October 6, 2009


Has the Back of the Pakistani Taliban Been Broken?

October 5, 2009

A suicide bomber dressed as a paramilitary soldier attacked an office of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) in the Pakistani capital on Monday killing five staff members, government and U.N. officials said.

Violence has been picking up in Pakistan after a relative lull that followed the killing of the Pakistani Taliban leader in a U.S. drone attack last month, and after troops made gains in an assault launched in the Swat region in April.

There was no claim of responsibility for Monday's attack but Interior Minister Rehman Malik repeated his assertion that the back of the Pakistani Taliban had been broken, saying they were striking out like a wounded snake.

Here are some questions and answers about the Pakistani Taliban.


The army largely cleared the former Taliban bastion in the Swat valley, 120 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad, with an offensive launched in April.

Another militant enclave, the Bajaur ethnic Pashtun tribal region on the Afghan border, was largely cleared earlier although intermittent clashes and bomb attacks occur in both places.

The biggest blow to the Taliban was the killing of their overall leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in an attack by a missile-firing U.S. drone aircraft in his South Waziristan stronghold on the Afghan border on Aug 5. Several top Taliban members, including one of Mehsud's aides and former spokesman and the spokesman from Swat, have been captured.


While largely forced out of Swat and Bajaur and, according to Pakistani and U.S. officials, in disarray after Mehsud's death, there are still thousands of well-armed fighters in South Waziristan and other regions.

The new overall Taliban leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, put to rest U.S. and Pakistani speculation he may have been killed in a power struggle last month by meeting reporters in South Waziristan on Sunday.

He vowed revenge for Baitullah's killing. Monday's bomb and similar attacks over the past couple of weeks have set back hopes the militants were on the back foot.

Some analysts say the militants have been given time to regroup because the army has put off an offensive against their South Waziristan bastion.


The army is preparing an offensive on the militants' South Waziristan stronghold but it has declined to say when it would begin.

Over recent months, security forces have been launching air and artillery strikes, while moving in troops, blockading the region and trying to split off factions.

The army says it has two divisions, or up to 28,000 soldiers, in place preparing to take on an estimated 10,000 hardcore Taliban in South Waziristan. Analysts say fighting would be intense against the tough militants, including up to 1,000 Uzbeks, and the army could expect heavy casualties.


Many analysts say Pakistan is acting only against the militants which threaten it, like the Pakistani Taliban, while leaving alone those focused on fighting in Afghanistan.

Whatever the truth of that, Pakistan can argue that it can only focus on one area at a time -- South Waziristan. If and when the Pakistani Taliban are defeated in South Waziristan, the United States will push Pakistan to shift attention to the Afghan Taliban factions operating out of western Pakistani enclaves.

Pakistan rejects U.S. complaints that the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Mohammad Omar are operating from the town of Quetta in Pakistan's Baluchistan province, in the so-called "Quetta shura," or leadership council.

Despite such denials, analysts say some Pakistanis see Afghan Taliban groups as a useful tool to counter the growing influence of old rival India in Afghanistan.

With U.S. and Afghan officials increasingly raising the possibility of talks with the Afghan Taliban to end that war, analysts say Pakistan is unlikely to move with full force against the groups that might be part of a negotiated settlement and would provide it with leverage in Afghanistan.

Flanked by heavily armed fighters, the new leader of the Pakistani Taliban sat on a blue blanket, amiable and relaxed as he cracked jokes and mixed in threats of vengeance for deadly U.S. airstrikes.

Pakistan Taliban Head Cracks Jokes, Vows Vengeance

Associated Press
October 5, 2009

Flanked by heavily armed fighters, the new leader of the Pakistani Taliban sat on a blue blanket, amiable and relaxed as he cracked jokes and mixed in threats of vengeance for deadly U.S. airstrikes.

One day later, a suicide bomber attacked a U.N. office in Islamabad.

Hakimullah Mehsud met with reporters Sunday for the first time since winning control of the militant group, quashing speculation that he had been slain in a succession struggle following the killing of his predecessor in a U.S. drone attack.

He also described his group's relationship to al-Qaida as one of "love and affection." Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaida leaders are believed to be hiding out in the remote border region with Afghanistan, possibly in territory controlled by Hakimullah.

The militant vowed to retaliate against the U.S. and Pakistan for deadly attacks on his allies and said his fighters will repel an anticipated Pakistani offensive into his stronghold.

