KARACHI -- Al-Qaeda's grand strategy is based on a simple notion -- given the American cowboy mentality, if the United States is confronted, it will react in an extreme manner.
Hence, with the small military successes of the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, through its media campaigns, has created a sense of American failures on the battlefield and challenged the ego of the world's superpower with its rhetoric.
The response of the George W Bush administration has been as expected, with a renewed effort to go after al-Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas, even at the cost of isolation within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and at the cost of alienating its frontline ally Pakistan, which is seriously divided over its role in prosecuting the "war on terror".
Islamabad was stunned by President George W Bush's speech at the U.S. National Defense University on Tuesday in which he named Pakistan as one of the major battlegrounds in the fight against terrorism and that the U.S. has stepped up raids into Pakistani territory from Afghanistan to attack militants.
On Wednesday there was another shock in the form of a detailed roadmap of American strategy outlined by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, during an address to the U.S. Congress. The key element of this is the conviction that the only way to win in Afghanistan is to open a new war theater in Pakistan.
The speech was in fact a tacit admission of the failure in Afghanistan seven years after the Taliban were ousted, and Mullen conceded that the U.S. was "running out of time" to win the war in Afghanistan and that simply sending in more troops would not guarantee victory.
"In my view, these two nations [Pakistan and Afghanistan] are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them," he said, adding that he planned "to commission a new, more comprehensive strategy for the region, one that covers both sides of the border".
On Thursday, the U.S.'s all-weather partner, Britain, supported the U.S.'s recommendations, but NATO clarified its position that it had nothing to do with American policies and its mandate was restricted to the Afghan borders.
Bush is reported to have secretly approved orders in July allowing U.S. special forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan, and the Pakistani leadership was taken on board. Pakistani ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani assured the U.S. that the Pakistan People's Party-led government would support the policy. This was further reinforced during Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani's visit to Washington.
Nevertheless, the issue has become a litmus test for the Pakistani security forces, which are now obliged to follow the U.S.'s dotted lines in conducting military operations in the tribal areas, despite the intense hostilities these create.
The latest offensive took place on Wednesday in Bajaur Agency on the border with Afghanistan this week where troops, supported by tanks and heavy artillery, are said by Pakistani officials to have killed 80 to 100 militants, including foreigners, with two soldiers killed. Militants use the tribal areas as bases for raids into Afghanistan. On Thursday, however, when the army sent in ground forces to secure the area, militants attacked their convoys and forced them back into their forts.
Pakistan's corps commanders began meetings on Thursday to discuss the situation. They realize they are unable to prevail against the militants in the long term, but they are under intense U.S. pressure to act. Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kiani has criticized the U.S. over this, even though he is well briefed by the U.S. on what is expected of Pakistan and of the U.S.'s cross-border intentions.
Kiani issued a statement saying that the rules of engagement with coalition forces were well defined and "within that, the right to conduct operations against the militants inside own territory is solely the responsibility of the respective armed forces".
"There is no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border." Kiani said.
He referred to his meeting with senior U.S. Army officers aboard the U.S.S Abraham Lincoln on August 27, saying they were informed about the complexity of the issue and that it required a deeper understanding and patience.
Kiani said he had impressed on the officers that "military action alone cannot solve the problem. Political reconciliatory efforts are required to go along with the military prong to win the hearts and minds of the people."
Kiani is making the correct noises, but one has to question his sincerity. This month, Pakistan announced that because of the U.S. ground assault in South Waziristan, it was stopping NATO supplies at the Torkham border. But not only were NATO supplies allowed to continue into Afghanistan within a few hours, after two attacks on Pakistan by U.S. Predator drones, Pakistan stayed silent. (Another drone attack on Friday in North Waziristan killed 12 people.)
Pakistan's corps commanders are clearly not convinced by Kiani's statements as they are the ones who have to send troops into the firing line, which is highly unpopular at the best of times.
The country has made a paradigm shift from Pervez Musharraf's seven years in charge as president and military chief. In his time, military operations were half-hearted and mainly targeted foreign elements such as Arabs and Uzbeks and Pakistan never discussed the Taliban and their Pakistani supporters.
