A New Battle Begins in Pakistan

February 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD – Despite serious reservations, Pakistan’s military at the weekend began an all-out offensive against the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda in the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.

The deployment of about 30,000 troops in South Waziristan, backed by the air force, shifts the main theater of the South Asian battlefield from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

That Pakistan has become a focal point was underscored on Sunday when six Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders were killed, as well as 37 other people, in an attack in Iran’s restive Sistan-Balochistan province.

Iranian state television said the Foreign Ministry summoned a senior Pakistani diplomat in Tehran, saying there was evidence

“the perpetrators of this attack came to Iran from Pakistan”. The Pakistani government was asked not to delay “in the apprehension of the main elements in this terrorist attack”.

The attack has been blamed on the group Jundallah, which is believed to operate from Pakistan’s Balochistan province and which recently established a link with al-Qaeda. (See Al-Qaeda seeks a new alliance Asia Times Online, May 21, 2009.)

On Monday, clashes between the Pakistan military and the militants continued for the third day in South Waziristan. Islamabad says that 60 militants have been killed, with 11 soldiers dead.

The army had serious reservations about sending ground troops into South Waziristan, firstly for fear of a strong militant backlash in other parts of the country and secondly because there is no guarantee of success. However, under pressure from the United States, and with the carrot of US$1.5 billion a year for the next fives years in additional non-military aid, Pakistan’s political government has bitten the bullet. The timing might have been influenced by a string of militant attacks in the country over the past few days.

The offensive is concentrated in the areas of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan, which is also the headquarters of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

In preparation for the assault, the army made ceasefire deals with several influential Taliban warlords who run large networks against coalition troops in Afghanistan. They include Mullah Nazir, the chief of the Taliban in Wana, South Waziristan, who operates the largest Taliban network in the Afghan province of Paktika. Mullah Nazir is neutral in this Pakistani conflict and agreed to allow passage to the army to enter Mehsud territory.

In North Waziristan, two top Taliban commanders, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Moulvi Sadiq Noor, also agreed to remain neutral. They are members of the Shura of the Mujahideen and a main component of the Taliban’s insurgency in the Afghan province of Khost.

This leaves a few thousand Mehsud tribal fighters along with their Uzbek and Punjabi militant allies to fight against the military. Thousands of civilians have fled the area.

However, Hakimullah Mehsud of the TTP, according to Asia Times Online contacts, has apparently adopted a strategy that will not expend too many resources on protecting the Mehsud area. Instead, he aims to spread chaos by attacking security personnel in the cities. Hakimullah was the architect of successful attacks on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s supply lines in the Khyber Agency, which began in 2007.

The same contacts say that when thousands of people left South Waziristan last week under the military’s directives, a majority of the militants melted away to the Shawal region, situated at the crossroads of South Waziristan, Afghanistan and North Waziristan, besides going to Pakistani cities.

A very limited force is entrenched in the Mehsud tribal area, and by all accounts it is putting up fierce resistance.

In the cities, the TTP will be assisted by Punjabis, who will aim to replicate the audacious and well-planned attack on the Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi on October 10.

This attack and subsequent siege in which a number of hostages were held exposed loopholes in the security mechanisms of the armed forces as well as the deep penetration of militants in the security forces.

A transcript of the militants’ calls, intercepted by the security forces and read by Asia Times Online, shows that the militants had noticed a damaged wall at General Headquarters Rawalpindi. They therefore engaged security personnel at the main gate, while at the same time sending about 10 men through the breach in the wall. These militants were given support by insiders.

The attackers made directly for the barracks of Military Intelligence and took several senior officials hostage, including the director general of Military Intelligence. They then presented a list of demands. According to some reports which have not been authenticated by independent sources, six prisoners were released on the militants’ demands before the hostages were released after a commando operation on October 11.

Washington has been keen to extend the war into Pakistan since early 2008. To reflect this, this year it coined “AfPak”, and even appointed a special representative, Richard Holbrooke, to handle this portfolio. The focus in Pakistan was to be the militant bases in the tribal areas which feed directly into the insurgency across the border.

The aim was to create breathing space for coalition troops in Afghanistan and eventually pave the way for an honorable exit strategy after initiating talks with sections of the Taliban.

This year, the US also stepped up its presence in Pakistan by acquiring new bases and the Americans developed a joint intelligence mechanism with Pakistan to hit al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan with Predator drones. These missile attacks have proved particularly successful in taking out key targets, including Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP leader.

The US also coordinated ground military operations such as Lion Heart, which saw coalition troops on the Afghan side working with Pakistani troops on the other side to squeeze militants. (Asia Times Online documented this last year – see US forces the terror issue with Pakistan September 16, 2008.)

There are parallels in what the US is doing with Pakistan to what happened during the Vietnam War, when that war was extended into Laos and Cambodia.

Beyond the South Waziristan operation

Washington is watching developments in Waziristan with keen interest. Both General Stanley A McChrystal, the top US general in Afghanistan, and US Central Command chief, General David Petraeus, are currently in Pakistan.

They will be pleased that Pakistan has committed its biggest-ever force for such an operation – 30,000 troops with another 30,000 in reserve. Yet the chances of a decisive military victory remain remote.

Given the nature of the opposition and the tough territory, there is a high probability of extensive casualties in the army, with resultant desertions and dissent. There is also no guarantee that if the conflict drags on, the warlords with whom ceasefires have been agreed will not go back on their deals.

