Civil War in Pakistan: Taliban Khyber Offensive Continues

The civil war in Pakistan has heated up, with the brutal Taliban Warlord, Baitullah Mehsud in the lead.Baitullah established his leadership in the Waziristans by a steady campaign of brief offensives, assasinations of opposition leaders, and intermittent peaces with the Musharraf government forces the past three years when pressed.

Initially he was applauded as a possible force for good as he warred against the foreign Uzbeks and Chechen forces in Waziristan who had established a record of brutality of their own. That history of foreign brutality allowed him to scapegoat them while cementing his authority with the Mehsud tribes. The factors that allowed him to do this were complex and several, ranging from the decrement of Afghan Taliban forces in Pakistan as refugee camps and ISI supported Terror training camps closed – prior to that the opposition from the Afghan Taliban within Pakistan was too strong. He also used the political warring between factions in the Sindh and Punjab to create a network of affiliations with the urban criminal gangs, renegade Frontier corps personnel, and the disaffected Kashmiri Jihadis flushed from the government-supported terror camps back in October 2006.

This created a rift within the Taliban and with Al Qaeda for a short period, in the Taliban you even saw cross-border fighting between the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban at junctures while he firmly established his independence. After his leadership in the Waziristan region was firmly cemented he quickly re-opened channels with the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda, and has returned to attacks in Afghanistan — half-hearted to be sure, but attacks nonetheless, which demonstrate he is allied again with them.

I’ve said since his breaking of the original accords that his real goal is temporal power within Pakistan, and Al Qaeda is now in line with that. The hand writing is on the wall northward in Afghanistan: while they can create a long campaign of insurgency, it will diminish and become less effective year over year, and they are taking heavy losses over time, in both territory, personnel, and leadership. Played out long term that’s a losing game for them and Al Qaida is now really penned back to their original base inside Pakistan. Their last hurrah will be in Pakistan, and you’ve seen them work at that the past two years.

Al Qaida essentially pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving skeleton crews of suicide bombers, local tribes, and kidnappers to maintain the fiction that they have real fronts there but their real strategy right now is one of defense through destabilizing Pakistan and establishing a new Taliban state in the Pashtun regions. In Afghanistan and Iraq the local tribes are disaffected from Al Qaeda, and you see the Nato forces now advancing to further interupt their ability to operate in Afghanistan after winning in Iraq. The Nato forces are establishing all along the border, and there aren’t forgotten zones like Nuristan and Helmand anymore.

Baitullah’s marshaling of Pashtun tribal nationalism is a troubling development with potential to create great harm to Pakistan, and to drive a wedge between the current government and Nato. They are continuing to work through student groups, political and religious groups in the moderate urban areas of Pakistan in an effort to Talibanize the nation and replicate the Iranian Revolution. It’s bound to fail as the Sindh and Punjab will not allow rule by tribals over the long run, no matter how fractional the factions within the government become. In their latest move it appears that  they are attempting to move on Peshawar, one of Pakistan’s major cities, and a favorite haunt of Osama Bin Laden.

So what’s next?

There are two articles out this morn that detail the current fronts in the civil war in Pakistan, unusual in that the articles get things mostly right — prior reporting from and about Pakistan was thin, riddled with false perceptions, and pretty simplex up until the Assassination of Benazir Bhutto (also likely orchestrated or assisted by Baitullah.)

The first article has them massing outside of Peshawar, and the second from AP, details the fighting at the head of the Khyber pass.

My read on this is that the massing of Baitullah’s Tehreek Taliban Pakistan forces near Peshawar is a feint. They might attack and make sallies at Peshawar, but the real goal is control and blockage of the Khyber pass as they’ve been attempting for three months now.

The opposition within the pass proper is too tenacious, so they are now attempting to start at the beginning. It will be interesting to see these next battles unfold. The military doctrine of the Pakistan army proscribes leapfrogging and encirclement, instead favoring taking ground highpoint by highpoint in plodding, but over time effective long advance. This creates a rare opportunity and conundrum for the military leadership in Pakistan: if the TTP are going to mass, it’s a perfect time to crush them.

Meanwhile look for the usual things you see when the Taliban moves into a village in Peshawar: threats and attacks against media shops and girl’s schools, warnings about wearing burqa’s and barbershops. You will also undoubtably see some suicide bombings, mostly likely at transit stations or public art venues. The other aspect of this that cannot be overlooked is the population of Peshawar as hostage – if the government offensive goes well in the Khyber, the retaliation will go against civilians and politicians in Peshawar. PPP party members in the region should probabaly be extra cautious.

UPDATE I: more on the Taliban sallies into Peshawar here, here, and here.

UPDATE II: Much more detailed reporting of Pakistan’s Khyber Counter-offensive at The Long War Journal.

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