As the security situation in the Northwest Frontier Province continues to deteriorate and President Pervez Musharraf’s political stock continues to drop, the US military intelligence community is “urgently assessing how secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would be in the event President Gen. Pervez Musharraf were replaced.” Meanwhile, the Taliban and al Qaeda have dispersed operatives from the training camps in the Northwest Frontier Province and are preparing to fight on their own terms.
With the Pakistani government facing a robust Taliban insurgency in the Northwest Frontier Province, a significant al Qaeda presence inside the country and a violent cadre of homegrown Islamist extremists, the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has taken on an elevated importance. The US intelligence community believes it has a handle on the location of Pakistan’s nuclear warhead, but there are questions over who controls the launch codes in the event of Musharraf’s passing.
The US is also looking past the issue of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The loyalty of the conventional Pakistani military to President Musharraf is in question, according to CNN. “Musharraf controls the loyalty of the commanders and senior officials in charge of the nuclear program, but those loyalties could shift at any point,” CNN reported on August 10. “There is also a growing understanding according to the U.S. analysis that Musharraf’s control over the military remains limited to certain top commanders and units, raising worries about whether he can maintain control over the long term.”
On the same day of the release of news on concerns over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and the loyalty of the Pakistani military, the Asia Times’ Syed Saleem Shahzad reported al Qaeda and Taliban camps in North and South Waziristan have emptied, the Taliban and al Qaeda are expanding into the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier Province, and are reorganizing in both Afghanistan and Pakistan for a major fight.
The Fourth Rail interviewed a senior US military intelligence official and a US military officer, both of whom are familiar with the situation in the Northwest Frontier Province and wish to remain anonymous. The sources confirmed Mr. Shahzad’s information concerning the al Qaeda and Taliban camps in North Waziristan and the Taliban’s reorganization is accurate. Both sources are particularly concerned about the implications of the emptying of the camps.
Mr. Shahzad reported there were 29 al Qaeda and Taliban camps in North and South Waziristan, and all but one “have been dismantled, apart from one run by hardline Islamist Mullah Abdul Khaliq.” [Note: on October 4, 2006, The Fourth Rail reported there are over 20 al Qaeda and Taliban run training camps currently in operation in North and South Waziristan.] While The Fourth Rail sources verify the camps’ existence, they noted the camps have not been dismantled and the infrastructure is still in place. “The physical infrastructure (camps and the like) still exist, they haven’t been dismantled. They’ve just been abandoned or are being operated by skeleton crews,” the senior military intelligence source said, while noting “the Khaliq camp is only churning out Taliban, not al Qaeda.”
The al Qaeda and Taliban personnel abandoned the 28 camps after “the US had presented Islamabad with a dossier detailing the location of the bases as advance information on likely US targets,” Mr. Shahzad reported. “All other leading Taliban commanders, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, Gul Bahadur, Baitullah Mehsud and Haji Omar, have disappeared,ï¿½? said Mr. Shahzad.
“Similarly, the top echelons of the Arab community that was holed up in North Waziristan has also gone,” reported Mr. Shahzad. Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies are believed to have leaked information to the Taliban and al Qaeda in the past, and appears to have done so again.
The emptying of the camps is a cause for great concern in the military and intelligence communities. “We don’t know where they went to or who was in the camps,” the military officer told The Fourth Rail. “They are well trained, these aren’t your entry level jihadis. They are dangerous.”
“This is one of the reasons that we are worried about a major CONUS [Continental United States] attack,” the senior military intelligence source told The Fourth Rail, noting the recent influx of news of terror cells attempting to penetrate the US. “If they evacuated their bases, they almost certainly did so out of fear of more than just the Pakistani army.”
Mr. Shahzad also reported Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second in command, along with the Shura Majlis, is currently based out of the village of Jani Khel village in the settled district of Bannu. Sirajuddin Haqqani and the Taliban Shura are operating in the eastern Afghan provinces of Khost and Gardez.
A spillover of al-Qaeda’s presence in Jani Khel is likely to spread to Karak, Kohat, Tank, Laki Marwat and Dera Ismail Khan in Pakistan. Kohat in NWFP is tipped to become a central city in the upcoming battle, as the office of the Pakistani Garrison commanding officer is there and all operations will be directed through this area. In addition, Kohat is directly linked with a US airfield in Khost for supplies and logistics.
A second war corridor is expected to be in the Waziristans, the Khyber Agency, the Kurram Agency, Bajaur Agency, Dir, Mohmand Agency and Chitral in Pakistan and Nanagarhar, Kunar and Nooristan in Afghanistan.
The Fourth Rail has repeatedly identified Bannu, Kohat, Tank, Laki Marwat, Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber, Kurram, Dir and Mohmand as Taliban controlled or influenced territory over the course of the past two years.
According to Mr. Shahzad, the Afghan Taliban has reorganized its leadership and devolved its command structure away from senior, regional leaders to local leaders after the death of senior Taliban commanders Mullah Akhtar Usmani and Mullah Dadullah Akhund. The Taliban leadership has been decimated by NATO and Afghan strikes in southern Afghanistan over the past year, and have regrouped in Satellite Town in Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan. Quetta has long been identified as a Taliban command hub. Pakistani security forces captured Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, a former Defense Minister and member of the Shura Majlis, in a hotel in Quetta.
According to the senior US military intelligence source, senior Taliban leaders are hesitant to enter southern Afghanistan due to NATO successes against the Taliban command structure, and have devolved control to the regional commanders out of necessity.
Mr. Shahzad postulates the Pakistani military will move in force into the Northwest Frontier Province after the Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal jirga concludes. But the existing evidence does not support this theory at this time. While the Pakistani government claims it has moved additional forces into the tribal areas, these troops have been subjected to brutal suicide attacks, roadside bombs, ambushes, and mortar and rocket attacks. Over 200 military personnel have been killed since mid-July, while the Pakistani military’s previous foray into North and South Waziristan from 2004 to 2006 resulted in upward of 3,000 soldiers killed. The Pakistani military has done little other than press for more negotiations with the Taliban while conducting retaliatory strikes, largely using artillery and air power.
On August 10, 16 Pakistani troops were kidnapped in South Waziristan. Yet Pakistani military spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad confirmed the military is still in a defensive posture, reacting to attacks. “There is no planned operation going on in North Waziristan but we are responding with greater force against militant attacks on security forces now,” said Arshad.
Also, the end of the summer is approaching and the Pakistani military has yet to launch the purported campaign. Winter is fast approaching in some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, where al Qaeda and the Taliban are dug in and have deep ties with the local residents. The ideal time for the military to launch operations would have been the spring, leaving the summer open to conduct a campaign that will be difficult and bloody enough without battling the terrain and elements.