At the same time, there are signals that the Taliban in the Swat area in North-West Frontier Province are regrouping after being pushed back by the army this year. It is likely that by the time the snow chokes major supply routes, the Taliban will have seized all lost ground in the Swat Valley. By marching into South Waziristan, the military has taken something of a gamble as it is highly unlikely to eliminate the militant threat. Indeed, the past seven or so years have shown that after any operation against militants, the militants have always gained from the situation. By the same token, the militants don’t have the capacity to permanently control ground beyond their areas in South Waziristan and North Waziristan.

In this situation, in which the militants and the military can’t defeat one another, and if the fighting continues, a political crisis could be provoked. This would weaken the state of Pakistan and its institutions. Alternatively, the authorities could accept the fact that Pakistan is a tribal society which always operates through bargains and deals, and move quickly to contain this conflict.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief.


Taliban Reward Fighter for Shooting Down US Drone

February 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Malik Mumtaz Khan & Mushtaq Yusufzai, TheNews.com

MIRAMSHAH/PESHAWAR: Taliban in North Waziristan Monday rewarded one of their fighters with a new model car for shooting down the US drone on Sunday evening.

Also, government officials in the restive tribal region finally confirmed the downing of the US spy aircraft by Taliban militants. The militants led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur had claimed on Sunday shooting down the drone in Hamzoni village.

Tribal sources in Miramshah said the militants congratulated each other on Monday for shooting down the drone, known as `bangana’ locally due to the thundering sound of the pilot-less aircraft.

The militant was given a new car by the Taliban leaders as reward to shoot down the drone. The militants from adjoining villages thronged Hamzoni to have a look at the wreckage of the drone. Such drones have claimed lives of many militants and are considered the most fatal weapon.

The militants wanted to meet and congratulate their fellow fighter who accurately fired and hit the spy plane to the ground. Taliban sources confirmed that the man behind the downing of the drone had been gifted a car, but declined to name the fighter. They said he would be remembered as a `hero’ among the Taliban.
“The shooting down of the drone has lifted the morale of our fighters. It’s a huge success for the poorly armed Taliban against a powerful enemy,” remarked a senior Taliban commander, but pleaded anonymity.

He also claimed that four missiles were fitted on the drone when it was hit and shot down, but the missiles did not explode. Taliban said friends of the six tribal militants killed in the US drone attack on January 19 in Deegan village of Dattakhel tehsil had taken a vow to avenge the killing by shooting down the spy plane.
“Since then, a group of four well-trained militants had been waiting to hit the drones. They had also installed an anti-aircraft gun on their double-cabin pickup truck,” a Taliban source said.

The sources said six militants were killed on that occasion when the drone had struck a house and a car, which was about to enter the building. “They honoured their commitment made after the killing of their friends by the US drone,” said a Taliban fighter. Meanwhile, government officials in Miramshah said five spy planes were seen flying over various villages of South Waziristan Monday evening.


U.S. Drone Missile Kills Filipino Bomber in Pakistan

January 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Inquirer.net, News Report, Philippine Daily Inquirer

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — An alleged Abu Sayyaf demolition expert wanted by the United States for $1M is believed to have been killed in an American drone strike close to the Afghan border earlier this month, Pakistani intelligence officials said Thursday.

If confirmed, the death of Abdul Basit Usman would represent another success for the U.S. covert missile program on targets in Pakistan. There have been an unprecedented number of attacks this month following a deadly Dec. 30 bombing of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) base in Afghanistan.

There had been no previous indication that Usman, who was captured by Philippine authorities in 2002 but escaped months later, was in Pakistan.

If the reports of his death are true, it may indicate stronger ties between the worldwide terror group al-Qaida and Southeast Asian extremist groups than previously thought.

In Manila, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said it was verifying the report.

AFP spokesperson Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner Jr. told reporters military intelligence was still checking if indeed it was Usman who was killed in Pakistan.

Brawner said an intelligence report “sometime last year” indicated Usman was still in Mindanao. “We are still waiting for the report from our intelligence,” he said.

But if the report of Usman’s death was true, it would “to some extent” cripple the capability of the Abu Sayyaf, Brawner said.

MILF Welcomes Report

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) expressed relief at the report.

“We are happy and we welcome the report. We hope it is true,” Eid Kabalu, MILF civil-military affairs chief, said.

Kabalu said Usman’s death vindicated the MILF, which had been accused by the military of coddling the alleged bomber.

Usman was linked to a series of attacks in Mindanao, including the 2006 bombing in Makilala, North Cotabato, that killed half a dozen people.

In 2002, cohorts sprang him from the Sarangani provincial jail. He escaped along with Pentagon gang leader Alonto Tahir.

Maguindanao Tribe

Kabalu said Usman belonged to the Maguindanao tribe, having been born and raised in Ampatuan town.

There were also reports that Usman was involved in extortion activities of the Abu Sofia and the al-Khobar gangs, which have been linked to the Abu Sayyaf.

Kabalu said Usman had never been an MILF member but that his brother, Ustadz Mohiden, belonged to the MILF’s religious committee. Mohiden disappeared in 2004 after government agents seized him, Kabalu said.

“He (Usman) was not a member (of the MILF) but he trained many MILF members in bomb-making,” said Maj. Randolph Cabangbang, spokesperson of the military’s Eastern Mindanao Command.

