Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - With grudging surprise, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has acknowledged the strength of the Taliban, illustrated by its repeated calls for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan, notably for the two important provinces of Kandahar and Khost. There has even been speculation that these provinces might fall, significantly increasing the pressure on the US-backed government of President Hamid Karzai. The NATO command reasoned the only response was joint operations with the Pakistani military along the Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Islamabad, under Washington's pressure, this year began preparations to cooperate. But the Taliban's regional command was quick to show its muscle in the Pakistani tribal areas, forcing Pakistan to resort to dialogue, leaving NATO alone on the battle fields of Afghanistan to face its stiffest test since 2001 when the US invaded the country and ousted the Taliban. Earlier, the Taliban had lost their grip in Helmand province in the face of a joint British and American offensive in Garmser, in the south of the province. With logistical difficulties and high casualties, the Taliban's reply was to move into Kandahar and Khost, rather than attempt to retain their positions in Helmand. The Kandahar jailbreak this month, a meticulously planned Taliban operation combining heavily armed fighters and suicide bombers, was the first operation since the switch from Helmand to Kandahar. More than 2,500 prisoners (contrary to claims of 1,100 mentioned in the media) were freed. More terror was generated through the killings of pro-government tribal elders in Kandahar. As a result, tribal loyalties changed in favor of the powerful - the Taliban. Now the Taliban stand face-to-face with NATO in several districts, including Panjwai and Zair and around the provincial capital Kandahar, much as the two sides had faced off in Helmand province. While these events were unfolding, the Taliban made another significant move in Khost. More than 2,500 "precious assets" was mobilized from the North Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan to Khost, where, with the assistance of the local population, they established bases. Significantly, the Taliban no longer need to retreat to the sanctuary of Pakistan's tribal areas when attacked by NATO - they now have secure bases deep in Khost. This is the first time the Taliban have acquired such a tactical edge. The anti-Soviet mujahideen were in a similar position in 1988, a year before the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which it had invaded in 1979. NATO is therefore keen to revive its pincer idea with Pakistan to secure the eastern border of the country. NATO would hold its side, while Pakistan would clamp down on the other side, cutting off the Taliban's supply lines into Afghanistan. The Taliban have extensive support bases in regions such as North Waziristan and South Waziristan. American pressure for Pakistan to scrap its ceasefire deals with militants in Pakistan and launch operations was so strong that a Pakistani advisor to the prime minister, and also called the de facto premier, Rahman Malik, surprised the Pakistani military command two weeks ago by announcing the scrapping of peace deals with militants in Swat Valley in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Rahman stirred the pot even more on Tuesday when, in the National Assembly, he announced the start of operations in the tribal areas any time soon. This was the last thing the Taliban wanted to hear as they need to protect their supply lines for at least a few more months until winter sets in. Their response was swift and deadly. Pro-Taliban tribal warlord Baitullah Mehsud's men seized Jandolla, a rural town 70 kilometers east of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan. Then they abducted 30 members of a government-appointed peace committee, killing most of them. And for the first time, the Taliban revealed their impressive strength by entering the capital of NWFP, Peshawar. Last week the Taliban had also gone into Peshawar and kidnapped - and then released - 16 members of a local Christian community. There is now a belief in security circles that should they want to, the Taliban could take the Peshawar Valley. The Taliban also relayed a message to Islamabad that should the military begin operations in the tribal areas, a "reception", including several new groups, would be ready and waiting. The show of power worked. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani convened a high-level meeting on Wednesday afternoon, attended by all intelligence chiefs and Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, at which it was agreed that dialogue was the best way to deal with the militants. Conscious of American concerns, Gillani passed the buck by announcing that any decision on military operations was in the hands of Kiani - an unenviable position. NATO could wait a long time for the second arm of its pincer to be ready for action, and all the while the Taliban will consolidate in Kandahar and Khost.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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