PESHAWAR – Al-Qaeda, “the base,” is now extinct. Al-Qaeda has a brand new name: Fath-e-Islam (Victory of Islam). And Fath-e-Islam’s leader, none other than Osama bin Laden, is very much alive. But not anymore in Pakistan. Osama has returned to Afghanistan. More precisely, the Kunar province.
Key players in the ultra-complex Pakistan-Afghanistan game had been saying that since the fall of Kabul in November 2001 that “the last battle” in this ongoing war would be in Kunar. The scenario now seems more than likely. The Taliban and the rebranded al-Qaeda have full tribal support in Kunar – where everybody seems to know someone who died from the American bombing of Afghanistan. A Pashtun notable puts the issue succinctly, “If the Americans are serious about grabbing Osama, they will have to put up a fight. On the ground. Man to man. There will be a lot of body bags.”
On August 10, the Daily Ummat, the number one Urdu-language paper in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, published a front-page story filed from Asadabad, Afghanistan (the capital of Kunar). The story did not appear in other Pakistani English-language papers, nor in the international media, for that matter.
The story was headlined “Osama spotted in Pakistani area – Dir.” Dir, in the northern strip of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) is about 80 kilometers from the Afghan border in Kunar province. The story also said that Ayman al-Zawahiri, aka “The Surgeon,” was reorganizing al-Qaeda something like 50 kilometers west of Chitral. Chitral, north of Dir, is at the base of the Hindu Kush mountains.
The story was essentially quoting an Afghan defense ministry source – that is, a source close to the powerful Northern Alliance commander and now Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim in Kabul. Pashtuns and even Tajiks (Fahim is Tajik) comment that in the current scenario, “the Americans in Kabul cannot control Fahim – well, maybe 10 percent of him,” according to a Pakistan-Afghanistan insider. Anyway, American military sources, according to the story, were “fearing al-Qaeda may launch full-scale activity in the coming few weeks or months,” starting with an attack in eastern Afghanistan.
According to the Afghan defense ministry, al-Qaeda – or Fath-e-Islam – has reorganized and has established training centers in Pakistan; it is trying to get hold of surface-to-air missiles from China; and will launch a series of attacks against the Afghan government. The Afghans add that the Americans believe that these two al-Qaeda training centers enjoy cooperation from China. One of them is identified as being 140 kilometers north of Gilgit – the capital of the Pakistani northern areas – in an area called Markash, close to the Chinese border.
The story gets some of the facts right. Al-Qaeda has, indeed, been in touch with Hezb-e-Islami (the Islamic Party founded in 1975) and has been assured of the cooperation of its volatile leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ultra hardline Pashtun mujahideen and former prime minister who devastated his own capital, Kabul, with rockets in mid-1992. And al-Qaeda has also extended its network of informers in Asadabad, the capital of Kunar, capitalizing on the unrest the American presence is causing all over the Pashtun tribal belt.
But a key Pashtun source – who required anonymity – fluent in Pashto, Dari, Urdu and English and acquainted with all the major players in the complex Afghanistan-Pakistan new great game, identifies not a few but a whole collection of holes in the story. Let’s call him Haji S. For starters, Haji S dismisses the notion of an al-Qaeda training center in northern Pakistan near China: “This region simply does not accept foreigners. People speak only local languages, like Balti or Brushiski.” He points to Afghan-American disinformation trying somehow to involve China, “The Chinese are being accused of harboring terrorists and selling weapons to al-Qaeda. This is serious. The Chinese know they are being encircled.”
As far as the sheik with a US$25 million price tag on his head is concerned, Haji S is adamant: “Osama bin Laden would never have crossed that border. Pakistan has extensive military forces there – in the constabulary, the Bajaur Scouts, paramilitary forces. And now, whatever the Pakistani army knows, is immediately shared with the FBI.”
This means, according to Haji S, only one thing: bin Laden and the Fath-e-Islam leadership are themselves based in Kunar. “The Americans know it, of course. But they simply cannot get into Kunar. It is full of mountains and the area is religiously ultra-conservative, and 100 percent pro-Taliban.
Another Pashtun source confirms the analysis of Haji S: “Americans in Kabul are scared. They get bad information all the time. They don’t understand that Afghans take the money today and forget about it tomorrow. The Americans came too early, they didn’t do their homework.”
American forces in Afghanistan to date seem to have followed a pattern of highly-publicized operations in the wrong places. The latest example happened this past weekend, when hundreds of Special Forces backed by helicopter gunships and planes, and with the help of Afghan government units, encircled the village of Tani, south of Khost, and also advanced to Zormat, the biggest district of Paktia province – an area where anti-American sentiment is as extreme as anywhere else in the Pashtun belt. Locals hate the Northern Alliance’s grip on Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul. Zormat is near the area of the huge Operation Anaconda last March – the biggest US offensive in the war so far. Anaconda was basically a failure: most Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters managed to escape to the NWFP.
This time in Zormat, the Americans carried house-to-house searches and apprehended a few guns – nothing extraordinary as any tribal Pashtun male has been carrying a gun for centuries. Basically, the Americans found no Taliban and no al-Qaeda. The escape pattern is always the same: Taliban and al-Qaeda – in this last case Chechens – are tipped off by local tribals, hide in the mountains or melt into the local population, cross to the NWFP, and then return.