On Most-Wanted List

Two military intelligence officers in northwestern Pakistan said Usman was believed killed on Jan. 14 on the border of Pakistan’s South and North Waziristan tribal regions. Another 11 militants were also killed in the strike on an extremist compound.

The US State Department’s list of most-wanted terrorists identifies Usman as a bomb-making expert with links to the Abu Sayyaf bandit group and the Southeast Asian Jemaah Islamiyah network.

The State Department has put a bounty of $1 million for information leading to Usman’s conviction, and says he is believed responsible for bombings in the southern Philippines in 2006 and 2007 that killed 15 people.

Home to Terrorists

Waziristan and other parts of Pakistan’s border region have long been home to militants from all over the world, primarily Arabs and central Asians.

Up to several hundred Filipino and other Southeast Asian militants traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s and ’90s to fight the Soviets and attend al-Qaida-run camps, but they are no longer believed to be in the region in significant numbers.

The apparent presence of Usman in Waziristan may raise fresh questions as to links between al-Qaida in Pakistan and extremists in Southeast Asia, which has seen several bloody bombings and failed terror plots since 2000. Many were carried out by extremists who had returned from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Pakistani officials cited extremist informers as the source of the information on Usman’s death—which could not be independently confirmed. One of them said Usman had been in Waziristan for one year after arriving from Afghanistan.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media on the record.

Pakistani government officials rarely confirm the identities of those killed in US attacks.

Unmanned Planes

Islamabad publicly complains about the US missile strikes because admitting to cooperating with the United States would be politically damaging, but it is believed to provide intelligence for many of them.

US officials, also, do not often talk about the missile strikes or their targets, but they have in the past confirmed the deaths of several mid- and high-level al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.

Most of the missiles are fired from unmanned drone aircraft launched from Afghanistan.

Asked about the drone program during an interview with local Express TV, visiting US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said: “I’m not going to discuss operations but I will say this: These unmanned aerial vehicles have been extremely useful to us, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan.”

Shadow Aircraft

Gates said he was expanding the program by buying more of the aircraft. He also said the United States was considering ways to share intelligence with the Pakistani military, including possibly giving it US-made drones for intelligence and reconnaissance purposes.

U.S. officials said Gates was referring to a proposed deal for 12 unarmed Shadow aircraft.

With reports from AP; Jocelyn R. Uy, in Manila; and Allan Nawal, Inquirer Mindanao


Shadow War in Afghanistan

January 14, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse


Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud (L) sits beside a man who is believed to be Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal Al-Balawi, the suicide bomber who killed CIA agents in Afghanistan, in this still image taken from video released January 9, 2010. A Pakistan television station showed on Saturday what it said was the suicide bomber double agent who killed CIA agents in Afghanistan sitting with the Pakistani Taliban leader, and reported he shared U.S. and Jordanian state secrets with militants.

REUTERS/Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan via Reuters TV

It was a Christmas and a New Year from hell for American intelligence, that US$75 billion labyrinth of at least 16 major agencies and a handful of minor ones. As the old year was preparing to be rung out, so were the US’s intelligence agencies, which managed not to connect every obvious clue to a (literally) seat-of-the-pants al-Qaeda operation. It hardly mattered that the underwear bomber’s case – except for the placement of the bomb material – almost exactly, even outrageously, replicated the infamous, and equally inept, “shoe bomber” plot of eight years ago.

That would have been bad enough, but the New Year brought worse. Army Major General Michael Flynn, the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, released a report in which he labeled military intelligence in the war zone – but by implication US intelligence operatives generally – as “clueless”. They were, he wrote, “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced … and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers … Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the US intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy.”

As if to prove the general’s point, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor with a penchant for writing inspirational essays on jihadi websites and an “unproven asset” for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), somehow entered a key agency forward operating base in Afghanistan unsearched, supposedly with information on al-Qaeda’s leadership so crucial that a high-level CIA team was assembled to hear it and Washington was alerted.

He proved to be either a double or a triple agent and killed seven CIA operatives, one of whom was the base chief, by detonating a suicide vest bomb, while wounding yet more, including the agency’s number-two operative in the country. The first suicide bomber to penetrate a US base in Afghanistan, he blew a hole in the CIA’s relatively small cadre of agents knowledgeable on al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

It was an intelligence disaster splayed all over the headlines: “Taliban bomber wrecks CIA’s shadowy war”, “Killings Rock Afghan Strategy”, “Suicide bomber who attacked CIA post was trusted informant from Jordan”. It seemed to sum up the hapless nature of America’s intelligence operations, as the CIA, with all the latest technology and every imaginable resource on hand, including the latest in Hellfire missile-armed drone aircraft, was out-thought and out-maneuvered by low-tech enemies.

No one could say that the deaths and the blow to the American war effort weren’t well covered. There were major TV reports night after night and scores of news stories, many given front-page treatment. And yet lurking behind those deaths and the man who caused them lay a bigger American war story that went largely untold. It was a tale of a new-style battlefield that the American public knows remarkably little about, and which bears little relationship to the Afghan war as we imagine it or as our leaders generally discuss it.


A man reads a copy of the day’s newspaper whose front page shows a photo of suspected suicide bomber Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi in Amman January 9, 2010.

REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

We don’t even have a language to describe it accurately. Think of it as a battlefield filled with muscled-up, militarized intelligence operatives, hired-gun contractors doing military duty, and privatized “native” guard forces. Add in robot assassins in the air 24/7 and kick-down-the-door-style night-time “intelligence” raids, “surges” you didn’t know were happening, strings of military bases you had no idea were out there, and secretive international collaborations you were unaware the US was involved in. In Afghanistan, the American military is only part of the story. There’s also a polyglot “army” representing the US that wears no uniforms and fights shape-shifting enemies to the death in a murderous war of multiple assassinations and civilian slaughter, all enveloped in a blanket of secrecy.

Black ops and black sites

Secrecy is a part of war. The surprise attack is only a surprise if secrecy is maintained. In wartime, crucial information must be kept from an enemy capable of using it. But what if, as in the US’s case, wartime never ends, while secrecy becomes endemic, as well as profitable and privitizable, and much of the information available to both sides on the US’s shadowy new battlefield is mainly being kept from the American people? The coverage of the suicide attack on forward operating base (FOB) Chapman offered a rare, very partial window into that strange war – but only if you were willing to read piles of news reports looking for tiny bits of information that could be pieced together.

We did just that and here’s what we found:

Let’s start with FOB Chapman, where the suicide bombing took place. An old Soviet base near the Pakistani border, it was renamed after a Green Beret who fought beside CIA agents and was the first American to die in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It sits in isolation near the town of Khost, just kilometers from the larger Camp Salerno, a forward operating base used mainly by US Special Operations troops.

Occupied by the CIA since 2001, Chapman is regularly described as “small” or “tiny” and, in one report, as having “a forbidding network of barriers, barbed wire and watchtowers”. Though a US State Department provisional reconstruction team has been stationed there (as well as personnel from the US Agency for International Development and the US Department of Agriculture), and though it “was officially a camp for civilians involved in reconstruction”, FOB Chapman is “well-known locally as a CIA base” – an “open secret”, as another report put it.

The base is guarded by Afghan irregulars, sometimes referred to in news reports as “Afghan contractors”, about whom we know next to nothing. (“CIA officials on Thursday would not discuss what guard service they had at the base.”) Despite the recent suicide bombing, according to Julian Barnes and Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times, a “program to hire Afghans to guard US forward operating bases would not be canceled. Under that program, which is beginning in eastern Afghanistan, Afghans will guard towers, patrol perimeter fences and man checkpoints.”

Also on FOB Chapman were employees of the private security contractor Xe (formerly Blackwater), which has had a close relationship with the CIA in Afghanistan. We know this because of reports that two of the dead “CIA” agents were Xe operatives.

Someone else of interest was at FOB Chapman at that fateful meeting with the Jordanian doctor Balawi – Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a captain in the Jordanian intelligence service, the eighth person killed in the blast. It turns out that Balawi was an agent of the Jordanian intelligence, which held (and abused) torture suspects kidnapped and disappeared by the CIA in the years of George W Bush’s “global war on terror.”

The service reportedly continues to work closely with the agency and the captain was evidently running Balawi. That’s what we now know about the polyglot group at FOB Chapman on the front lines of the agency’s black-ops war against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the allied fighters of the Sirajuddin and Jalaluddin Haqqani network in nearby Pakistan. If there were other participants, they weren’t among the bodies.

The agency surges

And here’s something that’s far clearer in the wake of the bombing: among the US’s vast network of bases in Afghanistan, the CIA has its own designated bases – as, by the way, do US Special Operations forces, and according to a Nation reporter, Jeremy Scahill, even private contractor Xe. Without better reporting on the subject, it’s hard to get a picture of these bases, but Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal tells us that a typical CIA base houses no more than 15-20 agency operatives (which means that Balawi’s explosion killed or wounded more than half of the team on FOB Chapman).

And don’t imagine that we’re only talking about a base or two. In the single most substantive post-blast report on the CIA, Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times wrote that the agency has “an archipelago of firebases in southern and eastern Afghanistan”, most built in the last year. An archipelago? Imagine that. And it’s also reported that even more of them are in the works.

With this goes another bit of information that the Wall Street Journal seems to have been the first to drop into its reports. While you’ve heard about President Barack Obama’s surge in American troops and possibly even State Department personnel in Afghanistan, you’ve undoubtedly heard little or nothing about a CIA surge in the region, and yet the Journal’s reporters tell us that agency personnel will increase by 20-25% in the surge months. By the time the CIA is fully bulked up with all its agents, paramilitaries and private contractors in place, Afghanistan will represent, according to Julian Barnes of the Los Angeles Times, one of the largest “stations” in agency history.

This, in turn, implies other surges. There will be a surge in base-building to house those agents, and a surge in “native” guards – at least until another suicide bomber hits a base thanks to Taliban supporters among them or one of them turns a weapon on the occupants of a base – and undoubtedly a surge in Blackwater-style mercenaries as well.

Keep in mind that the latest figure on private contractors suggests that 56,000 more of them will surge into Afghanistan in the next 18 months, far more than surging US troops, State Department employees and CIA operatives combined. And don’t forget the thousands of non-CIA “uniformed and civilian intelligence personnel serving with the Defense Department and joint interagency operations in the country”, who will undoubtedly surge as well.

