Taliban is making hay from the differences between the US and its key allies in the war on al Qaeda and Taliban over whether the new Pakistan government should or should not engage Taliban leaders in direct dialogue.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s American military sources in Afghanistan report that the argument has been going back and forth for two weeks.
Britain and the European governments, whose troops are fighting with NATO in Afghanistan, support the direct, talks the Islamabad government headed by Yousef Raza Gilani has launched with Taliban leaders – and according to US intelligence sources, indirectly with al Qaeda elements as well – under a new reconciliation program.
Taliban and al Qaeda are therefore confident that as long as dialogue is in the air, they can regroup in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal regions for fresh assaults across the border into Afghanistan without fear of attack.
While talking, they are accordingly busy pumping large quantities of ammunition, roadside bombs and other war materiel into Afghanistan.
According to our counter-terror sources, American commanders leading the Afghan war fear that if the current level of cross-border smuggling of fighter and equipment is sustained, Taliban and al Qaeda will be fully prepared to embark on a spring or summer campaign against US, NATO and Afghan forces in the troubled southern regions of Afghanistan. The death toll would be high.
US commanders complain that the volume of intelligence data passing between them, Pakistan and the officers of NATO member units is diminishing. They suspect that vital military information is being deliberately withheld as part of those countries’ effort to promote dialogue. They have been warning the American high command in Kabul and the Pentagon in Washington that this impasse may well lead to the American and NATO forces losing control, fragile at best, of large and strategic sections of South Afghanistan.
Prediction: The bloodiest year since 2001
Thursday, April 24, the top US general in Afghanistan Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser warned that 2008 could be Afghanistan’s bloodiest year since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, as insurgents pour in from neighboring Pakistan.
Heeding these warnings, the Pentagon and the National Security Council in Washington urgently demanded that the British and European Union apply the brakes to their support for government talks with pro-Taliban elements, limiting it to organizations willing to renounce terror.
The European external affairs executive Javier Solana and British foreign secretary David Miliband responded with trips to Islamabad this week.
The latter official, said Monday, April 21, after talks with Gilani and Northwest Frontier Province officials that Britain supports “reconciliation with those who are willing to reconcile.”
He voiced support for Pakistan’s “multi-pronged strategy” but stressed: “Reconciliation does not mean creating safe space for terrorists.”
Solana took the opposite line when he said Tuesday, April 22 that al Qaeda leaders were operating outside Pakistani law and no negotiations should be held with them.
As he spoke, the government approved the release from jail of a top pro-Taliban leader Sufi Mohammad and 30 members of his banned Tahreek Nifaz-Shariat Mohammadi, known as the “Pakistani Taliban,” after they renounced violence and the support of terrorists. They pledged to pursue their mission to impose the Sharia by peaceful means.
Now in his 70s, Mohammad has close ties with senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources report that his group’s undertaking is pretty meaningless in the indigenous tribal milieu, where brothers or cousins can keep their working relations with terrorist groups alive.
Sufi Mohammed’s son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah, who seized control of the Swat Valley last year, nicknamed Fazlullah Radio because of his radio stations, announced after the older man’s release that the TNSM would not lay down arms till the Islamabad government enforces the Shariya.
He can afford to be defiant. According to our counter-terror sources, Fazlullah is very close to al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who keeps him and his militia in funds.
Some sources in Pakistan say that for the reconciliation program to go forward to its goal of establishing an anti-al Qaeda, anti-Taliban tribal body on the lines of Iraq’s Sunni Awakening Councils, Sufi Mohammed must first persuade his son-in-law to jump aboard the national reconciliation program.
Most informed sources, including American officials in the field, are skeptical of this coming about.
For all their doubts, the Americans last month tried their own hand at reaching into the terrorist movement through tribal resources in another part of the border district, South Waziristan. They got their fingers singed.
On March 23, forty tankers carrying fuel for NATO forces in Afghanistan were blown up by six Taliban bombs at the Torkham border crossing. Four Taliban chiefs were arrested and released on bail after agreeing to return 50,000 gallons of fuel and two oil tankers to Khyber Agency businessmen and free two abducted drivers.
This deal was set up by a jirga (council) of two Waziristan Taliban chiefs and two elders, all from the same sub-tribe. It took place at the home of an enigmatic character called Javed Ibrahim Paracha, a lawyer, who has helped many Taliban and al Qaeda suspects. He has been jailed twice by President Pervez Musharraf, but there are also reports that in 2005, Washington officials approached him to act as go-between with the Taliban to enable the safe exit of American troops from the country.
The deal by which the four Taliban fighters gained their freedom in no way damped down the flames of violence in Afghanistan, especially in the south.
Benazir Bhutto’s suspected assassin talks peace
Paracha’s claim was never confirmed, but US allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan gained an impression of inconsistency in America’s handling of the war on terrorists in the face of the harsh, unbending resolution of al Qaeda and Taliban.
This was pointed out in the US Government Accountability report of April 17 with regard to US operations in the problematic tribal region:
“Al Qaeda is still operating within Pakistan’s mountainous tribal region bordering Afghanistan, and the United States lacks a comprehensive plan for meeting its national security goals there, says the report. The Office “found broad agreement… that al Qaeda had regenerated its ability to attack the US and succeeded in establishing a safe haven” in Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas.
“Our report does not state that the US lacks agency-specific plans; rather that there was no comprehensive plan that integrated the combined capabailities of Defense, State, USAID and the intelligence community.”
The new Pakistani new government drive to talk peace with Islamic militants gained the Bush administration's cautious support.
A top State Department official said on Wednesday, April 23, that a judgment depends on whether the groups keep their pledge against using force.
“You have to talk to people,” said Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher. “The Pakistani government is engaged in discussion designed to stop violence. It's got to be done in a way that produces results, that reduces violence.”
The Islamist terror movements are also prey to differences.
Unlike Maulana Fazlullah of the northern Swat Valley, Baitullah Mehsud, Al Qaeda front-man and Taliban commander has reportedly ordered the 30,000 men under his control, including 3000 suicide bombers, to stop all attacks in the country.
Accused by Islamabad of masterminding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Mehsud has distributed leaflets in the South Waziristan tribal region saying the ban is imposed “for the sake of peace” on pain of punishment.