The commander of the 3rd Brigade Task Force of the 82nd Airborne Division, James Huggins, was forced to admit the failure of this operation in Zormat: “It was clear to me there was advance warning at each of the sites we went to.” The “advance warning” always comes from the local population and even from warlords whose alliances lie with suitcases full of dollars, not with the American agenda.
It may be totally un-Hollywoodish for American – and Western – public opinion to digest the fact that these soldiers are being sent on futile missions, and some in the process are being killed for it. But a lot of information about the war simply does not travel – or is edited out by the Western media. Veterans of the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s remember that loads of Russian equipment used to be available in the bazaars of Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan. Now anybody can buy night-vision devices, brand new M-16s, fireproof jackets and trekking boots. Where? In the bazaar in Miram Shah, in the NWFP, close to the Afghani Paktia province, where the Americans have a base. The goods are all-American, captured from American casualties.
Pashtuns swear that American casualties are mounting, although for the Pentagon they don’t exist. Different sources in Peshawar and Islamabad confirm there are American casualties every week. Even now in the tribal areas there is a lot of talk on what happened in Helmand province last December – when 200 Americans were surrounded in a valley by only 37 Taliban, and many were slaughtered, with some beheaded. A humble porter of Shaheen Cargo confirmed the story at the time: he complained that his shoulders were sore because he had spent the night carrying coffins to a transport plane.
If American forces venture into Kunar they will be against tremendous odds. Kashmir Khan – the most powerful Hezb-e-Islami commander – keeps his base in the mountains of Kunar. Haji S says that “even the Taliban at the time did not disturb him. He is not interested in ideology or politics. He is interested in power.” This also means that Kashmir Khan is unbribable by the Americans.
Before the Taliban came to power, adds Haji S, “the provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar were the strongest and most fortified hubs of the Hezb-e-Islami. They were captured from the Soviets. And of course Hekmatyar himself is in Kunar.” Hekmatyar allegedly still controls 80-odd Stinger missiles – another major reason preventing an American attack.
For Haji S, the notion that the Pakistani military would know about the presence of al-Qaeda in Dir and Chitral and do nothing about it is nonsense: “Either the military are conniving with al-Qaeda, which of course is impossible: or they are helpless, which is not the case, not with [Pakistan President General Pervez] Musharraf acting as such a good pal of Bush’s.” General Tommy Franks, the head of the US Central Command, said at Bagram air base in Afghanistan last Sunday that the war on terror needed to be expanded to the countries neighboring Afghanistan. Pashtun insiders interpret this as an admission of failure to find the Taliban and al-Qaeda where they really are: in Kunar.
The Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman, the extremely able diplomat Aziz Khan, took no time to reply to Franks: there’s no reason for the US to enter Pakistan to look for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. When asked how Pakistan would act if the US made a formal request for American troops to cross to Pakistan to go after terrorists, Aziz Khan was unflappable, “Why should we suppose that the US would make such a request now that we are at the fag end of the exercise.”
There’s the rub. This may be the “fag end” from the Pakistani perspective, but American generals from Tommy Franks down are now increasingly talking of staying in Afghanistan “for years.” In Afghanistan, and of course in Pakistan as well, where America is operating its own air bases, in strategic Baluchistan.
The key player to watch in the next few moves in the game is “Engineer” Hekmatyar – as he is known in Afghanistan. The man is back with a vengeance. It is important to remember that during the jihad in the 1980s he always placed the long-term goal of an Islamic revolution above resistance to the Soviets. And during the Taliban rule starting in 1996 he was patiently waiting for an opening in self-imposed exile in Iran. Haji S insists that Hekmatyar has access to “an unlimited amount of weapons.” “And despite the opposition of Hamid Karzai and the Americans, he had 319 members in the loya jirga [grand council] in June [that finalized the current government in Kabul] and he controls four loyal governors. He has installed his own governor even in Kunduz.” Hekmatyar is a Kharruti Pashtun who comes from a family of traders settled in a district of Kunduz, in the predominantly Tajik northern Afghan plains.
According to Haji S, Hekmatyar’s first move in a showdown against the Karzai government could be to block Sarobi, a religiously hardcore strategic bottleneck on the Jalalabad-Kabul road. And that would be only the beginning. Haji S adds that a few weeks ago Hekmatyar said strictly off the record that “Americans won’t be here [in Afghanistan] in one-and-a-half years. Two years will be the maximum.” Tommy Franks may not be aware of these plans.
Another top intelligence source revealed to Asia Times Online that in the beginning of August a key meeting took place in eastern Afghanistan – more exactly in Kunar. The importance of this meeting can be attested by two subsequent visits to Islamabad this week: US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, next Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. They did not visit Islamabad just to talk about the easing of Indian-Pakistan tensions or the situation of Afghan prisoners in Pakistani jails.
It is known for sure Hekmatyar was one of the key guests at the Kunar meeting. Every intelligence service on the planet is now scrambling like mad to find out exactly who else was there – and what was decided. If they had the answers, they would indubitably unveil the road map for the next two years in the South Asia-Central Asia new great game.