Making war

The efforts of the CIA operatives at Chapman were reportedly focused on “collecting information about militant networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and plotting missions to kill the networks’ top leaders”, especially those in the Haqqani network in the North Waziristan tribal area just across the Pakistani border. They were evidently running “informants” into Pakistan to find targets for the agency’s ongoing drone assassination war.

These drone attacks in Pakistan have themselves been on an unparalleled surge course ever since Obama entered office; 44 to 50 (or more) have been launched in the past year, with civilian casualties running into the hundreds. Like local Pashtuns, the agency essentially doesn’t recognize a border. For them, the Afghan and Pakistani tribal borderlands are a single world.

In this way, as Paul Woodward of the website War in Context has pointed out, “Two groups of combatants, neither of whom wear uniforms, are slugging it out on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Each group has identified what it regards as high-value targets and each is using its own available means to hit these targets. The Taliban/al-Qaeda are using suicide bombers while the CIA is using Hellfire missiles.”

Since the devastating explosion at Chapman, statements of vengeance have been coming out of CIA mouths – of a kind that, when offered by the Taliban or al-Qaeda, we consider typical of a backward, “tribal” society. In any case, the secret war is evidently becoming a private and personal one. Balawi’s suicide attack essentially took out a major part of the agency’s targeting information system.

As one unnamed NATO official told the New York Times, “These were not people who wrote things down in the computer or in notebooks. It was all in their heads … [The CIA is] pulling in new people from all over the world, but how long will it take to rebuild the networks, to get up to speed? Lots of it is irrecoverable.” And the agency was already generally known to be “desperately short of personnel who speak the language or are knowledgeable about the region”. Nonetheless, drone attacks have suddenly escalated – at least five in the week since the suicide bombing, all evidently aimed at “an area believed to be a hideout for militants involved”. These sound like vengeance attacks and are likely to be particularly counterproductive.

To sum up, US intelligence agents, having lost out to enemy “intelligence agents”, even after being transformed into full-time assassins, are now locked in a mortal struggle with an enemy for whom assassination is also a crucial tactic, but whose operatives seem to have better informants and better information.

In this war, drones are not the agency’s only weapon. The CIA also seems to specialize in running highly controversial, kick-down-the-door “night raids” in conjunction with Afghan paramilitary forces. Such raids, when launched by US Special Operations forces, have led to highly publicized and heavily protested civilian casualties. Sometimes, according to reports, the CIA actually conducts them in conjunction with special ops forces.

In a recent American-led night raid in Kunar province, eight young students were, according to Afghan sources, detained, handcuffed and executed. The leadership of this raid has been attributed, euphemistically, to “other government agencies” (OGAs) or “non-military Americans”. These raids, whether successful in the limited sense or not, don’t fit comfortably with the Obama administration’s “hearts and minds” counter-insurgency strategy.

The militarization of the agency

As the identities of some of the fallen CIA operatives at Chapman became known, a pattern began to emerge. There was 37-year-old Harold Brown Jr, who formerly served in the army. There was Scott Roberson, a former Navy SEAL who did several tours of duty in Iraq, where he provided protection to officials considered at high risk. There was Jeremy Wise, 35, an ex-SEAL who left the military last year, signed up with Xe, and ended up working for the CIA. Similarly, 46-year-old Dane Paresi, a retired special forces master sergeant turned Xe hired gun, also died in the blast.

For years, American author and professor Chalmers Johnson, himself a former CIA consultant, has referred to the agency as “the president’s private army.” Today, that moniker seems truer than ever. While the civilian CIA has always had a paramilitary component, known as the Special Activities Division, the unit was generally relatively small and dormant. Instead, military personnel like the army’s special forces or indigenous troops carried out the majority of the CIA’s combat missions.

After the 9/11 attacks, however, George W Bush empowered the agency to hunt down, kidnap and assassinate suspected al-Qaeda operatives, and the CIA’s traditional specialties of spycraft and intelligence analysis took a distinct back seat to Special Activities Division operations, as its agents set up a global gulag of ghost prisons, conducted interrogations by torture, and then added those missile-armed drone and assassination programs.

The military backgrounds of the fallen CIA operatives cast a light on the way the world of “intelligence” is increasingly muscling up and becoming militarized. This past summer, when a former CIA official suggested the agency might be backing away from risky programs, a current official spit back from the shadows: “If anyone thinks the CIA has gotten risk-averse recently, go ask al-Qaeda and the Taliban … The agency’s still doing cutting-edge stuff in all kinds of dangerous places.”

At about the same time, reports were emerging that Blackwater/Xe was providing security, arming drones, and “perform[ing] some of the agency’s most important assignments” at secret bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also emerged that the CIA had paid contractors from Blackwater to take part in a covert assassination program in Afghanistan.

Add this all together and you have the grim face of “intelligence” at war in 2010 – a new micro-brew when it comes to Washington’s conflicts. Today, in Afghanistan, a militarized mix of CIA operatives and ex-military mercenaries as well as native recruits and robot aircraft is fighting a war “in the shadows” (as they used to say in the Cold War). This is no longer “intelligence” as anyone imagines it, nor is it “military” as military was once defined, not when US operations have gone mercenary and native in such a big way.

This is pure “lord of the flies” stuff – beyond oversight, beyond any law, including the laws of war. And worse yet, from all available evidence, despite claims that the drone war is knocking off mid-level enemies, it seems remarkably ineffective. All it may be doing is spreading the war farther and digging it in deeper.

