Saturday, June 27, 2009

Taliban Losses No Sure Gain for Pakistanis

MARDAN, Pakistan — For the past month and a half, the Pakistani military has claimed success in retaking the Swat Valley from the Taliban, clawing back its own territory from insurgents who only a short time ago were extending their reach toward the heartland of the country.

Yet from a helicopter flying low over the valley last week, the low-rise buildings of Mingora, the largest city in Swat, now deserted and under a 24-hour curfew, appeared unscathed. In the surrounding countryside, farmers had harvested wheat and red onions on their unscarred land.

All that is testament to the fact that the Taliban mostly melted away without a major fight, possibly to return when the military withdraws or to fight elsewhere, military analysts say. About two million people have been displaced in Swat and the surrounding area as the military has carried out its campaign.

The reassertion of control over Swat has at least temporarily denied the militants a haven they coveted inside Pakistan proper. The offensive has also won strong support from the United States, which has urged Pakistan to engage the militants.

But the Taliban’s decision to scatter leaves the future of Swat, and Pakistan’s overall stability, under continued threat, military analysts and some politicians say.

The tentative results in Swat also do not bode well for the military’s new push in the far more treacherous terrain of South Waziristan, another insurgent stronghold, where officials have vowed to take on the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, who remains Pakistan’s most wanted man.

Signs abound that the military’s campaign in Swat is less than decisive. The military extended its deadline for ending the campaign. Even in the areas where progress has been made, the military controls little more than urban centers and roads, say those who have fled the areas. The military has also failed to kill or capture even one top Taliban commander.

It was “very disappointing,” said Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, a senior politician from the region, that none of the commanders had been eliminated. It turned out, he said, that early reports of the capture of Ibn Amin, a particularly brutal commander from Matta, were incorrect.

Many Taliban fighters have infiltrated the camps set up for those displaced by the fighting and are likely to return with them to Swat, said Himayatullah Mayar, the mayor of Mardan, the city where many of the refugees are staying. “Most of the Taliban shaved their beards, and they are living here with their families,” he said.

As of two weeks ago, the police had arrested 150 people in the camps suspected of being members of the Taliban, Mr. Mayar said. This figure did not include suspects arrested by the Intelligence Bureau, Pakistan’s domestic intelligence outfit, and the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s main spy agency, he said.

Meanwhile, the government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, has yet to announce a full plan for how it will provide services like courts, policing and health care that will allow the refugees to return home and the government to fully assert control.

Those plans appear to be mired in conflict and mutual suspicion between the military and the civilian government, raising serious questions about whether the authorities can secure Swat and other areas and keep them from being taken back by the Taliban, military experts said.

“I’ve told the president and the prime minister and the chief of the army this is the time to act. Just take basic things and implement them,” said Gen. Nadeem Ahmad, the commander of the Special Support Group, an arm of the Pakistani military that is providing temporary buildings and some food for the displaced. “This is not talking rocket science.”

On a notepad, General Ahmad had drawn a chart of the four elements of what he called “lasting peace.” They were good government; improved delivery of services, including rebuilt schools; speedy justice (something the Taliban had provided); and social equity.

He appeared to be skeptical that those aspects could be delivered within what he called an essential one-year time frame. He said he had warned the leaders: “If you don’t deliver, it will be trouble. You will come back and do the operation again.”

Having witnessed past episodes of deal-making with the Taliban, the people of Swat say they want tangible proof that the military is serious this time and that they will be safe if they return home.

From the start, a rallying cry has been a demand that the army kill or capture Taliban leaders, a ruthless group of highly trained fighters, some with links to Al Qaeda. But the army has not been able to show any evidence that it killed any of the Taliban leaders.

The daily newspaper The News said in a recent editorial that unless Maulana Fazlullah, the Taliban’s main commander in Swat, and Mr. Mehsud, the country’s top enemy, were captured, “the Taliban are going to live to fight another day.”

Indeed, most of the damage from the recent fighting appears confined to small agricultural hamlets outside Mingora, according to interviews with displaced people. Some said they had heard from recent arrivals to the camps that areas 500 yards off the roads remained in control of the militants.

