The Pakistan Taliban’s ties to the failed car bomb in New York’s Times Square may ignite an escalating conflict in the South Asian nation as the U.S. pressures its ally to foil future attacks.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a CBS television interview May 9 the U.S. has told Pakistan it would face severe consequences if militants in that country attacked the U.S. The Obama administration has been pressing for Pakistan’s year-old offensive to include the Taliban’s remaining stronghold of North Waziristan, on the Afghan border, where unmanned U.S. aircraft launch missile strikes.
“The Pakistani army now will have to go into North Waziristan,” said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani political analyst and author of three books on the wars in the region. “The overall level of violence will only worsen,” Rashid said in a phone interview from Lahore, Pakistan. “The Taliban are preparing for a comeback in Swat,” a valley northwest of Islamabad that the guerrillas ruled for six months until the army ousted them last May, he said.
The Taliban’s first-ever declaration of war against the U.S. homeland in Internet messages and the killing of a retired Pakistani intelligence liaison officer to the militants also point toward an escalating conflict. A new round of warfare would distract authorities from efforts to manage a fiscal deficit it expects to rise to 5.3 percent of gross domestic product by June and solve power shortages for textile companies like Nishat Mills Ltd.
‘Pakistan Must Respond’
Pakistani military officials “are giving increasing indications that the army is going to launch operations in North Waziristan,” said Muhammad Amir Rana, an analyst of militant groups at the Pak Institute of Peace Studies in Islamabad.
Pressure to do so has risen after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Clinton said the Taliban had helped alleged Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, and that Pakistan’s government must respond.
Clinton praised Pakistan for its efforts in the past year, calling them a “sea change” toward greater cooperation in fighting terrorism. Still, she said of the Pakistani administration, “somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda is, where Mullah Omar and the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is, and we expect more cooperation to help us bring to justice, capture, or kill those who attacked us on 9/11.”
A press officer for Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said any comment on the involvement of the Taliban in the May 1 attempt to bomb New York would come from the Foreign Ministry. Its spokesman did not respond to calls.
Advances on the ground are fragile. Taliban fighters in the Swat Valley have carried out assassinations of local pro- government leaders, and on May 1 a suicide bomber killed at least four people in the main town, Mingora. “The Taliban are again making themselves visible, carrying arms and creating a climate of fear,” Rashid said from Lahore.
Whatever the Taliban role in backing the attempted bombing in the heart of New York, it may be part of an effort with al- Qaeda to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Pakistan, said Ishtiaq Ahmed, international relations professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.
Increased security coordination in the past year between the two governments has broken Taliban control in most parts of Pakistan’s northwest, shrinking the area in which al-Qaeda can find a secure haven, he said in a telephone interview.
Because of that, said Ahmed, “al-Qaeda is making a last ditch effort” to break up the U.S.-Pakistani cooperation “by getting other militants to join it in attacking the United States” from Pakistani soil. The tactic is likely to strengthen, rather than diminish, U.S.-Pakistani joint efforts, he said.
Al-Qaeda’s mainly Arab and Central Asian fighters fled to Pakistan in 2001 when U.S. forces helped topple the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan. A local Taliban movement coalesced among the ethnic Pashtun tribes along the Afghan border, and it has sheltered al-Qaeda fighters and Afghan Taliban.
The brewing fight for North Waziristan may be reflected in the killing there April 30 of Khalid Khwaja, a retired Pakistani intelligence liaison officer to Islamic militant guerrillas that the military has sponsored or supported since the 1980s as proxy forces in Afghanistan and India, said Ahmed.
Khwaja and a former colleague from Pakistan’s Inter- Services Intelligence agency were taken hostage in March by unknown militants calling themselves the Asian Tigers. The retired officers had pressed the Taliban to turn against militant factions that, like al-Qaeda, include foreigners or that continue to target mainly the Pakistani government and army, Rana said.
Pakistan’s Taliban for years focused their attacks on the country’s government and security forces. After the group’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, took over last year, he began shifting to al-Qaeda’s policy of striking the U.S.
Mehsud appeared in a video with the Jordanian suicide bomber who hit a CIA base in Afghanistan in December. Four months after his reported death in a U.S. missile strike, the Taliban released a video message found on the Internet this month in which Mehsud vowed his fighters “will attack the American states in their major cities.”
Despite the threat, “the Taliban don’t appear to have an organized structure in the U.S. that can conduct attacks,” said Ashraf Ali, director of the Islamabad-based FATA Research Center. “It is more likely that they took advantage of an individual American who wanted to carry out an attack,” he said by phone from Peshawar, near the Afghan border.
Access this interview at businessweek.com