Talk about “counter-insurgency” as much as you want, but this is another kind of battlefield, and “protecting the people” plays no part in it. And this is only what can be gleaned from afar about a semi-secret war that is being poorly reported. Who knows what it costs when you include the US hired guns, the Afghan contractors, the bases, the drones and the rest of the personnel and infrastructure? Nor do we know what else, or who else, is involved, and what else is being done. Clearly, however, all those billions of “intelligence” dollars are going into the blackest of black holes.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and the winner of a 2009 Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. Turse is currently a fellow at New York University’s Center for the United States and the Cold War. He is the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books). His website is NickTurse.com.

(Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse.)

A War That Can’t be Won: Pakistan Creates Its Own Enemy

December 24, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

On the day I arrived in Peshawar a few weeks ago, the evening stillness was broken by nine loud explosions, each preceded by the sucking sound of a projectile as it arced into Hayatabad, the suburban sprawl west of the city. Their target was a Frontier Constabulary post guarding the fence that separates the city from the tribal region of Khyber.

When I lived here seven years ago, Hayatabad hosted many Afghan refugees; those with fewer resources lived in the slums of Kacha Garhi, along the Jamrud Road to the Khyber Pass. Many established businesses here, and dominated commerce and transport in parts of the city. Some temporarily migrated in summer to Afghanistan, where it was cooler. But Peshawar was a sanctuary, as Afghanistan was perpetually at war. Now, many Afghans are leaving because Afghanistan feels safer. There are checkpoints all over the city, many kidnappings, and in the past month, there have been at least three suicide bombings and four rocket attacks, most targeting Hayatabad.

This war began in 2002 under intense US pressure, with piecemeal military action in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a semi-autonomous region of seven agencies along Pakistan’s north-western border. The Afghan Taliban were using the region to regroup after their earlier rout: veteran anti-Soviet commander Jalaluddin Haqqani headquartered his network in North Waziristan; Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami had a presence in Bajaur. However, the military, reluctant to take on pro-Pakistan Afghans, whom the government sees as assets against growing Indian influence in Afghanistan, instead marched into South Waziristan to apprehend “foreigners” (mainly Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs). Following the regional code of honor, the tribes refused to surrender the guests and were subjected to collective punishment that soon united them against the government. Disparate militant groups coalesced into the Pakistani Taliban, distinct from and less disciplined than its Afghan counterpart. Ineffectual tribal elders were marginalized or assassinated. The leadership shifted to individuals such as Nek Muhammad, 27, a charismatic veteran of the Afghan war, a sworn enemy of the US presence in Afghanistan.

Although FATA had been a transit base for rebels and weaponry during the anti-Soviet struggle, this did not undermine the tribal structures or the political administration. There were no insurgents, according to Rustam Shah Mohmand, an astute analyst of frontier politics, “because the policy of the government and the aspirations of the people converged”. He suggests three causes for the present impasse: President Pervaiz Musharraf’s decision in 2001 to join the US “war on terror”; the use of indiscriminate force to support what was seen as an American war; and the disappearances and rendition of suspects, many innocents among them, given into US custody for money.

These combined to create a gulf between public opinion and government policy, and in 2002 led to the protest vote that brought the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA, an alliance of religious parties opposed to the “war on terror”) to power in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The evisceration of established institutions, particularly the office of the Political Agent, which since the days of the Raj had served as the federal government’s liaison with the tribal maliks (chiefs), worsened the insecurity. Traditional tribal structures and the concept of regional responsibility also suffered.

In 2004, after two attempts on Musharraf’s life, the government ordered 5,000 troops supported by helicopter gunships into South Waziristan. The military suffered heavy losses and the government was forced to sign a peace treaty with Nek Mohammad that briefly ended hostilities. The ceasefire broke when, on 18 June 2004, the young amir was assassinated in a US drone strike for which, in the first of many such incidents, the Pakistani government claimed responsibility, rather than admit its sovereignty had been breached by the US. Two more peace deals followed, but both ended when in August 2007 Pakistani forces stormed a mosque in Islamabad held by militants sympathetic to the Taliban, an operation that killed many innocents.

A sustained terrorist campaign followed, and the blowback began to hit Pakistan’s major cities. In response, the military expanded its operations into other agencies including Bajaur, Mohmand and Khyber. The fighting was intense, and neither side gave quarter. Millions were displaced, and anger against the government grew.

Phantom enemy

On the bus to Peshawar I’d met a youth, studying English literature at the University of Punjab, who was returning home to evacuate his family from the Khyber Agency. I asked him who the Taliban were, and he replied dryly “we all are”. A taxi driver showed me the flood of refugees from Khyber’s Bara region, and said the Taliban were a “phantom enemy” invented by the Pakistani establishment to justify foreign aid. He warned the government’s actions were actually creating the enemy that it claims it is at war with.

Around the time of the mosque siege the war also spilled into the mainland. Tensions had simmered since 2007 in Malakand’s Swat valley and culminated in the Pakistan army’s incursion this year into the region. The operation followed the failure of a peace settlement, the Nizam-e-Adl, that the government had signed with the Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), a local movement committed to the restoration of the region’s old legal order. Until the early 1970s, the three districts of Malakand – Swat, Dir and Chitral — were independent princely states, each with its own legal system — in Swat, a variant of sharia. Following Swat’s accession to Pakistan, the old system was superseded by Pakistan’s legal framework; however, no legal infrastructure evolved to cope with the change. Cases languished in district courts and justice was often indefinitely postponed. From the late 1970s on, this led to calls for the restoration of the old order, and in 1989 Sufi Muhammad established TNSM to formally pursue this cause.