The “outlook was bleak” in Swat because the civilian government did not have the money or the skills to rebuild, said Shuja Nawaz, the author of a history of the Pakistani military and now the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Most of the two million displaced people are still living in tent camps and cramped quarters with relatives and even strangers, in cities as far flung as the southern port of Karachi.

Many displaced people were fed up with the cruelties inflicted under Taliban rule and have backed the military campaign. But as the fighting drags on in places, the mood among them grows increasingly despondent.

Some displaced people said that they were angry at the army for indiscriminate shelling in civilian areas. Others said they were confused about why the military operation was even necessary.

“We had no problem with the Taliban,” Umar Ali, a poultry trader from Qambar in Swat, said as he sat on the veranda of a home in Swabi, a town filled with displaced people. “We’re here because of the military shelling. I’m a trader, and the thing that affects my life is the curfew.”

Earlier Pakistani campaigns against the Taliban do not offer an encouraging precedent. In Bajaur, a part of the tribal areas, two main economic centers, the market towns of Loe Sam and Inayat Kalay, remain in ruins nearly eight months after the army smashed them in pursuit of the Taliban and claimed victory.

Too soon to declare victory in Swat: US

TRIESTE, Italy (Reuters) - US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke has said it is too soon for Pakistan to declare victory in its Swat Valley, where the Army has driven back Taliban insurgents.
Holbrooke, attending a G8 conference on stabilising Pakistan and Afghanistan in Italy, told Reuters that it was too early for Pakistan to announce victory in Swat.
“The true test is when the refugees go back to Swat. Will they have security? Will they be protected?” he said.
“Will the Army be able to keep the Taliban from coming back down over the hills? And the bill for reconstruction in Swat is going to be enormous - over a billion dollars, maybe over 2 billion.”
“We’re very gratified that the Army led the charge back into Swat and that they’ve driven the militants out of the Swat Valley. But we have a long way to go before we know the end of the story. So there is a lot left in this saga,” he maintained
When asked ‘is there a number on how many civilians were killed in Swat’, Holbrooke flatly replied “No.”
Responding to another question that would there be more casualties after hike in US troops in Afghanistan, he said “I don’t know if the increased troops will lead to increase casualties. It happens often, but I’m not going to concede that. We have a new commander, a brilliant new commander, Gen. (Stanley) McChrystal, and he is devising new strategies and tactics.”
He further said “The Taliban are going to be put under pressure like they’ve never seen before. And coupled with our elimination of things like crop eradication so we don’t alienate the people, coupled with Gen McChrystal’s new rules over the use of airpower in an attempt to reduce civilian casualties, we may find that things go much better than expected.”
The 45 nations and multilateral organisations at the G8 conference issued a statement pledging to look at ways to boost humanitarian aid to Pakistan, where nearly two million people have been displaced by fighting.
Holbrooke said allies were not doing enough. “The US is by far the largest contributor (of aid) to the refugee relief crisis in Pakistan. I don’t mind that ... But other countries are not doing the right amount in my view,” he said, adding some foreign ministers had told him privately that their countries could do more.
The US envoy told allies that Washington is to dramatically overhaul its Afghan anti-drug strategy.
Holbrooke also discussed efforts to support Afghanistan’s August 20 election. Washington has nearly doubled its troops to combat a growing Taliban insurgency and provide security for the vote.
“The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure. They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work,” Holbrooke said.
“We are not going to support crop eradication. We’re going to phase it out,” he said. The emphasis would instead be on intercepting drugs and chemicals used to make them, and going after drug lords. He said some crop eradication may still be allowed, but only in limited areas.
Afghanistan supplies more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin. Despite the millions of dollars spent on counter-narcotics efforts, drug production kept rising dramatically until last year - UN figures indicate Afghanistan’s output has risen more than 40-fold since the 2001 US-led invasion.
US President Barack Obama has put Afghanistan and Pakistan at the centre of his foreign agenda and launched a new strategy aimed at defeating al Qaeda and stabilising Afghanistan.
Holbrooke said senior members of the US government were calling the upcoming Afghan vote ‘the most important event of the year’. “The fairness of those elections will determine the credibility and legitimacy of the government. We have just seen a spectacularly bad example just next door in Iran,” he said.
“And in these situations, governance becomes more difficult. So, at the end of the process, we would like to see a government elected by its people in a way that is credible and viewed as legitimate by the people and the international community.”
Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta told Reuters that Kabul aimed for a free and fair election, but added: “We have to recognise the reality, and the reality of Afghanistan, regarding violence, regarding the weak state.”

