Afghanistan's war has a new battlefield
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - In anticipation of a new era in Pakistani politics under president-in-waiting Asif Ali Zardari, the first volleys have been fired in a renewed joint Pakistan-North Atlantic Treaty Organization venture to fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda beyond Afghanistan's borders. Barely a week after a meeting on the US aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the Indian Ocean between the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, and the chief of the Pakistani Army Staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, to discuss infiltration points for militants going from Pakistan to Afghanistan and to pin-point al-Qaeda training camps, American special forces carried out two attacks inside Pakistan. On Wednesday morning, US special forces entered Angorada in the South Waziristan tribal area where members of al-Qaeda's shura (council), Arabs and Uzbeks were believed to be operating. The rugged mountainous area is also a known launching pad for militants staging attacks on a US military post in the Birmal area in Paktika province in Afghanistan. The special forces, who flew in by helicopter to a small village, soon realized that they did not have the numbers or air cover to conduct effective search operations. Firing broke out and about 20 civilians are believed to have been killed before the forces withdrew. Twenty-four hours later, four militants were killed in North Waziristan, reportedly by US special forces. The dead did not include any of the senior al-Qaeda or militant leaders who were said to have been in the area. Contacts in Pakistan's strategic quarters told Asia Times Online that more cross-border attacks were likely as Pakistani intelligence was sharing information with the US on militant activities. The idea of NATO or US forces stationed in Afghanistan staging raids into Pakistan was conceived in 2007 to eliminate top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders and their safe sanctuaries. (See US homes in on militants in Pakistan Asia Times Online, January 30, 2008.) With Pakistan's Zardari expected to be chosen as president on Saturday, and with the US presidential election campaign ripe for a dramatic turn in the "war on terror", Pakistan is poised to become an international battlefield. Key to this is "Iron Man" Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the dominant party in the ruling coalition in Islamabad. Although he is presently holed up in the premier's residence for fear of his safety from militant attacks, he has the security apparatus largely in check to force it to abandon its reservations about the "war on terror". Once president, he will be supreme commander of the armed forces and head of the National Security Council. A man of many compromisesZardari, widower of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto, has shown his ability to make political compromises to achieve his goals. For instance, the architect of the anti-Bhutto campaign in the 1988 elections, Husain Haqqani, who later dubbed Zardari "Mr 10%", was appointed by Zardari as Pakistan's ambassador to Washington. Haqqani, with good offices in the White House and among the neo-conservatives in Washington, lobbied successfully for the US to back the ouster this year of former president Pervez Musharraf. Another example involves Pakistan's politically influential and financially strong media group run by the Haroon family, traditional opponents of the PPP. (Mehmood Haroon, then minister of the interior, in 1979 signed the execution order for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on a murder charge. Zulfikar, father of Benazir, was a former president, premier and founder of the PPP.) All the same, Zardari stunned the political community by appointing the eldest son of the family, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, as Pakistan's permanent representative to the United Nations and is looking to use the Haroon family's international connections for his benefit. Zardari has also allied with many former Musharraf supporters, as well as with the influential religious group Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam led by the fiery Fazlur Rahman. With his fingers firmly on the levers of power, and with strong American backing, Zardari will lead Pakistan into a new and potentially extremely bloody chapter of which the US special forces' raids into the country are just the beginning.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org