Recent developments do not augur well for the United States-led war against terrorism. Seven months into the war, it is becoming apparent that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are definitely not “on the run.”
It is now revealed that they are reorganizing on the quiet in mountain hideouts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also suspected that Osama bin Laden and his deputies and some important Taliban leaders may be holed up in the tribal areas of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
The resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda and their increasing boldness in resorting to guerrilla tactics to re-engage US forces has come as a surprise to many. But it shouldn’t, as it was inevitable. The irony is that since the beginning of the war this inevitability has been overlooked.
One of the primary goals of the war on terrorism when it was launched last October was either the capture or extermination of bin Laden and the top al-Qaeda leadership. When the war was launched many strategic pundits predicted that the US would be locked in a fierce guerrilla war with the battle-hardened Taliban. But the script did not unfold in this manner. Having received a battering at the hands of US airpower the Taliban offered least resistance and conserved itself or what was left of it to fight on its own terms and conditions. Fortunately for them, the US’s tactics had no success in immobilizing their leadership and it quietly melted away.
If the leadership of the Taliban and al-Qaeda decided not to give up their fight and to prepare for a long guerrilla war, it was obvious that they would create bases for necessary logistical back-up. It was inevitable that these would be in desolate southern and eastern Afghanistan and the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the NWFP, where the writ of the Pakistan government doesn’t run. Increasingly, there is evidence that they are organizing in the southeastern Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika. The bordering Waziristan Agency in the FATA could serve as the main supply line. It has to be remembered that this was the region that played an important role as a base in the guerrilla war that the Afghan mujahideen waged against Soviet forces.
Further, if there was any place outside Afghanistan where bin Laden would be welcome and receive hospitality it was in the tribal areas of the NWFP. The Pashtun code of honor—Pashtunwali—would not allow the tribals to betray a guest. One may recall the Taliban’s refusal to hand over bin Laden to the US on the grounds that he was their guest. Given the porous nature of the Durand Line that divides Afghanistan and Pakistan, which anyway the Pashtuns do not recognize, it was clear where the remnants and the leadership of the Taliban and al-Qaeda were headed.
But instead of taking determined measures to plug their exit routes, the US in its keenness on breaking the al-Qaeda network extended itself to the Philippines, Yemen and Georgia and neglected the backyard of its own area of operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As early as November last year there were reports that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were creeping into the tribal areas in Pakistan. This was vehemently contested by Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf, who, while deploying extra forces on the border, declared that no al-Qaeda would be allowed to enter Pakistan.
Nevertheless, there were consistent reports that a large number of survivors had managed to enter Pakistan with the complicity of serving and retired personnel of the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, especially the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). On a number of occasions senior officials of the interim administration in Afghanistan had pointed out that the ISI and Islamic clerics had been giving safe haven to the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters who were fleeing the US military offensives. All this fell on deaf ears as more faith was placed on the US’s most trusted ally, Musharraf, who had to be taken at his word that he was doing his best under severe limitations—in policing the borders and cracking down on the Pakistani jihadis domestically. Of course, increasingly, his efforts were being viewed with skepticism. Numerous reports in the US media recently seem to suggest that he has been playing a double game. However, what is interesting is that for every lapse or deliberate act he seems to have credible answers—which seem to satisfy his American interlocutors.
The presence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistani territory is explained away: it is impossible to seal the border. Why have the terrorists he arrested in his anti-terrorist crackdown been released? Because of his inability to hold them indefinitely without due process of law. Who were the people he managed to evacuate from Kunduz? They were all misguided and misled youth. The US also has not helped its own cause by allowing the evacuation. This definitely doesn’t look like an unconditional war on terrorism. However explained, all these developments have definitely contributed to sustaining the Taliban and al-Qaeda and their penetration into Pakistan.
The capture of Abu Zubaydah, believed to be the number three in al-Qaeda, and a large number of al-Qaeda operatives on March 27, of all places in Faisalabad, Pakistan, and the May 8 terrorist attack in Karachi which killed 14 men, including 11 French, if actually carried out by al-Qaeda, would mean that al-Qaeda has spread its network wide in Pakistan. And to believe that it did this without any support from the jihadi groups within Pakistan is to confer magical organizational capabilities of astronomical proportions on al-Qaeda.
Pakistan-based terrorist groups such as Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammad and other groups who were brothers in arms and shared training camps with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, facilitated their mobility within Pakistan, and probably still do. Musharraf, by releasing their leaders and other cadres, is helping them regroup under new names. Also, there is very little evidence to suggest that he has undermined their ability to carry out terrorist activities. Most of his measures have been cosmetic. Whatever justification he may use at this point for releasing them, the fact is that it will come to haunt him if it is proved that al-Qaeda was behind the attack in Karachi, and if more such attacks are carried out. He is not helping his own cause. But does he realize it? Being the tactician that he is, he may keep fighting the battles one after the other and think that he is winning, but eventually he may just lose.
Unfortunately, no one can tell him that except, perhaps, the Americans. They, after overlooking the inevitable for a fairly long time, are now in an intensified search for bin Laden and his cohorts in Pakistan, having conducted joint operations with Pakistani security forces. The reaction of the Pashtun tribals to the incursions of US forces into their territory has not been favorable—they have threatened to enter the war themselves.
There are ominous signs that if the fugitives are to be captured, the US-led military campaign has to broaden into Pakistan, but that is not going to be easy. The painful reality is that if the terrorist infrastructure and network is to be broken, it has to begin from inside Pakistan, and not the other way round. From the US perspective, it is now time to “smoke out the terrorists” and their leaders before they ensconce themselves comfortably in familiar territory and plan the attack on their next big target.