International strength of Taliban, al-Qaeda threatens allied efforts

Canada and Britain must put pressure on Pakistan’s president to clear country of insurgents, experts warn

Mike Blanchfield, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Monday, May 21, 2007

It was a fierce battle last September between the Pakistani army and al-Qaeda insurgents. When the dust settled and the bodies were counted, 20 terrorist fighters lay dead in the lawless tribal area of North Waziristan.

The corpses told a story with chilling implications for Canadian soldiers and their allies across the border in Afghanistan.

“When they identified the bodies, they found that the military leader was Chechen, the armourer and fixer were Uzbek, and the money bags was Saudi. The foot soldiers were Pashtuns,” British Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells said in a recent interview as he recalled the briefing he received from top-ranking Pakistani military officials when he visited Pakistan last fall.

That high-level briefing for a visiting British minister was a telling illustration of what many analysts cite as the greatest threat to Canadian and British troops, as they and their NATO allies try to quell the anti-western insurgency in neighbouring south Afghanistan. Pakistan’s largely ungovernable tribal areas — which line the country’s permeable western border with Afghanistan — are now a haven for militant Arab and Islamist jihadist fighters from around the world, uniting under the banner of a new, reconstituted al-Qaeda.

Mr. Howells and others say this means that NATO countries such as Britain and Canada, who are fighting this influx of new insurgents in southern Afghanistan, must turn up the pressure on Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to move against what many are calling the “Talibanization” of his country.

“You can’t not tell him about what your fears are,” said Mr. Howells. “The British and the Canadians especially have to be candid about it, because it’s our troops who are being killed.”

Ideally, Mr. Howells would like to see Mr. Musharraf launch a major offensive on the insurgents in Quetta, but he realizes that’s not easy.

“We know it’s a very difficult thing to do, because Quetta is a very densely populated city,” he said. “It’s not easy to move around in … It could turn into a very bloody battle indeed. The Taliban know that, and they’ve picked Quetta for that reason.”

Bruce Riedel, a retired senior CIA Asia expert and former U.S. presidential adviser on the National Security Council, argues that al-Qaeda is now as big a threat to the West as it was prior to 9/11 because “the organization now has a solid base of operations in the badlands of Pakistan and an effective franchise in western Iraq. Its reach has spread throughout the Muslim world, where it has developed a large cadre of operatives, and in Europe, where it can claim the support of some disenfranchised Muslim locals and members of Arab and Asian diasporas.”

Mr. Riedel is now a senior fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank. Writing in the most recent edition of the journal Foreign Affairs, Mr. Riedel outlines how Afghanistan’s former Taliban rulers — the former hosts of al-Qaeda who plotted the 9/11 attacks from their safe haven in Afghanistan — were able to regroup in early-2002 in the badlands of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar and others built a new base of operations around the southwestern desert city of Quetta, in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, says Mr. Riedel. 

The continuing resilience of the Taliban was reinforced this week when, in the immediate aftermath of the death of Mullah Dadullah, the group named a replacement and was able to launch a wave of bombings in Afghanistan.

If you drive west from Quetta for five hours, across Pakistan’s mountainous border with Afghanistan, you arrive at the front gate of Kandahar Air Field — where Canada’s 2,500 soldiers and another 8,000 western allies are based.

Together, 37,000 NATO and western troops are battling a reconstituted Taliban based in Pakistan, says Mr. Riedel.

“Al-Qaeda today is a global operation, with a well-oiled propaganda machine based in Pakistan, a secondary, but independent, base in Iraq, and an expanding reach in Europe,” he writes.

While Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have tried to clamp down on al-Qaeda operations and their sympathizers, the terrorist organization still receives financial backing from Saudi sources.

The Saudi connection was illustrated by the incident that Mr. Howells was told of in Pakistan last fall, and also highlighted the fact that al-Qaeda draws military leadership from among hardened jihadists who have waged war against Russian forces in Chechnya or sown terror with al-Qaeda’s sister groups in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan’s northern neighbour. That leaves the indigenous ethnic Pashtuns, who straddle the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, to be “foot soldiers” — the paid guns-for-hire that the insurgency is able to court with anti-western propaganda.

Last fall, Mr. Musharraf attempted a controversial intervention to curb the growing Taliban influence and influx of foreigners in North Waziristan, the Pakistani border area north of Baluchistan province, and the area where bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

Mr. Musharraf negotiated a peace deal with Islamist leaders in the region — one that sparked fierce criticism. Many critics said the so-called truce would give the Taliban, al-Qaeda and its mix of foreign elements a safe haven in the region.

Mr. Howells and Mr. Riedel acknowledge that Mr. Musharraf has to walk a tightrope between corralling Islamist elements within Pakistan and being a good ally to the West, particularly Washington, which has given the country $10 billion in aid in the past six years.

Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, effectively created the Taliban in the mid-1990s in order to bring stability to Afghanistan.

William Maley, a senior lecturer at the Australian Defence Force Academy, says the ISI knows exactly where al-Qaeda’s Pakistan camps are. He says Pakistan’s spy agency is playing both sides of the fence — protecting its historic Taliban allies, while showing some willingness to turn over al-Qaeda’s foreign fighters to the U.S.

Mr. Musharraf’s five-year term as president expires by year’s end, so he is under pressure to go to the polls if he ever wants to silence critics who say he is not really a politician but a soldier who is hiding his uniform under a business suit.

Mr. Howells said he believes a huge majority of Pakistanis are fed up with the Islamist influence in their country. Recent polls, he said, suggest that fewer than one in six Pakistanis identifies with extremism, and most are eager to move their country forward economically so it can catch up with the prosperity of its rival, India.

“The Americans, as well as us and the Canadians, have been urging (Mr. Musharraf) to take action,” said Mr. Howells. “It will be interesting to see what he does as they run up towards an election.”

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