The result was that the Taliban were able to establish a strong foothold in the tribal areas for their operations in Afghanistan, which is what upsets the U.S. and NATO so much and which is why now they are forcing Pakistan to go directly after the Taliban and their supporters.
This week's operation in Bajaur was specifically aimed at clearing Taliban sanctuaries near the Afghan border. Over the past months, several thousand Taliban had assembled there in preparation for launches into Afghanistan and the last batch was about to go in the final phase of the spring offensive before the winter sets in.
Mullen explained this in his speech, "We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan, as I watched us do during a day-long trip to the Korengal Valley in July. But until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming."
This America-Pakistan "joint venture" marks a new struggle in Pakistan which can only intensify when, for instance, U.S. special forces launch more raids into Pakistan, conceivably as deep as the capital of North-West Frontier Province, Peshawar, to nab powerful Taliban commanders.
Much will depend on how the corps commanders react, given that they are aware that their chief (Kiani) and the political leadership have agreed, if only tacitly, to the "joint venture" with the U.S..
Kiani does not have a strong constituency in the military, as Musharraf did, and he might stand with his military commanders and decide on a policy to limit cooperation with the U.S. in the "war on terror".
It is also possible, though, that he will stamp on opposition in the ranks and purge any corps commanders who disagree with the new policy, as Musharraf did after he stopped Pakistan's support of the Taliban following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
His danger in siding with his commanders is that he will then be on a collision course with the powerful new president, Asif Ali Zardari, who has it in his powers to remove Kiani. Conversely, if Kiani purges the forces, he will have the full backing of Zardari.
In this delicate situation, the balance could be tipped by India, on U.S. instigation, mobilizing forces on the Line of Control that separates the Indian- and Pakistan-administered sections of Kashmir, as happened in December 2001. And as happened then, Pakistan will be left with no option but to surrender to America's will in both letter and spirit.
Whichever way Kiani jumps, al-Qaeda has succeeded in goading the U.S. into opening a third war theater beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.
KARACHI, Pakistan -- With the Taliban's sudden withdrawal from key areas in Afghanistan to concentrate in the eastern provinces for a prolonged guerrilla war, and with the likelihood of an anti-Pakistan government running Afghanistan, Islamabad could be forced into lending covert support to the Taliban, whom it ditched two months ago in favor of the United States in its war on terrorism.
The quick retreats of the Taliban from Mazar-e-Sharif and the dramatic withdrawals from the capital Kabul and Jalalabad have exploded like a bombshell among Pakistani military decision makers at general headquarters in Rawalpindi and at the Foreign Office in Islamabad.
The developments are in stark contrast to what the Pakistani intelligence services had reported to President General Pervez Musharraf -- that the war would drag on much longer and that Pakistan would maintain a strong bargaining position with the U.S. and its allies over the composition of a new Afghan government.
All this has changed with the U.S.'s inability -- or reluctance -- to stop the Northern Alliance from taking over Kabul, where it is already reported that on Wednesday former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani will return to pronounce himself the head of the territories now under the control of the anti-Taliban opposition. Deposed by the Taliban in 1996, the ethnic Tajik Rabbani is the political leader of the Northern Alliance and is still recognized as Afghanistan's president by the United Nations and most countries.
Although the United Nations is trying its best to install a broad-based government in Afghanistan, Rabbani has already made a move to set up an interim administration. It is said that General Mohammad Fahim will act as minister of defense, Abdullah Abdullah as minister of foreign affairs and Yunus Qanooni as minister of the interior. Warlords such as Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan are expected to be left in control of the areas they have captured, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat respectively.
This pretty much leaves Pakistan out in the cold as this power configuration is made up mainly of three different ethnic groups: Tajiks, who comprise some 25 percent of the population; Hazaras, about 19 percent; and Uzbeks, with about 6 percent. Pashtuns, with 40 percent of the population, dominate central and southern Afghanistan, the home base to the leadership of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, the network of Osama bin Laden.
Rabbani has said that he would welcome former monarch Zahir Shah, but as a "private citizen." Yet Rabbani was the founding father of the Afghan resistance movement, which began in the days of Zahir Shah. Rabbani is well documented as saying that Zahir Shah would be hanged for war crimes if he ever returned to Afghanistan, and he has never softened this stance.