The movement twice took up arms in the 1990s, but the governments of Benazir Bhutto (1994) and Nawaz Sharif (1999) made concessions to defuse hostilities. However, by 2002 the TNSM had all but disappeared after Sufi Muhammad led a contingent of 10,000 men into Afghanistan to fight US forces, most of whom were killed or captured. Sufi Muhammad’s credibility suffered and on his return he was whisked off to a prison in Dera Ismail Khan.

In 2005 Muhammad’s son-in-law, Mullah Fazlullah, was able to revive TNSM, with a more radical edge. The group was further strengthened by the arrival of militants fleeing US drone attacks in FATA. After the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan, TTP) was established in December 2007 with Baitullah Mehsud as its leader, Mullah Fazlullah changed his organization into a local chapter of the movement. With its populist rhetoric, its swift justice and opposition to the old feudal elite, it found favor with the underclass and attracted many disaffected youths. This, observed Asif Ezdi, a political analyst, was “because the state has failed [the youth], massively and comprehensively: the wellspring of Islamic militancy in Pakistan is to be found in the alienation of the mass of the population by a ruling elite that has used the state to protect and expand its own privileges, pushing the common man into deeper and deeper poverty and hopelessness”.

Rule of justice

With unemployment, easy access to weaponry and training, and rising political consciousness because of a vibrant private media, there was no shortage of angry young men to swell the Taliban ranks, especially when the war was also seen as a struggle against the entrenched elite. “In some areas at least, it has pitted landless tenants against wealthy landlords,” Ezdi notes. This, he says, was “in a country where ordinary people have little chance of overcoming status barriers, with the government, the political system and the elite all arrayed against them. It is this combination of revolutionary and religious zeal which makes the Taliban such a formidable force.”

However, as more power accrued to the TTP, petty criminals also joined. This not only granted them immunity from the Taliban’s brutal justice, but access to weapons and a powerful support network. They used these immediately, terrorizing rivals and ordinary people alike. Following their own narrow interpretation of Islam, they banned female education; more than a hundred schools were bombed. Whatever initial support the Swat Taliban had enjoyed evaporated quickly; even the TTP dissented when its spokesman Maulvi Omar urged Fazlullah to reconsider the decision to ban girls’ education.

Eager to check the growing power of the TTP, in 2008 the Pashtun nationalist government of NWFP released Sufi Muhammad, who had renounced violence, to negotiate peace with the militants. These efforts culminated in the Nizam-e-Adl (rule of justice) legislation of February 2009, which briefly ended hostilities after the government agreed to establish sharia courts and the militants agreed to disarm. After much delay, the legislation was ratified by the central government on April 14, 2009 and, although both sides failed fully to meet obligations, some normalcy briefly returned to the valley.

Western commentators and their local allies were quick to denounce the legislation as Pakistan’s “surrender to the Taliban”. The country, they said, was on the verge of collapse, its nuclear arsenal about to land into the hands of the Taliban, who were within 60 miles of the capital. Pressure mounted on the Pakistani government and in May, when a group of TTP militants rode motorbikes into the neighbouring Buner valley, the incident was presented by the media as a prelude to a march on the capital. The tanks rolled.

While the operation succeeded in dislodging the militants, nearly three million citizens were displaced, and of those who remained, many were killed in the bombing of civilian neighborhoods. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) declared it the worst refugee crisis since Rwanda, and the capacity of the international aid organizations was seriously stretched. More than 80 per cent of the refugees were absorbed by families, friends and well-wishers; the UNHCR conceded it was only able to provide 33 per cent of the relief assistance needed for the rest. The Pakistani government failed to provide assistance and much of the foreign aid money lined the pockets of corrupt officials. The unaffected eastern provinces of Sindh and Punjab restricted entry to the refugees; this highlighted the ethnic dimension of the conflict, since the Pashtuns see themselves as primary targets.

Yet, unlike the military operations in FATA, the operation enjoyed relatively high popular support among Pakistanis (41 per cent). It was hailed as a success by politicians, the military and the media. Everybody recognized that it was imperative to counter militancy and criminality in Malakand but not all agreed that force was the only way to do it. “I think [the war] was avoidable,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran journalist and the most respected analyst of frontier politics, “but Pakistan is not a free and independent player. There was much pressure from the US and other countries, and for a variety of reasons the government couldn’t resist.”

Yusufzai dismisses the idea that the militants were a threat to the country or its nuclear assets. “The government itself is saying that there were no more than 5,000 Taliban; they were controlling Swat, they had entered Buner — how many men could they have spared to march on the capital?” Pakistan is a country of 173 million, with a million under arms and an advanced air force.

“The Taliban had neither the capacity nor the intention to invade the capital. They were only interested in the Malakand division, and even there their influence was limited to three of its seven districts.” The Nizam-e-Adl encompassed the same concessions that two previous, secular governments had made, and Sufi Muhammad’s influence could have defused hostilities and marginalized the radicals. Roedad Khan, a former federal secretary and political commentator, queries whether all political options had been exhausted.

