The Al-Qaeda & Taliban's New Target: Pakistan

The Collapse of Pakistan’s Northwest Region to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda

It has been going on for years now since 2003 or so, the slowly eroding grip of Pakistan’s Frontier Forces on this key province that is adjacent to Afghanistan. Like the domino effect of the cold war, here, one province has been infiltrated and slowly converted the extreme Islam that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda believe in. Pakistan’s military forces are similar to those of South Vietnam so many years ago: corrupt, weak, lack fighting spirit. When the Pakistani army launches an offensive, it is a success only where little resistance is present. When there is presence of significant terrorists, the battle ends in a defeat or draw. In every case so far, after several attempts to regain control of a region, the Pakistani settles for a negotiated peace hoping it will stop the devouring by the terrorists. Sadly, nobody outside of Pakistan can do much about it. In another time, the terrorist would be Hitler, the appeasers, France and Britain, they talked and looked the other way in 1938 as Czechslovakia and Austria were swallowed up by another ideology.

Northwest Pakistan

In Swat, during Operation Rah-e-haq (the Right Path) I and II, the Pakistani military was defeated twice by forces under Fazlullah in 2007 and 2008. Earlier this year, the military launched its third attempt to secure Swat, which has been totally under the control of the Taliban. The military managed to regained control of a small region of Swat but with fighting heavy.

Swat, spread out over 1,100 sq. miles with a population of 1.5 million, is just 100 miles from Islamabad. Controlled by Fazlullah and his 4500-man militia seized one town after another, looting armory and controlling police stations. This Mullah and his men controlled five of the seven sub-districts, then imposed the Taliban rule and regulations in the captured areas, collected taxes and ran kangaroo courts, forced Islamic dress, closed girl’s schools, destroyed music shops, barber shops. He was able to seize and then operated an FM radio station spouting Islamic ideology. The Mullah even dared the Pakistani regime by announcing he was the governor of Swat.

The Pakistani Military in the Northwest

The military has four brigades (15,000) in Swat, yet has been unable to defeat a Taliban force estimated between 2,000 to 5,000 strong. The Pakistani police there remains useless after the Taliban targeted its officers, killing many. Of its 1600 man police force, 800 police have deserted. This prompted military action starting with Rah-e-haq I, which failed. The second phase started on November 13, 2007 and was jointly executed by the 23rd Division of 10 Corps’ and 17th Division of 11th Corps’. The army cleared the valley by December 24th at a cost 36 KIA and 72 WIA, while nine civilians had died and another 45 injured. The Pakistanis killed 10 senior Taliban and almost arrested the militant leader, Fazlullah, he narrowly escaped. Thus, the army had achieved its primary objective in Swat Province by clearing the valley of terrorists and establishing government control there, at least for awhile. The operation had pushed the enemy to the remote Peochar area and to the mountains. Some 700 terrorists had been killed (out of an estimated 4500). It was a temporary victory. In Rah-e-haq III, which began late January, 2009, was the largest involving 17-20,000 soldiers, many from the same divisions before with additional brigades from other divisions, including the 14th Division. The general plan remained the same in occupying the highest terrain as the army sweeps along the main roads to secure the main city and clear the enemy. After a true combined arms attack, Minapura, was retaken and secured. The average death rate among the terrorists in Swat has been around 25-30 daily. It was estimated that 1700 terrorists were killed in this most recent offensive, however, tragically, the Pakistanis signed a truce with Fazlullah weeks later and have since pulled out of Swat! This allowed the Taliban to dictate the terms of the truce!

In the Bajaur district, Operation Sher-dil, started in August, 2008. Pitched battles were fought in a radius no greater than 7-8 miles. What began as a well coordinated siege of a small village on August 6 turned into a protracted battle. The Pakistanis armed with 9000 soldiers, tanks, up to 20 Cobra gunships and jets ended in a draw due to a potpourri of Islamist fighters, including al-Qaeda. Even after eliminating more than 1000 terrorists, Pakistani forces had only managed to retake only a 6-10 mile stretch of land. Bajaur had an estimated population of around 900,000. Since the beginning of hostilities, more than half of the population left for safer places. While the government figures put the number of displaced People at 250,000, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan believes that 700,000 have migrated. Still, Bajaur remains a command and control hub for al Qaeda and the Taliban entering to and from Afghanistan in the Northeast into Kunar province. It was located in the town of Shin Kot, south of Damadola, and had been the target of U.S.predator strikes. Terrorist leaders like Abdullah Meshud, command up to 30,000 Taliban and tribal levies, while others may command groups of not more than 5,000 fighters. The Taliban in this district number between 2000-3000 and organized under four commanders. The largest group comprising 1200 militants is led by Faqir Mohammad, the deputy of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. His headquarters is located in Sewai.

