It featured all the trappings of a glorified video game. Thousands of Pakistani army and paramilitary troops played the hammer. Hundreds of US troops and Special Forces, plus the elite commando 121, were ready to play the anvil across the border in Afghanistan. What was supposed to be smashed in between was “high-value target” Ayman al-Zawahiri, as Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf enthusiastically bragged – with no hard evidence – to an eager CNN last Thursday. But what happened to this gigantic piece of psy-ops? Nothing. And for a very simple reason: al-Qaeda’s brain and Osama bin Laden’s deputy was never there in the first place. And even if he was, as Taliban-connected sources in Peshawar told Asia Times Online, he would choose to die as a martyr rather than be captured and paraded as a US trophy.
It now appears that world public opinion fell victim to a Musharraf-inspired web of disinformation. In the early stages of the battle west of Wana in South Waziristan, Taliban spokesman Abdul Samad, speaking by satellite telephone from Kandahar province in Afghanistan, was quick to say that talk of al-Zawahiri being cornered was “just propaganda by the US coalition and by the Pakistani army to weaken Taliban morale”. Subsequently, Peshawar sources were quoting al-Qaeda operatives from inside Saudi Arabia as saying that both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri had left this part of the tribal areas as early as January.
On the Afghan side, General Atiquallah Ludin at the Defense Ministry in Kabul was saying that “al-Qaeda cannot escape or enter Afghan soil”. But by this time the majority of the mujahideen previously based in South Waziristan had already managed to cross back to Paktika province in Afghanistan – mostly to areas around Urgun, Barmal and Gayan. This rugged, mountainous territory is quintessentially Taliban. Many local Pashtun tribals don’t even know who (Afghan president) Hamid Karzai is.
It would have been almost impossible for the mujahideen to cross to Paktika after the start of operation “hammer and anvil”. By last Saturday, Mohammed Gaus, district mayor of Orgun – where the Americans keep a base – was saying that “the Pakistanis seem to have closed the border”. The Americans have a main base in the village of Shkin, in Paktika, less than 25 kilometers to the west of the battleground cordoned off by the Pakistani army in South Waziristan. This base accommodates not only the US Army, but contingents of the Central Intelligence Agency and Special Forces, as well as members of commando 121 itself (the “anvil” side). On the “hammer” side, the Americans supply the Pakistani army with satellite photos, intelligence collected by drones and listening stations, and have installed electronic sensors and radars along the border.
All the time the Pakistani government and army were insisting that the US did not put any pressure on them to launch operation hammer and anvil. So according to military spokesman Major General Sultan, it was “just a coincidence” that US Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Islamabad at the height of the operation, and that Pakistan was being rewarded with the status of major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally.
Musharraf swore that his commanders told him a “high-value target” was in the South Waziristan tribal area, based on American intelligence. Washington believed it, quoting Pakistani intelligence. In the end, it was local intelligence that revealed that the target may in fact be Tahir Yuldash, who took control of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan after its leader Juma Namangani was killed by American bombing in November 2001 in Afghanistan.
Yuldash may be the man in charge of coordinating all Central Asian al-Qaeda and/or affiliated jihadis: Uzbeks, Tajiks, Uighurs from China’s Xinjiang and Chechens. He is suspected of being holed up in South Waziristan ever since he escaped the American bombing of Tora Bora in December 2001. Alongside him there is one Danyar, a Chechen commander, and of course hundreds of Pashtun tribals.
Sources in Peshawar told Asia Times Online that the “high value target” actually managed to escape in the early stages of the battle last week in a black, bullet-proof Toyota Land Cruiser with tinted windows from a fortress-cum-farmhouse right in the middle of the battlefield, in the village of Kolosha. These sources also confirm the Taliban claim that al-Zawahiri may have left South Waziristan as early as January and no later than early February, when word was rife all over the tribal areas about the upcoming spring offensive.
The connection in Wana of Cobra helicopters shooting missiles and a local hospital receiving a stream of civilian victims, including women and children, inevitably led the coalition of six religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which won last year’s elections in the tribal areas, to furiously accuse the Musharraf government. Many people believe that the operation has been undertaken at the insistence of the US, and as such it is tearing national unity apart. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the firebrand leader of the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), said this would lead to “more terrorism in reaction to the persecution of innocent civilians”. And Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, who directs one of the most important madrassas (religious schools) in Karachi and who is close to the Taliban, added that “it will only create more hatred in the country, and it won’t solve the problem of terrorism”.
The way in which Islamabad has alienated the Pashtun tribals suggests that the whole operation may end up as a complete fiasco. The Pakistanis had to arrest the wives of some mujahideen to extract some kind of intelligence. Peshawar sources tell Asia Times Online that average Pashtun tribals have been the main victims all along. Local trucks and minibuses have been nowhere to be seen for days. The roads are sealed. Electricity has been cut off. Families fled heavy bombing of “strategic targets” – on foot for dozens of kilometers. Villagers were hit by mortar fire. The Pakistani army used 15 Cobra helicopters, two F-17 fighters and dozens of artillery batteries. Contrary to Islamabad’s version, the mujahideen were not cornered in one area – but in eight villages around the cities of Wana and Azam Warsak: Kluusha, Karzi Kot, Klotay, Gua Khua, Zera Lead, Sarahgor, Sesion Warzak and Wazagonday.
Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party, grumbled that elected tribal leaders were not consulted about an operation which had been planned for three months: “Every high value target was allowed to escape months in advance while the tribal population was used as a sacrificial lamb to satisfy the power lust of the regime.” Benazir added that “even the international media were duped into believing that al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri was besieged, when in fact Chechen and Uzbek fighters were said to be holed in the area”.
The roughly 100 “suspects” captured so far by thousands of Pakistani troops amount to an overwhelming majority of Pashtun tribesmen – with a few low-ranking Chechens and Uzbek fighters and certainly no high-value Arab jihadis thrown in the mix. Word in Peshawar is that the Pashtun fighters and jihadis had much better intelligence than the Pakistani military. Peshawar sources estimate that less than 10 jihadis were killed, as opposed to almost 70 Pakistani soldiers and paramilitary troops.
A graphic sign of failure is that Islamabad was actually forced to negotiate after a de facto ceasefire. Three-hundred to 500 mostly Pashtun tribals, along with some low-level jihadis and Taliban, do remain surrounded. Islamabad’s line is that tribes protecting “foreign terrorists” have no option but to surrender them, or else die fighting. Coincidentally, General John Abizaid, head of the US Central Command, happens to be in Islamabad at the moment on a semi-secret visit.
Any remaining “high value target” in Wana may have escaped by now – in a scheme not totally dissimilar to bin Laden’s spectacular escape from Tora Bora in December 2001. At that time, hundreds of Arab and Chechen mujahideen put up very strong resistance in the frontline, while the “Sheikh” escaped to the Pakistani tribal areas using, among other means, a few tunnels. So it’s no surprise that the Pakistanis have now also “discovered” a two kilometer long tunnel under the houses of the most-wanted tribal, Nek Muhammad. The tunnel may be instrumental in covering the Pakistani army’s backs.
An occupation army
As Islamabad has declared the tribal areas a no-go area for the foreign press – unless in short, highly-choreographed escorted tours – it’s crucial to get a feeling of the terrain. There’s no “border” to speak of between both Waziristan tribal agencies, North and South, and the Afghan province of Paktika. During the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, Waziristan was a prime mujahideen base. Afghan jihadis married locally and became residents, along with their families. During the Afghan war in 2001, al-Qaeda jihadis also took local Pashtun wives. This means that every mujahideen – Arab, Afghan and Arab-Afghan – enjoys popular support.
As in most latitudes in the tribal areas, most people carry a tribal-made Kalashnikov and have been raised in madrassas maintained by the JUI. Musharraf may now call them terrorists, but the fact remains that every mujahideen is and will be respectfully regarded by the locals as a soldier of Islam. Moreover, al-Qaeda jihadis who settled in Waziristan have managed to seduce tribals young and old alike with an irresistible deluge of Pakistani rupees, weapons and Toyota Land Cruisers.
The Pakistani army is regarded as an occupation army. No wonder: it entered Waziristan for the first time in history, in the summer of 2002. These Pakistani soldiers are mostly Punjabi. They don’t speak Pashto and don’t know anything about the complex Pashtun tribal code. In light of all this, the presence of the Pakistani army in these tribal areas in the name of the “war on terror” cannot but be regarded as an American intervention. These tribes have never been subdued. They may even spell Musharraf’s doom.
What disappeared from the news
Musharraf’s version of “wag the dog” – call it “wag the terrorist” – may have served to divert world attention from the tragedy in Iraq to the real “war on terror”. It was great public relations for Washington, as the hunt for the invisible “high value target” buried the fact that two Iraqi journalists working for the al-Arabiya network were killed by the US military; it buried Amnesty International reminding everyone that 10,000 Iraqi civilians have died because of the war; and it buried weekend protests against the war in the US and Western Europe.
Musharraf himself has a lot to answer for. Why did his government and the Pakistani army not arrest al-Qaeda jihadis after Tora Bora in December 2001, when everybody knew they were in the tribal areas? It could have been only a matter of military incompetence. But the word in Peshawar is different: then, this was part of an American-organized covert ops destined to keep the al-Qaeda leadership alive, the main reason for the “war on terror”. Today, the “war on terror” still has no credibility in these parts because it allows civilians to be terrorized – just as has happened in Wana.
As Asia Times Online has warned ( More fuel to Pakistan’s simmering fire) what Islamabad has bought with hammer and anvil is not just the resentment of a particular tribal clan, but a full-fledged tribal revolt. Without the support of tribal leaders and mullahs, there’s no way that Musharraf can play George W Bush’s local cop in the “war on terror” to Washington’s satisfaction. Yet he risks civil war in trying to do just this.