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4.14.2010 Kandahar crossroads for NATO

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - Afghan President Hamid Karzai has threatened to attempt to delay or have cancelled the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's planned summer offensive against the Taliban in the southern province of Kandahar, even as more than 10,000 American troops have poured in for the battle.

However, there may be a more compelling reason to delay the Kandahar offensive, which, after the recent operation in Marjah in Helmand province, would be the biggest in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001: across the border in Pakistan, the tribal areas are not, as had been planned, cleared of militants.

In Kabul on Sunday, Karzai met with Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, and General David Petraeus, chief of the US Central Command, to discuss what NATO's International Security Assistance Force said were "shared challenges and opportunities ahead".

Karzai was expected to brief the officials on his recent visit to Kandahar, where he went to drum up support in the local community for the offensive against the Taliban. Instead, tribal elders forcefully argued that such an operation in the country's second-largest city would only bring trouble, not security, to the province.

The Kandahar operation is envisaged as a part of a broader NATO plan to secure all of Afghanistan's large urban centers in an attempt to deny the Taliban support bases.

To make this work, it is critical that the militants are also denied havens in Pakistan, where over the years they have established vital bases, especially in South Waziristan and North Waziristan, that have fed into the insurgency in Afghanistan.

The joint approach was agreed on after several meetings between McChrystal and Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, who assured the Americans that after a series of intensive operations over the past year the Pakistani military had fulfilled its part of the bargain. Kiani repeated these assurances at a recent meeting in Washington with senior US officials.

However, claims of victory in Pakistan appear premature, leaving NATO with the dilemma of whether to push on with what now appears to be a flawed plan.

The mirage of success

Apart from claiming success on the battlefield, Pakistan has trumpeted the arrest of several top Taliban commanders, claiming this as a major setback for the Taliban.

These were said to include Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Moulvi Abdul Kabir, a former Taliban governor of Nagarhar province in Afghanistan and now head of the Taliban's Peshawar shura, and Syed Tayyab Agha, Mullah Omar's political advisor.

However, as revealed by Asia Times Online (War and peace: A Taliban view March 26, 2010), Kabir and Agha were not arrested. Nor was Mullah Mustasim Jan Agha, another top official who was said to have been apprehended.

The only one who was seized was Baradar, who is being held in a safe house of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, and the Americans have been denied access to him. Baradar is now of little value anyway, as the Taliban have a strict policy of immediately dissociating themselves from anyone arrested, meaning that Baradar would be useless in any reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.

Army chief Kiani has meanwhile urged thousands of refugees to return to South Waziristan, saying that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP - Pakistani Taliban) have been defeated. To further reinforce the magnificence of the victory, 20,000 troops from all arms and services are currently engaged in massive exercises - Azm-e-Nau (New Ambitions) - in Punjab and Sindh provinces.

Asia Times Online contacts on the ground paint a different picture in South Waziristan. They claim that the army has suffered heavy casualties and mutinies and that the militants, including Chechens, Uzbeks and the local Mehsud tribes, have returned in strength. The army has confirmed that fighting still continues in the area.

At the same time, according to militant sources, the al-Qaeda leadership has moved from North Waziristan - due to persistent drone strikes - to an undisclosed region. The sources claim that a message has been sent to Kiani via a tribal jirga (council), essentially saying that all forces should be pulled out or "there will be music to face in the entire Pakistan".

A security official in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, told Asia Times Online that the aim of the recent suicide attack on the United States consulate in Peshawar was to take US officials hostage. Several people were killed in the incident in which militants entered the consulate's premises but were unable to go further after one of them prematurely detonated his explosive vest. The official believes that more such attacks can be expected targeting US officials.

Recently, 1,200 Frontier Corps personnel were sacked for defying orders to fight. The paramilitary force is made up largely of Pashtuns. It will be difficult to find sufficient numbers of non-Pashtuns and Shi'ites to confront the Sunni Pashtun insurgency.

All the same, under immense American pressures, the army has opened up fronts in Khyber Agency, Orakzai Agency, Mohmand Agency, Bajaur Agency and Kurram Agency.

The main battle ground is Orakzai Agency, a hub for militants who go from there to neighboring Khyber Agency to attack NATO's supply lines. Unofficial estimates claim that hundreds of soldiers have been killed, along with scores of militants. Brigadier Khalid Khan and Colonel Anwar Abbas, sent to the area because of their good track record in operations in the Swat Valley last year, have been confirmed as killed. Militants also captured the paramilitary forces' headquarters in Orakzai Agency for a few days before retreating.

In terms of unrest, the worst situation is in Khyber Agency, which was supposed to be the easiest operation for the army as al-Qaeda and the Taliban do not have local roots there - they depend on militants from neighboring tribal regions.

The agency was pacified last year, but operations included a crackdown on all Islamic groups, including those not aligned with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. One of these groups was commanded by Mangal Bagh, who has now sided fully with al-Qaeda-linked militants despite officials being convinced that he would never turn against Pakistan.

Over the past few months militants have re-established themselves in Khyber Agency, especially in the Tirah Valley, as confirmed in an official media release on April 11: "Militants have established their hideouts and training centers in different parts of Tirah Valley." The people of the valley have traditional linkages with other agencies, as well as in Afghanistan. It is a stronghold of the Lashkar-i-Islam militant group.

The stark fact is that militants continue to operate in strength in the tribal areas, and importantly they continue to operate bases to serve fighters in Afghanistan - and prepare for the NATO attack on Kandahar - if indeed it materializes.