American intelligence estimates the number of fighters under the Taliban at around 200,000. However, large numbers are not hard-core Taliban. Regardless, the shear number of fighters under the Taliban is why al-Qaeda leaders are quite comfortable with the overall security situation in Northwest Pakistan. They are protected and insulated and can act with near immunity. Both terrorist groups use the standard guerrilla practices that have been around for centuries: night letters, threats, intimidation, executions, and shows of force, tight control.

Like the US Army in the Vietnam War, the Pakistani Army has no training in fighting a counterinsurgency and relies on airstrikes and artillery to destroy the Taliban. This was a typical method used by the US and French in Vietnam. Not effective. This causes “collateral damage” or civilian casualties. This turns the public against the army, which is trying to liberate them from the terrorists. The real battle is winning the hearts and minds of the locals with a combination of indoctrination and public education and building projects that held them. This, the terrorists know well.

Worse, the Pakistani Army, despite its fairly modern weapons, demonstrates to the public how corrupt and weak they are when confronting resistance. Time after time, the military is slow and even if they win the battle they seek a truce with the enemy. To the average Pakistani, they cannot be trusted. Sadly, only this army can ultimately keep Pakistan together as a country. This is not a reassuring thought for the region or the world.

Why Should the West Be Concerned: Ineffectiveness and Corruption

The Taliban and al-Qaeda from a command and control perspective are almost one now. While both maintain their own independent organizations, they have clearly created an alliance. Intelligence and informants indicate the Taliban have started an ideological conversion to Wahhabism, the radical form of Sunni Islam practiced by al Qaeda. Worse, there are joint Taliban and al Qaeda military formations under the command of the Shadow Army in the Northwest Frontier Province. This area has
more than 150 camps and more than 400 support locations. Most are "mobile" in nature. It is estimated that 25 to 40 of these camps are permanent training facilities.

Since August 2007, there have been suicide attacks at or near the Sargodha Air Force Base, a nuclear weapons and missile storage facility in central Punjab province. The base is home to Pakistan's short range tactical nuclear missiles that number between 34-80. In the Northwest sector, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have hit several military and police bases near Pakistani nuclear facilities. This Province not only serves as a base for the Taliban and al Qaeda Central Command, the territory is adjacent to nuclear sites in the province of Punjab. It will be only a matter of time until there are soldiers who will switch sides for a variety of reasons and allow the unthinkable to occur: nuclear weapons in terrorist hands. They are already knocking on the door.

Recently, newly declassified documents released by the US State Department dealing with Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban were made public on August 14, 2007. The release came within days of President Pervez Musharraf admitting that the Taliban were getting support from Pakistan soil. The documents prove that the Taliban was directly funded, armed and advised by Pakistan government agencies in the Islamabad area. Probably with some US dollars!

Records show that Pakistan paid the salaries of the Taliban administration - a sum of $300 million was paid in June 1996. Pakistan also gave direct military support to the Taliban through the middle-level officers of the Pakistan Army. These officers were deployed to train the Taliban and paid handsomely. Pakistani Army officials were involved in planning Taliban military operations. These officers also helped the Taliban capture large arms dumps in Spin Boldak, which contained some 18,000 Kalashnikovs, dozens of artillery pieces, large quantities of ammunition and vehicles. To be fair, like all armies, there are those who can be bought for a price. It just happens more frequently in Third World poorer nations. To wit, the average Pakistani foot soldier makes only $20.00 a month! When viewed from this perspective, it is not all surprising that part of the Pakistani Army is corrupt. Also, perhaps some of their soldiers secretly side with their Islam beliefs and feel that winning this fight is futile.

The Pakistani Army continues to make a deal with the Taliban one day (appeasement) and then joins with US and NATO forces to attack them the next (to continue receiving US support and money). Terrorists are using weapons of Iranian, Indian and Russian origin. Afghan war lords trafficking in drugs continue provide them with funds and drugs to destabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan.

They are all issues the US has known about for some time and have chosen, maybe by default, to ignore, as Pakistan must be included in the battle even if corrupt. The US really has little choice unless Pakistan requests a US military presence on their soil.