Hakimullah made his threat of vengeance hours before a suicide bomber disguised as a security officer killed five people at a U.N. office in Islamabad on Monday. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but authorities blamed Islamic militants.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said several times that officials believed Hakimullah _ and possibly his deputy, Waliur Rehman _ had been killed in fighting over who would replace Baitullah Mehsud after his Aug. 5 death in a missile strike. Malik said that Hakimullah was being impersonated by his brother, including in calls to media organizations.

Western diplomats in Islamabad had also said their intelligence indicated he may have been killed, while Western media reports over the weekend quoted American officials as saying they believed he may be dead.

Hakimullah was very much alive, speaking calmly as he sat under a tree on a blanket surrounded by top Taliban commanders, including Waliur Rehman, in a show of unity in South Waziristan, where the Pakistani state and security forces have little or no presence. Also present were Qari Hussain, the head of the Taliban's suicide bomb faction, and Azam Tariq, a Taliban spokesman.

He told five Pakistani reporters, including one from The Associated Press, that the group's leadership remained intact and unified.
"We all are sitting before you, which proves all the news about myself ... was totally baseless and false," he said.
Pakistani security authorities were not immediately available for comment.

Pakistan has largely beaten back a Taliban insurgency in the northwestern Swat Valley in recent months and intelligence officials say the country is preparing a major offensive against al-Qaida and the Taliban in South Waziristan. The military has been blockading the region and seeking to encourage other tribes to rise up against Hakimullah.

Hakimullah said his forces were ready for such an attack, which would likely be far tougher than the Swat campaign. The army has been beaten back there three times since 2004. Analysts say some 10,000 well-armed militants, including foreign fighters, are in the mountainous region and well dug in.
"We are fully prepared for that operation and we will give full proof of those preparations once the offensive is launched," he said.
On the drive to and from the interview, the AP reporter could see fighters taking up positions at key vantage points. Residents said the militants were digging trenches along routes the army was expected to travel.

Fearing the coming offensive, civilians were fleeing the area via backroads and traveling at night because the military had already sealed most of the main routes out.

While Baitullah avoided the glare of media and was only photographed once _ from a side angle _ Hakimullah showed no such modesty.

He did not appear to be a nervous fugitive in hiding from Pakistan soldiers and U.S. drones.

His tunic was clean, white and freshly pressed, and his manner at ease as he spent more than seven hours chatting and eating with the reporters. Two goats were brought out for slaughter for lunch.

At one point, he pulled out a laptop to show his guests an Afghan comedian's standup routine about jihadi _ or holy war _ groups. On the serious side, he also showed pre-attack video testimony made by a suicide bomber.

Hakimullah spoke flanked by fighters wielding automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. He agreed to be interviewed on condition his comments not be published until the reporters left the area Monday.

One of Baitullah's deputies, Hakimullah was known for brazen strikes on civilians, claiming responsibility for the June 9 bombing of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore earlier this year.

U.S. officials are watching closely to see whether Hakimullah will direct more fighters across the border where U.S. and NATO forces face attacks by insurgents. Baitullah was believed to have mainly concentrated on attacking Pakistani targets.

Hakimullah did not address that issue directly, only saying there were no "difference between Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan." He said the Pakistani Taliban were fighting for the imposition of Islamic law in Pakistan and to rid it from the "clutches of the Americans and the Jews."
"For this very purpose, we will enhance and prolong our jihadi efforts," he said.
Hakimullah also introduced a man he identified as Qari Mohammad Zafar, who has a $5 million bounty on his head from the U.S. Justice Department in the 2002 bombing of the U.S. consulate in Karachi that killed three Pakistanis and a U.S. diplomat.
"See, we have such people with us. And they are saying that we have differences. It is an example that we are united," he said.
He vowed his forces would avenge Baitullah Mehsud's killing and would strike back at Pakistan and the U.S. for the increasing airstrikes.

Unmanned drones have carried out more than 70 missile strikes in northwestern Pakistan in the last year in a covert program, killing several militant commanders along with sympathizers and civilians. The Pakistani government publicly protests the attacks but is widely believed to sanction them and provide intelligence for at least some.
"There is no doubt that American spy planes are being used in these attacks, but we know all the intelligence is being provided by Pakistan," Hakimullah said. "We have taken revenge for the past attacks and we will definitely take revenge for the remaining drone attacks."

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