The al Qaeda-backed Taliban grip on the Pakistan-Afghan border is spreading and deepening. It poses a rising challenge to US-led efforts to stamp out insurgency in Afghanistan and hunt down Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders.
The estimated 80,000 Pakistani troops deployed along the Afghan border in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan to capture the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, claim major successes every few weeks – sometimes the capture or killing of a senior al Qaeda or Taliban commander.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s exclusive sources in Pakistan report that they are not able to reverse the prevailing trends: the tribal areas provide al Qaeda and Taliban followers and their foreign mercenaries with safe haven, terrorist attacks multiply, and Afghanistan complains that its forces are constantly attacked by infiltrators stealing back and forth across the Durand Line.
While Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf has been making claims about his success in the war against terrorism in general and the operation in Waziristan in particular, the latest developments in the area raise many crucial questions as to what is actually happening on the ground.
The fact is that the entire rugged, inaccessible Waziristan region has virtually fallen under the control of the Taliban – not the local tribal chieftains or the government. Pakistani intelligence reports that Taliban has set up offices to assert its domination of this strategic Pakistani-Afghan border region and uses it as a base for striking US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.
There are reports that supported by al-Qaeda, Taliban has begun to open recruiting offices in the North and the South Waziristan agencies to recruit fighters against the Pakistan Army and US forces in Afghanistan.
They are seen on recently released videos asking young people to join their ranks to battle the “unjust US-imposed war” and showing them in training.
Al Qaeda’s signature is pronounced in the training videos and the puritanical Taliban-style order imposed in the towns of the Waziristan agencies. The report says, “Music and TV have been banned. Women are confined to their homes. Shops must close five times a day for prayers, an edict which is enforced by armed religious police who patrol the streets. These changes, say local residents and reporters, have come to Waziristan within the past few months.”
Casualty figures rise on both sides of the border
Far from being under Pakistani military control, official statistics show that 400 civilians had been killed and about 900 injured in the area in the last 15 months (January 2005 to March 2006), while the number of the dead army personnel was above 350 and more than 700 were injured.
A parallel deterioration occurred during this period on the other side of the border in Afghanistan.
Fatalities there in the current year have been the highest since the US launched its global war on terror. At least 1,700 persons, including 100 American troops, have died.
Last year, the death toll was about 1000. Clearly, American and Afghan forces have failed too to control the violence on their side of the border.
In FATA, terrorists, primarily foreign elements supported by local collaborators, have successfully targeted pro-government tribal leaders, journalists and other civilians in addition to the Pakistan Army.
As for Taliban and al Qaeda figures, some estimates said 700 of their operatives had been ensconced in hideouts in the troubled FATA region, a figure which official sources claim has dropped to 200-250. Islamabad claims the Pakistani military killed around 400 “foreign militants” serving with the Taliban and al-Qaeda between March 2004 and March 2006. Among them were Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens and Arabs.
If this was true, why would 80,000 Pakistani troops still be needed to secure the border area? And why would violent incidents continue to rise in number?
Afghan officials credibly allege that the frequency and sophistication of cross-border attacks have actually increased and that Arab fighters are leading these operations.
The fact remains that Islamabad has not been able to winkle out the foreign terrorists wanted by Washington and Kabul and they are still alive and kicking.
An effective means employed by al Qaeda and Taliban operatives to expand their local tribal support base is quite simply to hand out large wads of cash.
Fighters who join up get a monthly salary of Pak Rs 15,000 (250 US dollars). Gunrunners command millions of rupees for arms and ammunition, communication gear and vehicles, while local tribesmen rent their compounds to al-Qaeda as lodging and training camps. They also feed the foreign militants for a price.
Most of the money al-Qaeda is spreading out is believed to have been transferred from the Arab countries. The locals are even familiar with the names of the bountiful Arabs who going around handing out banknotes.
American intelligence agents in the region estimate that as many as 500 fighters who trained in Iraq are now active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while many more are expected to return soon to boost the resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists plaguing US-led Allied Forces in Afghanistan.