The Shadow Army

Formerly known as Brigade 055, Al Qaeda has now enlarged the predominantly Arab and Asian formation into a larger, more effective fighting unit known as the Lashkar al Zil (Shadow Army). It is this army that is in Pakistan's tribal areas: the Northwest Frontier Province and in eastern and southern Afghanistan. The force is well trained and equipped and has defeated the Pakistani Army in multiple engagements. Its morale is high. The Army has been active in successful Taliban campaigns in North and South Waziristan, Bajaur, Peshawar, Khyber, and Swat. Taliban forces have integrated into the al-Qaeda organization, specifically, the Tehrik-e-Taliban and Haqqani network.

in conventional battles. While the Shadow Army has been active, until now, there has been little visual evidence of its existence until a photograph of a unit operating in Pakistan's Swat district was snapped. The clothing of the fighters is revealing. According to experts, the length of the pants are at "al-Qaeda height" -- meaning only al-Qaeda and allied "Wahhabi/Salafi-jihadis" wear their pant legs this high. The type of masks worn and the tennis shoes indicate that these fighters are non-Afghan fighters, and probably Pakistanis or Arab/Central Asian fighters. Ironic, how street gangs and terrorists can be identified by how they look.

The military organization has a command structure with established ranks. A senior al-Qaeda military leader commands of the Shadow Army, while experienced officers command of the brigades and battalions or companies. The re-formed Brigade 055 is but one of an estimated three to four brigades in the Shadow Army. The unit served as al-Qaeda’s shock troops for the Taliban and probably has 2,000 soldiers and officers in the ranks. Several other Arab brigades have been formed, some were former members of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards as well as Iraqis, Saudis, Yemenis, Egyptians, North Africans, and others. Some of the camps are used to indoctrinate and train suicide bombers for attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and the West.

The Shadow Army has distinguished itself and clearly superior in some ways to the Pakistanis. Taliban forces under the command of Baitullah Mehsud defeated the Pakistani Army in South Waziristan during fighting in 2005-2006, and again repulsed the Pakistani Army in 2008 after fighting and overrunning a series of forts. In Bajaur, Taliban forces dug a series of sophisticated trench and tunnel networks as well as bunkers and pillboxes. It took the Pakistani military more than a month to clear a six-mile stretch of road in the Loisam region. Even Pakistani military officers acknowledge the Taliban have better weaponry and communications system than their own, and their tactics are very sophisticated and create defenses that hard to defeat.

The Taliban forces have also conducted battalion-sized operations in July 2008, where a Taliban unit laid siege to a police station and a fort in Hangu. The fort was abandoned by the Frontier Corps and the Taliban destroyed it. Then in July 2008, the unit made up of al Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Hizb-e-Islami joined forces and conducted a complex assault on a US outpost in Wanat in Nuristan province. The attack was repelled after the force nearly overran the base.

Still worse, the Taliban forces repulsed a battalion-sized assault from the 63rd Battalion of regular Pakistani Army troops supported by at least a platoon of tanks. Reports indicate the Pakistani tanks fled from the fighting, followed the Pakistani infantry after coming under fire! Luckily, some tank commander calls in for airstrikes to take out the Taliban positions, which halt the terrorist counterattack. However, Pakistani infantry and tanks continue their full retreat and return to their base.

Al Qaeda’s most elite unit, sworn to defend Osama Bin Laden till death are his Black Guard, a 200-500 well trained unit. Probably similar to special forces.

The Taliban forces use an impressive array of weapons which includes machine guns, sniper rifles, anti-aircraft guns, and also IED’s. They employ suicide bombers against security forces and pro-government tribals. Their communication systems are superior to that used by the Pakistani Army. Key Taliban

Key Terrorist Groups and Leaders

The LeT or the” Army of Pure”, and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) or the” Army of Muhammad”, are two of the largest Jihadi organizations in Pakistan. The LeT (name changed to Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) in 2005) began as an armed wing of Markaz Dawat-ul Irshad (MDI), a group which received $200,000 from Osama bin Laden’s Afghan Service Bureau to set up its sprawling headquarters at Muridke. While Muridke remains the nerve centre of the organization, it has offices all over Pakistan. This Markaz runs 200 secondary schools, 11 madrasas, two science colleges, an ambulance service, mobile clinics and blood banks, and a charity organization called Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq. The educational curriculum of these schools and colleges are guided by the JuD leader Hafiz Saeed’s philosophy to achieve jihad, which translates into indoctrination through all means and at all levels. All anti-West.

