powers to face up to the situation in Afghanistan, especially after the escalation of the US financial crisis and its reflections on the political and military decisions abroad.
The other countries have preferred to keep silent over what can be considered the beginnings of the dialog in Afghanistan. However, Pakistani experts fear that such a dialog might aim at transferring the arena of conflict from Afghanistan to Pakistan in the light of the presence of the NATO forces in Afghanistan. Dr Shereen Mazari, former director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, has told Al-Hayah that the security and safety of Pakistan remain under threat as long as the NATO forces stay in Afghanistan. Mazari accused the Indian and Afghan Intelligence Services, of collusion with the United States, of involvement in the incidents in the Pakistani tribal regions, and in the explosions that occur every now and then in Pakistan. Despite her welcoming of any Afghan dialog, Mazari cast doubt on the feasibility of such dialog. The Afghan Government and the British forces have announced that one of the most important aims of this dialog is to create a split in the Taliban Movement, and to put an end to the relationship between the leadership of Taliban and Al-Qa'ida. Mazari says that time has proved that it is not right to rely on such an aim, because the leadership of Taliban has opted to sacrifice its state rather than sever its relations with Al-Qa'ida, and also during all these years, and despite all the circumstances that Taliban has gone through, no split has occurred upon which it could be relied to find an alternative leader for Mullah Mohammad Omar.
In the light of this situation we ought to wonder about the seriousness of the invitation for dialog, the seriousness of the response to it, and the mechanisms of implementing what would be agreed, as Taliban accuses the Karzai Government of being a puppet in the hands of the occupation. Will the US-British difference of viewpoints about Afghanistan push Britain into competing with the US role in Afghanistan by trying to polarize President Karzai? Or is all that is happening and that is being announced an attempt to cover up the current situation and whether the circumstances of the US presidential elections make it difficult for the White House Administration to follow a clear policy that would have consequences for the next administration, whatever this administration might be?
[Description of Source: London Al-Hayah (Internet Version-WWW) in Arabic -- Influential Saudi-owned London daily providing independent coverage of Arab and international issues; commentaries occasionally critical of US policy. URL: http://www.alhayat.com/]