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New strategic cooperation?

December 10, 2014


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE killing of two top Al Qaeda leaders last week — one by Pakistani security forces, the other by a US drone strike — signify renewed effective counterterrorism cooperation between Islamabad and Washington.

US drone strikes, killing several Pakistani Taliban fugitives on the Afghan side of the border, are further evidence of this growing convergence of action. Such collaboration was rare in the past years and signals the mending of a strategic relationship that has long been a victim of acrimony and mistrust.

Know more: Pak-Afghan equation

Adil Shukrijumah, described as head of Al Qaeda’s external operations, was killed in a raid on a compound in the Shin Warsak district of South Waziristan. He is the highest-ranking militant leader killed by Pakistani forces in recent years. Most Al Qaeda leaders have been killed in the tribal areas in CIA-operated drone strikes. His death is seen as a major success of Pakistan’s latest intelligence-based counterterrorism campaign.

The apparent collaboration between Afghanistan and Pakistan signifies the mending of ties.

Shukrijumah, a naturalised American of Saudi origin, was on the FBI list of most wanted terrorists and was believed to have fled the military operation in North Waziristan. The American militant who had a bounty of $5 million on his head had been active in Waziristan until about 2009, when Pakistani intelligence agencies lost track of him, raising speculation that he had fled the country.

A day later the group received an additional setback when a US drone strike reportedly killed another key Al Qaeda leader identified as Umer Farooq. A Pakistani militant commander, Farooq rose to the top of the network’s hierarchy and was believed to be the spokesman of its recently established South Asian chapter. Though less known, he was among the new generation of militants, who filled the gap created by the killing and capture of the original command also known as ‘sheikhs’. Farooq was the first Pakistani to be appointed to a senior-level position in Al Qaeda.

A key militant strategist, Farooq, who was active on both sides of the Durand Line, was killed in Dattakhel. The district has been a stronghold of Hafiz Gul Bahadur who is now a major target after he declared war on the Pakistani forces, breaking the peace deal. Some reports suggest that he also narrowly escaped a drone strike just last week.

Indeed, the elimination of its two top commanders within 24 hours is a serious blow to the terrorist network. Though its strength has been depleted over the years by the death and capture of many senior militant operatives, Al Qaeda remains a potent terrorist force with Ayman al Zawahiri still active.

Zawahiri has recently unveiled his plan to expand Al Qaeda activities in the region and has established a South Asia chapter of the network. The move seemed to have been prompted by the emergence of the self-styled Islamic State in Pakistan with some breakaway factions of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan joining the new jihadi movement. The apparent disintegration of the TTP and the ejection of the Haqqani network from its base in North Waziristan may have also forced the terrorist network to review its strategy in the region.

Some reports suggest the Al Qaeda chief may be hiding in the tribal areas from where he is guiding the group’s activities not only in Pakistan but also in the Middle East. Some militant chatter intercepted by Pakistani intelligence agencies indicated that one of his wives might have been residing in North Waziristan. The military operation may have forced the remaining Al Qaeda operatives to flee to other areas.

Meanwhile, the security agencies now seem to be increasingly relying on intelligence-based actions not only in the region where military operations are being carried out, but also in the mainland, making it more difficult for Al Qaeda to find a safe haven. The intelligence agencies have reportedly carried out scores of unannounced actions in Pakistan’s major cities, arresting and killing hundreds of militants prior to and during the North Waziristan operation. That has also helped in containing the expected blowback from them.

Moreover, there has been a marked increase in American drone strikes in North Waziristan particularly in the areas where Pakistani forces are facing stiff resistance from the militants. Most of the recent strikes have been carried out in the Shawal areas where many militants are believed to have fled. Surrounded by high mountains and covered with thick forests the valley is most treacherous for the Pakistani troops to operate in. The drone strikes have certainly been very useful in the precision targeting of militant sanctuaries.

For sure, these strikes could not have been possible without coordination with Pakistani intelligence and security agencies. And not surprisingly, there has not been the usual strong reaction from the Pakistani government except for some routine and benign protests from the Foreign Office. As a result of this cooperation, US drones are now increasingly targeting Pakistani militant sanctuaries across the border in Kunar. Mullah Fazlullah, the TTP chief, is said to have escaped one such strike.

The issue of cross-border sanctuaries has long been a major source of tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan’s action against the Haqqani network and entities such as Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s group has also helped hugely in reducing the distrust between the two countries. The handing over of Latif Mehsud and two of his associates to Pakistan by Kabul is more evidence of cooperation between them.

Latif, a deputy of the slain TTP leader Hakeemullah Mehsud, had been in US custody for the past several months and was not handed over despite repeated demands by Pakistan. The visit of the new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to Islamabad last month seems to have paved the way for his extradition.

For sure, all these developments are very positive, but there is still much more to do to improve counterterrorism cooperation between Afghan­istan and Pakistan with the drawing down of the US-led coalition forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2014