Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Pakistan Forced To Pull Back From Chasing Down Al Qaeda

"Iraq Style" War Grows In Borderlands Between Pakistan Army And Violent Islamists

Pakistan's First Female Suicide Bomber Kills 14

President Musharraf appears to have plenty more to keep him occupied right now than worrying about whether or not he is a "good ally" in the US-led 'War on Terror'. For starters, Osama Bin Laden (at least the audio tape Bin Laden) has officially declared war on him for being an ally of the United States, and his recent crackdowns on borderland jihadists and an Islamabad mosque filled with radicals have eaten away at his popularity amongst Pakistanis.

The LA Times reports that "Political turmoil and a spate of brazen attacks by Taliban fighters are forcing Pakistan's president to scale back his government's pursuit of Al Qaeda..."

US intelligence officials now believe the Al Qaeda network will be free to plot fresh attacks and rebuild.

Musharraf's crackdown on Al Qaeda in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan was seen as a "pillar of the US counter-terrorism strategy". The theory went that the more pressure Musharraf packed on to the disparate groupings of Al Qaeda inspired terrorists, the harder it would be for them to plot, plan and carry out new attacks.

President Musharraf faces defeat in elections on the weekend, and his military "has suffered a series of embarrassing setbacks at the hands of militants in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda figures are believed to be hiding."

In the ancient borderlands, Pushtan chiefs are now warning of a growing "Iraq style" war between the Pakistan Army and violent Islamists :
Pashtun tribal chiefs, who for centuries have held sway in the Hindu Kush mountain range along the border with Afghanistan, say they are being thrust into an Iraq-style war between violent Islamists and the Pakistani army.

"It's there. Bombs going off every day," said Haroon-ur-Rasheed, one of eight tribal leaders who drove for hours to the regional capital of Peshawar to speak with a reporter and photographer for The Washington Times.

The leaders described a violent tribal area in which Islamic militants routinely behead women suspected of adultery and use bombs to destroy schools for girls — so far only on Sundays, when no students are present.

Pakistani army forces who venture into the area are also being targeted with rockets, mortars and roadside bombs modeled on those being used to attack American troops in Iraq.

In the latest incident yesterday, a burqa-wearing terrorist detonated herself in the town of Bannu on the fringe of the tribal areas, killing 14. Wire agencies said it appeared to be the first instance of a female suicide bomber in Pakistan.

The leaders were particularly concerned about occasional raids by U.S. forces based in Afghanistan who have pursued Taliban insurgents across the border into Pakistan.

The tribal leaders scoffed at U.S. claims that Arab terrorists and other foreign fighters are hiding in the tribal areas. The only foreigners, they said, were fellow ethnic Pashtuns from Afghanistan.

"There never has been a full-fledged border. People are related, by blood. Members of the same family cross back and forth every day. It's been like this for centuries," said Mohammed Ameen. "The Americans see these people going back and forth and think they see the Taliban. To say they are Taliban is just as false as those chemical weapons in Iraq."

More on the American perspective from the LA Times :
U.S. intelligence officials said the conditions that have allowed Al Qaeda to regain strength are likely to persist, enabling it to continue training foreign fighters and plot new attacks.

"We are worried," said a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official who closely monitors Pakistan's pursuit of Al Qaeda in the rugged frontier region. The official, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.

"I think the prospect for aggressive action . . . is probably not good, no matter what," said the official, referring to the federally administered tribal areas where Al Qaeda is particularly strong. If Musharraf is removed from office or agrees to a power-sharing arrangement with political foes, the "change in government could well mean a diminution of cooperation on counter-terrorism," the official added.

A senior U.S. intelligence official said Pakistani retrenchment appears to have begun.

"We're already beginning to see some signs of that," the official said, citing a recent series of reversals by the Pakistan military.

"In the next few days, we're probably going to see a withdrawal of forces that the Pakistanis put there," the intelligence official said, adding that the move could solidify a "safe haven, where the [Al Qaeda] leadership is secure, operational planners can do their business, and foreigners can come in and be trained and redeploy to the West."

Over the years, Musharraf's commitment to rooting out elements of Al Qaeda and the Taliban has sometimes been questioned. Last fall, the president struck a peace agreement with tribal leaders in North and South Waziristan, scaling back military operations in return for a pledge that the tribes would rein in foreign fighters.

Instead, American intelligence officials said, the deal took pressure off Al Qaeda at a critical time, enabling it to regroup and reestablish ties with terrorist affiliates in other parts of the world.

In recent months, Musharraf has sent troops to the tribal areas, particularly after a series of suicide bombings by militants who vowed revenge after government forces in July stormed a radical mosque in Islamabad, the capital.

Polls in Pakistan suggest that Bin Laden is more popular than many of the Muslim nation's politicians, and analysts say it is extremely difficult for the beleaguered Musharraf to remain aligned with the U.S.

"From a domestic politics perspective, sustained Pakistani action against Al Qaeda in [the tribal areas] would be suicidal," said Seth Jones, an expert on terrorism and Pakistan at Rand Corp. "It would only increase hatred against his regime at the precise moment when he is politically weakest."

That political turmoil could cost the Bush administration cooperation from a key ally in the Islamic world, one that has nuclear arms. Musharraf has been praised repeatedly by President Bush, and Pakistan has received more than $5.6 billion in aid over the last six years, most of it meant to reimburse the country for counter-terrorism efforts.

Under new pressure from Washington, Musharraf sent military divisions back into the tribal areas this summer. Initially, the forays appeared to catch Al Qaeda by surprise, U.S. intelligence officials said, prompting the organization to pull back.

But the government's border troops recently have been subjected to a series of suicide attacks and kidnappings, the U.S. intelligence official said. Overall, dozens of Pakistani soldiers and hundreds of extremists and foreign fighters have been killed.

"The whole purpose of [U.S.-Pakistani] operations is to eliminate people who primarily target the United States and the West," the senior counter-terrorism official said. That means Musharraf ends up being seen as "complicit in killing or capturing people who many Pakistanis think should be treated as heroes."

The United States has provided significant intelligence assistance for Pakistan's pursuit of Al Qaeda, including the deployment of CIA teams and Predator surveillance drones.

Pakistan's central government has never had substantial control over the border region. Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda figures fled to the rugged area after being flushed from Afghanistan. U.S. officials said the terrorist network was seen as increasingly isolated and in a financial crunch until Musharraf's peace accord with the tribes last fall.

Yesterday, at least 14 people were killed in a bomb attack on a van in the North Waziristan province of Pakistan. The bomb was detonated by remote control, but no group has yet claimed responsibility.

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