USA’s Afghan Ops: critical analysis VII

Since the previous Critical Analysis VI available at http://www.saag.org/papers4/paper362.html, there have been the following positive developments from the point of view of the US-led “war” against international terrorism:

*  The death of Mohammed Atef, a close associate of Osama bin Laden and his reported No. 2 in the Al Qaeda as well as in the International Islamic Front for Jehad Against the US and Israel, along with seven other members of the Al Qaeda during an US air strike at an unidentified place south of Kabul on the night of November 15/16, 2001.

* The US determination not to succumb to the pressure mounted by Gen.Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s self-reinstated Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), self-styled Chief Executive and self-promoted President, and the leaders of other Islamic countries to suspend the military operations during the holy fasting period of Ramzan, which started on November 17, 2001.* The sustained US carpet bombing of Konduz, where a large number of Arab terrorists of the Al Qaeda, the Uzbek extremist elements fighting for an Islamic State in Uzbekistan, Chechen terrorists and Pakistani jehadi members of the Taliban have taken shelter.

* The intensification of the joint ground operations of the US, the UK and the Northern Alliance to smoke out bin Laden.

There were two tell-tale aspects of the Pentagon announcement about the death of Atef:

* While making the announcement, Mr.Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, said  that reports of Atef’s death “seem  authoritative”. Generally, when a piece of information comes from one’s own intelligence agencies, one uses the adjective authentic and one says authoritative only when the information comes from the intelligence agency of another country.

* In reporting the announcement, the CNN said that it was based on intercepted communications.  Generally, the US and other Western countries do not specify whether their information came from their human sources (HUMINT) or from technical means (TECHINT).

Keeping these two aspects in view, it would be in order to infer that the information about the death of Atef was conveyed to the US either by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan or by the agencies of the Northern Alliance, most probably the latter.

From this and other reports emanating from Afghanistan, there are strong reasons to believe that there is much greater clandestine operational co-operation on the ground between the US-British special forces on the one hand and those of the Northern Alliance on the other than openly admitted so far.  The rescue of the eight humanitarian workers of the Shelter Now International was also due to the excellent co-operation between the US forces and the Northern Alliance.  If this co-operation is sustained, the US-led alliance should be able to eliminate the Al Qaeda set-up in Afghanistan earlier than and much more effectively than previously  anticipated.

The deaths of Atef and seven of his associates have since been confirmed by a Taliban spokesman in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan.  It is not clear whether the US air strike, which led to their death, was based on precise information or whether it was one of those random attacks which killed them without knowing beforehand that they were there.

What the US has been doing since the beginning of the air strikes on October 7,2001, is to make out a collation of all pre-October 7 information regarding the various houses, caves, tunnels and other hide-outs where, in the past, bin Laden was known to have taken shelter while changing his place of residence frequently for security reasons and keep attacking them repeatedly in the hope of catching him napping one day in one of those places.

Muhammad Atef, also called Abdulaziz abu Sitta or Abu Hoffs al-Masri, was bin Laden’s top military commander and was reportedly his designated successor. According to the US authorities, he was a key military strategist and training director for bin Laden and was believed to have orchestrated the explosions in Kenya and Tanzania in August, 1998, and the terrorist strikes in the US on September 11,2001.  He was a member of the Al Qaeda’s executive shura council and the head of the organization’s military committee.  Last year, Atef’s 14 year-old daughter was married to one of the sons of bin Laden.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, Atef was generally known as  Sheikh Taseer Abdullah and was referred to as bin Laden’s chief security officer, responsible for his personal security. According to Pakistani and Afghan sources, he was the head of an elite force of less than 200 Arabs—mostly Saudis and Yemenis, many of them from bin Laden’s tribe—who constituted his personal bodyguards.

Sheikh Taseer was always at bin Laden’s side —whether it was in Peshawar and Afghanistan in the 1980s, in the Sudan subsequently and again in Afghanistan after bin Laden’s return from Sudan in May, 1996.  Sheikh Taseer, who used to dress in the Afghan salwar-kameez like bin Laden and was bearded and turbaned, was a former Egyptian police officer.  He came to Peshawar in 1983 and started participating in the Afghan jehad.  He was amongst the first Arabs to have responded to the call of the Afghan Mujahideen for foreign volunteers and was instrumental in persuading many other Arabs to join the jehad.  He joined the jehad even before bin Laden, the late Sheikh Abdullah Azzam and Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Egyptian cleric now in jail in the US.  Sheikh Taseer was also credited with persuading Sheikh Abdullah Azzam to resign his job as a lecturer in the Islamabad Islamic University and join the jehad.  Azzam shifted to Peshawar and built up a vast network to help the Afghan refugees and arrange for the training of the Arab mercenaries and their subsequent induction into the jehad.

Since Atef was, inter alia, responsible for the personal security of bin Laden and was always with him, there was a strong possibility that bin Laden too and possibly other members of the Al Qaeda’s brains trust too were in the vicinity of the place where Atef was killed.  If this was so, bin Laden seemed to have escaped.  According to the Taliban spokesman, seven others died along with Atef, but he did not give their identities.

The US has wisely kept up its air strikes in the Kandahar and Konduz areas even after the start of the Ramzan.  While the air strikes in the Kandahar area are meant to cause demoralisation in the ranks and leadership of the Taliban, which has not yet happened despite the Taliban’s losing control of the Pashtun areas of Eastern Afghanistan, its air strikes in Konduz, which have been of ferocious intensity, are meant to wipe out, in conjunction with an expected ground attack by the Northern Alliance, a large number of Arabs,Chechens, Uzbeks and Pakistanis, who have taken shelter there along with the Pashtun members of the Taliban, who are themselves in a small minority in the entire group.

Russia and Uzbekistan are also keen that this force of foreigners should not be allowed to escape and should be captured alive or killed.  In their calculation, the wiping out of this force could provide them relief from the depredations of these terrorists in their own territory.

There are wildly varying estimates of the number of Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens and Pakistanis taking shelter in Konduz—-between 3,000 and 20,000.  While the presence of a large number of Arabs and Pakistanis in Taliban-controlled Afghan territory was previously known, the presence of a large number of Chechens was a surprise.  It was known that some Chechens were being trained by the Al Qaeda, but the present reports from Konduz put the number of Chechens at 1,000 plus, which is a surprisingly large number.

It is important that some of the hard-core Arab members of the Al Qaeda at Konduz are captured alive for interrogation since they may have knowledge of those involved in the terrorist strikes in the US on September 11 and about the claims of bin Laden regarding his having a capability for the use of weapons of mass destruction.

The special forces of the US, the UK and the Northern Alliance have intensified their joint hunt for bin Laden.  Much more reliable information on his likely whereabouts has been forthcoming from the Northern Alliance than had ever come from Musharraf.  The Northern Alliance is as determined as the US, if not more, to get him alive or dead before the winter renders the ground operations difficult.

The US approach has been two-pronged— to keep some of its special forces hugging the Afghan-Pakistan border to prevent bin Laden from crossing over into the tribal areas of Pakistan and, at the same time, to have other forces hunt for him in southern and eastern Afghanistan.  They seem to be following the same technic as followed in India during shikar (hunts for wild animals)—form a large, unbreakable circle in the outer perimeter of the area where he is suspected to be and then move towards the centre, searching every bit of a potential hiding place for him and destroying it.

bin Laden is literally like a wild animal being hunted from all sides.  Will the US, the UK and the Northern Alliance succeed?

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-Mail: corde@vsnl.com )

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