“There never was a more unnecessary war… a war more difficult to justify and harder to win. No one can be bombed into moderation and, given the unconventional methods of the insurgents, force alone has a slim chance of success since the militant doesn’t have to win, he just has to keep fighting.
“Mohmand has questions. “If the aim of the operation was to confront the elements challenging the writ of the state, it should have targeted only them. Why did the government have to invade the whole territory? By using air power and indiscriminate bombardment the government ensured that common people would suffer.”

Although the government has declared victory in Swat, he argued, the success could prove pyrrhic if “the social, economic and political causes that led to the emergence of the Taliban are not addressed and comprehensive reconstruction doesn’t follow.”

Tribe against tribe

In yet another act of political myopia, Pakistan diminished its options when in September it invited members of the Taliban shura (advisory committee) for negotiations and then arrested them. The policy of arming militias to counter the Taliban (along the lines of the Iraqi “awakening councils”) is equally dangerous. In a region where blood feuds last for generations, Yusufzai points out, this means perpetual violence, pitting tribe against tribe. The government’s policy of home demolitions ignores the fact that in the frontier region a single house is shared by an extended family, and when a home is demolished for the sins of an errant son, the state creates more recruits for the insurgency.

An uneasy peace prevails in Swat today, and militant violence has declined. However, more than 200 suspected militants and sympathizers have been killed in extra-judicial executions by security forces and local vigilantes since the end of major combat operations. The population remains in a permanent state of fear: “If, earlier, people were terrorized by the Taliban, today they live in fear of the army,” says Yusufzai. “Anybody can be labelled a Talib”, he notes; some locals have chosen to settle scores by falsely accusing rivals of being Taliban sympathizers. “Your house is then demolished, you are taken into custody, and next day your body is found dumped in a field. People are very scared, they are afraid to talk, and the media” — which mostly cheered on the military — “is compromised.”
The Taliban attacks continued, accelerating in October in anticipation of the new military incursion in South Waziristan. Under the leadership of Hakimullah Mehsud, 28, a campaign of bombings began which, with calculated cruelty, hit targets in Hangu, Kohat, Shangla and Peshawar, killing mostly civilians. The attacks got more audacious as the government escalated the aerial bombing ahead of the ground invasion. Punjabi allies of the Taliban even managed a successful attack on military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Pakistan’s vulnerability became even clearer when a wave of attacks hit the heavily fortified capital.

Meanwhile the US drone attacks in the FATA region continue. Of 701 citizens killed in 60 strikes between January 29 , 2008 and April 8, 2009, only 14 were suspected militants according to one investigation; the brunt is borne by civilians. Public opinion is incensed: according to an August 2009 Gallup poll, 59 per cent of Pakistanis see the US as the biggest threat, compared with 18 per cent for traditional rival India. Only 11 per cent see the Taliban as the biggest threat (although that number is growing). While the poll also revealed 41 per cent support for the military operation in Swat, a higher number (43 per cent) favored a political resolution. The insecurities of the Pakistani defense establishment are worsened by US assistance to India, including the transfer of advanced military and nuclear technology.

With the inducement of aid dollars, Pakistan with its poorly equipped army is trying to achieve what the US and Nato have failed to accomplish in Afghanistan. But the longer the military operations continue the more regions are likely to slip from under its control as the numbers of the aggrieved multiply, the military stretches thin and vulnerabilities increase. Already the insurgency has spread to parts of Punjab. Yet a form of military metaphysics prevails among the Pakistani elite and western commentators, who continue to hope that militancy can be bombed out of existence. Anti-war voices are denounced as Taliban sympathizers.
The recent entry of 28,000 Pakistani troops into South Waziristan has precipitated yet another mass exodus; a third of the population has been displaced. Though the Pakistani Taliban have few supporters left, Associated Press (AP) found refugees venting their anger at the government with chants of “Long live the Taliban”. Instead of winning hearts and minds, the government is delivering them to the enemy. If the Pakistani Taliban are disliked, the government is disliked more. Despite the best efforts of the elite to take ownership of the war, the notion persists that Pakistan is fighting an American war, a view that will be harder to dispute following reports that the attack on Waziristan is being assisted by US drone surveillance.

According to the journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, the military has again taken a gamble marching into South Waziristan “as it is highly unlikely to eliminate the militant threat. Indeed, the past seven or so years have shown that after any operation against militants, the militants have always gained from the situation”. Already the Taliban are regrouping in Swat, and “it is likely that by the time the snow chokes major supply routes, the Taliban will have seized all lost ground” . Yet the media and western commentators remain sanguine. The day the rockets hit Hayatabad the featured article on Foreign Policy magazine’s AfPak Channel was headlined “Everything’s coming up roses in Pakistan”. The attack was attributed to Mangal Bagh Afridi, leader of the banned Lashkar-e-Islam and a former ally of the government who not long ago was credited with driving out fugitives and petty criminals and providing protection to Nato convoys. Alliances remain transient, yet another reason to refrain from arming militias to fight proxy wars. The morning after the rockets I walked to the local market to buy tandoori bread. Once sold for Rs 2, it now sells for Rs 15. Wages have stagnated and inflation and unemployment are high. On the street there was no talk of the threat to lives. Everyone complained about the impossible cost of living.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is the co-founder of Pulsemedia.orgThis article appears in the current edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.