In this perspective, it appears that Afghanistan will continue with its centuries-old traditions under which there will be no participation in government on the basis of anything but "might is right" and that the only way in which Pakistan can have any sway in balancing unfriendly forces across its border is to lend support to the Taliban to help keep a guerrilla war going.
Sources say that on the news of the fall of Kabul an emergency meeting was convened in Rawalpindi, headed by General Yusuf, the vice chief of army staff -- Musharraf is currently on a visit to the U.S. At the meeting it was emphasized that a new strategic policy for Afghanistan is needed.
Well-placed sources suggest that in the new scheme of things the Pakistani tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, home of 10 million mostly Pashtun people, will play an important role: the Taliban will continue to fight their guerrilla war, with backup and supplies being ferried from Pakistan through the tribal areas to them.
Meanwhile, Asia Times Online has canvassed the views of some prominent Pakistanis across a wide spectrum of interests, and they all believe that Pakistan has lost ground in the region.
Former ambassador Hussain Haqqani said that Pakistan's single-track Afghan policy was now in tatters. He said Pakistan had not even contemplating what might happen should Kabul fall into the hands of a group other than the one it favored. Now all of the options that Pakistan would want to see happen, including the Zahir Shah (former king) one, are at the mercy of the Northern Alliance and its backers in Washington and London.
Now Pakistan, says Hussain Haqqani, will have to play a passive role as even though some of the former warlords will be blessed with Western intelligence and will have a role in the future setup of Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance will not be willing to accommodate them. This will lead to a situation in which the prospects of civil war cannot be ruled out.
The former director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence, retired lieutenant-general Hamid Gul, said that the U.S. had deceived Pakistan and it had facilitated the Northern Alliance entry into Kabul despite Pakistan's strong opposition.
"Professor Rabbani has had very strong support from Russia and he will retain government at all costs. It should be kept in mind that Rabbani has always been against Zahir Shah, he will not allow him into any broad-based government. Neither will he allow the Taliban to be a part of any government. This situation will lead to anarchy and civil war in Afghanistan."
He termed the Taliban retreat from Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul as strategic moves, and called losing Jalalabad a "gambit." "Now pro-Indian and pro-Russian Northern Alliance forces will enter into the Pashtun stronghold of Jalalabad, which borders Pakistan. Pakistan will be forced to play a role in extending support to a group, and in the present circumstances the Taliban would be the only choice."
He said that Pakistan would again be made a scapegoat for U.S. designs, and it would be asked to send its ground troops into the country under the umbrella of U.N. forces. "This would be a peacemaking operation rather than peacekeeping operation because otherwise there would be complete civil war in Afghanistan," he said. Pakistan should refuse to send its troops into Afghanistan, he added.
He believed that the Taliban would make the eastern provinces their stronghold and continue to struggle against the U.S.-sponsored war against terrorism in the region.
Liaquat Baloch, the deputy leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the premier fundamentalist party in Pakistan, said that the present situation was the result of Pakistan's misguided policies that had allowed a pro-Indian government to be installed on Pakistan's western borders [Kabul] at a time when Pakistan's armed forces were already engaged with its arch-rival on the eastern borders. He maintained that it was Pakistan's support for the U.S. position that had enabled anti-Taliban forces to capture Kabul. He added that the U..S exploited Musharraf for its own designs in the region, and had dragged Afghanistan into a prolonged civil war.
A former senator and leader of the Pakistan People's Party, Taj Haider, said that the possible victimization of the Taliban by Northern Alliance forces was the main cause for concern. "Though they [Taliban] consider me an infidel, [Taj Haider comes from a hardcore Marxist school of thought and hails from a Shia family] my heart is crying for them. What they have done may be wrong, but once they surrendered the world community should raise its voice for them for better treatment."
He maintained that Pakistan had closed all doors to Northern Alliance forces, and even when their former army leader, Ahmad Shah Masood, was assassinated in September, Pakistan did not offer its condolences.
This article was originally published by Asia Times Online and was made available through Globalvision News Network, a network of independent news organizations in 85 countries on seven continents.