Western forces poised to halt Taliban tide
By Kim Sengupta and Andrew Buncombe
Monday, 25 August 2008
As fears grow that the Taliban’s strength has been underestimated and not enough is being done to stop militants crossing Afghanistan’s porous border, Western forces are considering taking the controversial step of carrying out more missions in Pakistan.
In recent weeks, increased attacks by Taliban fighters on Western and Afghan targets, including the killing of 10 French soldiers and the attempted storming of an American base, have been linked by Nato officials to peace deals struck between the militants and Pakistan’s government and an unwillingness in some parts of the Islamabad establishment to |confront extremists.
At the same time, the widespread condemnation by Afghans, including President Hamid Karzai, of a Nato-led air raid aimed at a Taliban commander which killed up to 90 civilians, including women and children, has added impetus to the need for more on-the-ground operations.
At the weekend, the de facto leader of Pakistan’s government, Asif Ali Zardari, admitted: “The world is losing the war. I think at the moment, the Taliban definitely has the upper hand.”
The resurgent Taliban has profited from the increased political turmoil in Pakistan, which saw Pervez Musharraf, considered by the West to be a stalwart ally, resign as president last week.
Earlier today, the chaos deepened as the former Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, withdrew from the coalition government in a row over the reinstatement of sacked judges. While his resignation will be unlikely to trigger a snap election, it adds to the confusion and the belief by some analysts that militants have seized on a perceived power vacuum in Islamabad since February’s elections, which installed the civilian government.
Meanwhile, under pressure from Washington, which has provided it with millions of dollars, Pakistan’s government announced yesterday it was outlawing the main Taliban organisation in the country, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, saying it would freeze its assets. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, said: “This organisation is a terrorist organisation and has created mayhem against public life.” The group has claimed responsibility for a wave of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds since the fragile civilian government took power.
American, British and Afghan officials claim there are up to 80 rudimentary Taliban and al-Qa’ida training camps in Pakistan, churning out insurgents often with the connivance of elements in the Pakistani military and the notorious ISI intelligence service. The cross-border flow of militants has resulted in a blurring of the distinction between Pakistan Taliban and the Taliban “proper”. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, is believed to be living in Pakistan’s tribal areas, as is Osama bin Laden.
But increasing the number of clandestine operations inside Pakistan would be a major step, with huge potential for serious repercussions. While it is generally recognised that the CIA and special forces operate covertly in the country, the subject is sensitive and not publicly discussed. Previously, Pakistan forces have publicly taken responsibility for missile attacks and other military strikes probably carried out by US forces.
To enable the clandestine operations, it is understood the US has established bases just inside Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. They include Lowara Mundi, facing North Waziristan, Mughalgai, across the border from the training camp of the Taliban commander Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Gurbaz near Khost.
Yet the challenge presented is far from straightforward and, for all of the West’s rhetoric about the so-called war on terror, there is no easy fix. Recent military operations in the tribal areas by Pakistani forces