24 March 2004

The al-Zawahiri fiasco

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.

The Taliban was once a wholly-owned and -operated subsidiary of Pakistan's ISI. The agency still contains a number of Taliban allies. Is it really any surprise that Pakistan's army 1. launched this operation on the splendidly propitious occasion of their promotion to the same alliance status as Australia and 2. the birds seem to have flown long before a single soldier set foot in South Waziristan?

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