The Pentagon has been stewing over a proposal to declare the US military victorious over al Qaeda in Iraq, thanks to the troop “surge” from February 2007.
While some officials are pressing for badly-needed publicity from a success in Iraq, many US commanders there say talk of victory is premature. Al Qaeda is still capable of regrouping and returning to the fray.
Their success in drawing Sunni tribal leaders into breaking off their pacts with al Qaeda, joining forces with the Americans to root the jihadists out of Iraq and make their lands no-go areas, has encouraged circles in the Bush administration to go for a similar model on another warfront.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington and Islamabad report that these circles are sanguine enough to think in terms of applying this Iraq formula to the terrorist-ridden, lawless Pakistan-Afghan borderlands and their denizens, the Pashtuns. The proposal taking shape is to seek Pashtun tribal cooperation for denying al Qaeda sanctuary and passage through their territories.
Being driven out of their last strategic stronghold in these tribal lands after the loss of most of their Iraq bases would severely stunt al Qaeda’s operational capabilities and dramatically affect the course of the Afghan War.
The roughly three million Pashtuns of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the 1,450-km border with Afghanistan are warlike and fiercely intransigent. They have a long history of resisting foreigners and, since the US-led 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, many have thrown in their lot with the fanatical, largely-Pashtun Taliban, which was deposed after five years of rule.
The centers of the wider Pashtun people are Pakistan’s Peshawar and the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. The Durand Line drawn by the British in 1893 to defend colonial India divides Pakistan from Afghanistan, but also splits the Pashtun tribes down the middle. This border is recognized by Pakistan, although all attempts to build a border fence are resisted; but not by Afghanistan.
In many ways, the complex Pashtun tribal people – of which President Hamid Karzai is a member, like the US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad – holds the key to stability in both these countries.
First, cut Taliban away from Its alliance with al Qaeda
Washington is fully aware that this arena is a tougher proposition than Iraq, with more players and possibly higher stakes.
Sanctuary with Pashtun clans in the FATA border districts enables Taliban insurgents and their allies, al Qaeda, to move freely to and from Afghanistan, the primary arena of the Western war on Muslim jihadists.
The 90,000 troops Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf deploys there have never managed to subdue the pro-Taliban tribes, which continue to wreak havoc. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is reputed to be hiding under their protection.
Therefore, the projected scenario for an accommodation with the Pashtun tribes would have to go forward in cautious steps, as outlined by DEBKA-Net-Weekly:
1. An attempt to cut the Taliban away from its alliance with al Qaeda;
2. Some of the Sunni insurgent groups fighting American forces in Iraq were integrated into the Iraqi tribal forces working with US forces against al Qaeda. They obeyed the tribal chiefs’ orders to turn their guns on their former ally, Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Proponents of the Pashtun scheme hope that the same project applied to the Pakistan-Afghan front will propel Taliban fighters into joining up with the Pashtun clansmen who decide to cooperate with the US-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan against al Qaeda.
3. A ceasefire will be negotiated for the UN-led coalition force, the Pakistan army and the Pashtun tribes – first as a pilot project in a small enclave. Then, if the parties prove able to work in concert and hold constructive negotiations to end the conflict, the armistice will be extended to the rest of the Pakistan-Afghan border region.
4. In Iraq, the US and Saudi Arabia poured out tens of millions of dollars – officially to defray the tribal leaders’ extra costs for protection against their friend-turned-foe al Qaeda, but in practice to buy the former insurgents’ willingness to fight alongside the Americans.
The plan for the Pashtun front is to deposit a fund earmarked for this purpose with President Musharraf.
Bringing four parties together for a peace jirga
Although he is not a Pashtun, the thinking behind this is that providing him with a cornucopia to draw the ungovernable tribes into these arrangements – and through them, elements of the Taliban – will strength his standing in the Pakistan armed forces and SIS intelligence.
5. The first four steps are designed to lead up to “small tribal jirgas” which the US and Pakistan hope will take place in the Pakistan capital of Islamabad and bring in the indigenous Afghan insurgent Taliban and the Hizb-e-Islam, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to discuss peace.
Washington’s contact-man Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the opposition in the Pakistan National Assembly, has been working with the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, to bring these parties to the jirga, together with the key Pashtun elders, and high-level Pakistan and Afghan government representatives.
Afghan president Karzai has publicly invited Taliban more than once for talks on a ceasefire. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Kabul sources report that he has already designated a delegation for the jirga, headed by Farooq Wardak, the Afghan minister of state for Parliamentary Affairs and Deputy Chairman of the Afghan Jirga Monitoring Commission.
The Bush administration’s cautious optimism about the prospects of this plan taking off is tempered by the knowledge that in Iraq, it took three years for a breakthrough to an understanding with the Sunni tribes – and even now there is no guarantee how long it will last.
In the Pakistan-Afghan arena, three acute obstacles have still to be overcome.
First: Taliban leaders and Hekmatyar demand as their price for convening the jirga a US-guaranteed timeline for the withdrawal of all NATO forces from Afghanistan.
US sources close to the ongoing bargaining remark that this obstacle need not be insuperable; Iraqi tribal and insurgent leaders set the same precondition but eventually agreed to give Iraq’s liberation from al Qaeda top priority before discussing the exit of US troops.
Al Qaeda eyes Pakistan after Iraq
One compromise under discussion is for Karzai to declare that progress towards national reconciliation will lead to the departure of foreign armies from Afghan soil.
Second: Taliban is demanding a share in government in Kabul. This would restore the insurgent party to power six years after its removal by US forces in October 2001.
Third: Many authorities in the US intelligence community involved in the war on al Qaeda concur with the assessment of an American victory over Osama bin Laden’s fighters in Iraq, with certain caveats.
The concatenation of events, including the US troop surge, led al Qaeda’s leaders to relinquish their campaign in Iraq and leave it on a back burner. They cite bin Laden’s last audiotape of Oct. 23, in which he said: “Sticks refuse to break when banded together, but if they are separated, they break one by one. There is no room for conflict between the Muslims who truly surrender to the order of Allah.”
These authorities believe that bin Laden may be ready for his next move, which will focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s al Qaeda experts estimate that just as the Americans see their change of a breakthrough in the Pashtun fiefdom, the jihadist see pickings in Benazir Bhutto’s return home.
While the Bush administration believes her presence will strengthen Pakistan’s political and military stability and coherence and willingness to take on Muslim radicals, al Qaeda views the former Pakistani prime minister as a destabilizing element in Islamabad which they fully mean to exploit.
Al Qaeda proposes to offer to cooperate with the Pakistani army and intelligence elements which detest Bhutto and will do everything they can to prevent her returning to government.
For al Qaeda, Afghanistan and Pakistan outweigh Iraq in importance as operating arenas and its mujahedin will soon be flexing their muscles there to stymie US planning.