Fazlullah in Swat, was a local student who once earned a living ferrying passengers and goods across the Swat river. He studied under Maulana Sufi Muhammad, a religious teacher who founded the Tehrik Nifaz Shariat-e-Muhammaidi (Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law) in the 1990s. In 2002, TNSM was banned, and Muhammad thrown in jail for mobilizing thousands to fight American forces in Afghanistan. Fazlullah, continued the campaign for Sharia using the platform of his popular FM radio show. He remains the leader of the Taliban forces in Swat district and grows stronger after the recent truce with the Pakistani army. He commands up to 4500 fighters.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban is the Pakistani Taliban movement led by Baitullah Mehsud, a South Waziristan leader who has defeated Pakistani Army forces multiple times.

The American Intervention

On September 3, 2004 at 0300, two US CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters landed in the village of Zawlolai, South Waziristan, Pakistan with ground troops from the US Special Operation Forces. The troops fired at three houses and killed over 17, including five women and four sleeping children.

In 2006, US troops had landed in the border village of Saidgi in North Waziristan. This time, it was a bigger and more intense attack using two jet fighters and two gunship helicopters to provide air cover for the 30 min operation, more than a mile inside the Pakistan border

Currently, the CIA is operating several attack Predator drones from a secret unused Pakistani airfield in South Pakistan for their attacks. President Obama has promised more serious intrusions will occur in the future depending on events. The airbase is the Shamsi airbase in Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan. It was used by the US as early as 2006, and also known as Bandari, which is about 200 miles southwest of Quetta, also a known Taliban staging post. The Predator carries two laser-guided Hellfire missiles, and can fly for up to 454 miles, at speed of up to 135mph, and at altitudes of up to 25,000ft. It is probable that several dozen US personnel are also present with the Pakistani blessing. It is thought that 3-4 drones are present.

More that 70 US military advisors have been in Pakistan secretly training their army to fight terrorists. The training began in 2008 and has created a new Pakistani commando force within the Frontier Corps. Since their training, they have killed five high ranking terrorist leaders. However, US officials remain frustrated because they have been unable to persuade the chief of the Pakistani Army, Kayani, to really give serious counterinsurgency training top priority to other army units. 

Most recently, after successfully ambushing the US and NATO convoys along the Khyber Pass Highway that transits through the Khyber Pass, over 300 NATO supply trucks were torched on December 7-8, 2008, at their depots. Whether the US can continue to move supplies over the Khyber Pass Highway remains to be seen.

Pakistani Armed Forces

When one sees the Pakistani Army on paper, one is truly bewildered as to why they are unable to or refuse to use brunt force to secure a district in danger. They have US backing and blessings. The population may even rally to their side if they showed they had the will. Yet, the opposite is happening at a more rapid pace. Ten years ago, no one would have thought it could happen. Even in 2000, it seemed unlikely, yet from 2002-2003, the Talibanization of Pakistan’s frontier districts is happening at a faster and faster rate. It seems to have paralyzed the Pakistani military or push them into some sort of denial. Maybe it really has become a genuine “house of cards” and one day soon Pakistan will become another Islamic nation like Iran.

 

The secret US predator base inside Pakistan
The secret US predator base inside Pakistan
The current situation. Red areas are those under terrorist control with extreme Islamic law.Other areas are in varying degrees in their control.
The current situation. Red areas are those under terrorist control with extreme Islamic law.Other areas are in varying degrees in their control.
Members of the Black Army in Swat District, Pakistan
Members of the Black Army in Swat District, Pakistan

Comments 2 comments

LondonGirl profile image

LondonGirl 7 years ago from London

Couldn't agree more. The NW Frontier is a scary place, these days.


soumyasrajan 6 years ago from Mumbai India and often in USA

Hi!

Agree completely with what you said specially last paragraph. It is indeed puzzling why Pakistani army or political machinery is reluctant to take control of these areas?

What could be cause?

Army and politicians are reluctant to take on feudal lords in these areas as they are also part of the same ruling and exploiting gang? But recent reports suggest that many ruling feudal lords have been any uprooted and now live in bigger cities because of this turmoil and fights with Taliban etc. Also by and large Pakistani rulers never liked them much.

Could it be because they want to still keep Taliban as part of their influential circle to be used later against Afghanistan and India when things cool down from USA?

Or could it be that they consider this turmoil as milking cow to get money from USA etc. and feel it can continue for some time? But are things not already too hot for that?

Incidentally you mention that arms and ammunition used are also from India. I do not believe Indian government machinery is involved in supplying arms from India. Then how do they get there? Is it through smuggling gangs of Dawood? But reports say he is basically in the bag of ISI?

You have much more expertise about it. You may have answers to some of these questions.

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