Al-Kini group behind bombing incidents in Pakistan: FBI

ISLAMABAD: The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has informed Pakistan that Al-Qaeda's network known as ‘Al-Kini group’ was behind a series of bombing incidents in the country, including last year's deadly suicide attack on Islamabad's Marriot hotel.

In its latest communication to Pakistan's Federal Investigating Agency (FIA), the FBI has described the Al-Kini Group to be not only involved in the Marriot bombing, but its various terror cells were also involved in a suicide attack that had killed an army surgeon general, Lt. Gen Mushtaq Baig, in Rawalpindi and the bomb attack on a police station in Sargodha.

Usama al-Kini, also known as Azmarai, was Al-Qaeda's Pakistan chief until he was killed in one of the drone attacks in North Waziristan last year.

Its not clear who heads the Al-Qaeda network in Pakistan, but FBI's correspondence suggest terror-cells of those loyal to Al-Kini were still operating as a separate group, and carrying out attacks within Pakistan.

Perhaps the deadliest of the known attacks by the group was a dumper-truck bomb that caused mass destruction at Islamabad's Marriot hotel in September last year, killing 53 people and injuring dozens of others.

According to the FBI three US nationals were among those killed in the attack.

A highly informed source said the FBI has asked the FIA and Islamabad Capital Territory police to share their investigations they had carried out so far which may help them in apprehending three people described as absconders, including a person identified as Ibrar-ud-Din Syed.

A joint investigation team (JIT) headed by former director general FIA Tariq Pervez had carried out an investigation into the Marriot Hotel bombing and compiled a report.

Dr Muhammad Usman, a resident of Hayat Abad Peshawar, Rana Illyas Ahmed a resident of Sumanderi Faisalabad and Muhammad Hameed Afzal a resident of Toba Tek Sing were arrested by Pakistani security agencies for involvement in the Marriot Hotel bombing and are being tried in the ATC.

The source said in line with the FBI's request, the director general FIA has sought permission from the federal government to share their investigation with the US agency for the apprehension of individual involved in the bombing as three Americans had been killing in the terrorist attack on the hotel.

The Pakistan's federal investigating agency have also been requested to allow the FBI to carry out some forensic tests in their laboratories on left over pieces of the explosive laden vehicle, frame parts, the engine and its shrapnel which were seized by the Pakistani agencies.

The FBI believes that the relevant forensic testing on residue samples, found from the scene of the terrorist attack, would help the Pakistani authorities in their investigation.

The source said information collected from one of the arrested members of al-Kini group, Omar Farouk, revealed that the group had financed two terrorist attacks in Pakistan in 2007, including the attack on Sarghoda police station in 2007.

The FBI has stepped up its efforts to collect further information in close liaison with the FIA and other security agencies in Pakistan to tighten the noose around the Al-Kini network, which many believe had remained the most effective al-Qaeda wing within Pakistan.

Two Taliban commanders arrested in Peshawar

PESHAWAR: Intelligence Agencies claimed to have arrested two Taliban commanders during military operations in separate areas of the provincial capital on Saturday while another Taliban commander was shot dead by unknown militants, according to Geo news sources.

The arrested commanders were identified as Azizullah and Abdullah who were nabbed amid forces’ anti-Taliban operations from Sikandar Road and University Town areas of Peshawar.

Two commanders were wanted in separate cases of kidnapping for ransom who actually hailed from Khyber Agency, sources said, adding that they have been taken to unidentified place for investigation.

Another commander, gunned down in Board Bazaar area, was identified as Majnoon, security sources concluded.