As the world digests the news of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, claims by an alleged al Qaeda spokesman that it is behind the political mass murder cannot be idly dismissed. For the War on Terror has come to Pakistan, and AQ has been losing. Our media have not paid much attention, but you can be certain AQ knows. Whether or not AQ had a hand in the mass murder, it hopes to benefit from it.
After the US liberation of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban and its al Qaeda affiliates emulated the Viet Cong in the 60's, and based their operations in the security of a neighboring country. In this instance, Pakistan assumed the role that Cambodia once served, as a sovereign haven from attack. Their ability to relocate into Pakistan and turn a perceived defeat in Afghanistan into an advantage so quickly suggests to some, including me, that al Qaeda had already planned this in response to the reprisals sure to come after the 9/11 attacks. Such a strategy plays against the predictable American reluctance to expand a war.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf played along. Normally teetering on the edge of political irrelevancy, he had to placate a powerful jihad-centric group within his own government. This opposition force along with a shadow government of Islamic militant sympathizers within his security services and military, led him to make a settlement with these Islamic extremists in 2006 allowing the Taliban and al Qaeda to strengthen their support base and forces.
Such were the conditions that made the war in Afghanistan appear interminable. Although those forces were not a serious threat of retaking the country by military might, the endless nature of the mission posed the real threat of bringing capitulation in the countries that have seemed a bit squeamish about it since becoming involved: Britain, Germany, Canada and sundry other coalition partners. Of course, I don't mean to give offense, but those countries do have a substantial population opposed to their involvement in Afghanistan. I exclude Australia from that list, as most of the commentary I have seen from there is far more supportive of combating these terrorist groups.
But supported at home or not, these coalition forces have held back the Taliban and al Qaeda for many years now. We have been victorious, but only keeping the wolves at bay, not hunting them down in their lairs, as would be necessary for final victory. This year in particular saw wave after wave of Taliban forces throw themselves uselessly into coalition fires.
Throughout 2007, our media has been set on a narrative of a resurgent Taliban threatening the burgeoning, democratic Afghan government. But, the real story here is that American leadership by President Bush has stiffened the resolve of the coalition to keep the wolves at bay. It is hard to imagine, given the internal political sniping over Afghanistan in those coalition countries, that their support to this mission would have lasted long without the President leading the way.
And near the end of this year comes a hint that the war in Afghanistan is on a trajectory toward the total defeat of these terrorists. While the American media was focused on the politically charged arrest of a few oppositionists in Pakistan, they completely missed the big picture. The War on Terror has finally come to Pakistan.
The Taliban Splits
The conditions that led to this change have been reported here but nearly nowhere else in the U.S. The coalition forces have managed to split al Qaeda from a politically important Islamic militant leader in Pakistan. That man leads the Pakistan portion of the Taliban; he helped to create it in the 90's. Pitting him against al Qaeda has split the Taliban.
Since Al Qaeda has lost in Iraq, its leadership has reckoned they have nowhere else to go if they lose the support of the Taliban. With the Taliban split jeopardizing its' support base, al Qaeda has been forced into a position of attempting a hostile takeover of the Taliban, supporting young leaders to overthrow the old leaders who are allied with the Pakistan-based leadership.
This has created a condition in which the Taliban factions are turning on each other and al Qaeda is trying to run roughshod over them.
Musharraf Mobilizes Pakistan's Military
Musharraf, though certainly stepping on a lot of toes with his emergency declaration, has used this time to redeploy his forces, which were stagnant on the border with India, into combat. For the first time, he is sending large scale maneuver forces backed by artillery, tanks, and air support into regions controlled by al Qaeda and the sympathetic Taliban. His forces have reportedly driven the Taliban and al Qaeda forces of Maulana Fazlullah into the hills. The Pakistani military has even followed these terrorists into the administered areas which Musharraf effectively turned over to the Taliban over a year ago.
There are indications that Fazlullah himself had no real interest in an armed takeover of the Swat valley, where the bulk of the fighting has been located. It appears very much like he was driven to it by al Qaeda forces coming in from the tribal areas and imposing their will on the "young Taliban" to take more land in Pakistan.
This is an indication that al Qaeda is desperate, has redirected forces once meant for Iraq and is willing to crush the same people who have hosted them in Pakistan. In effect, they are doing the same thing in Pakistan that led to their defeat in Iraq. Only this time, they have no other strong support base to fall back to if they lose the Pakistan tribal regions.
The most critical indicator is that the MMA, the extremely militant Islamic party that opposes Musharraf, has remained mute as the army has slaughtered its Taliban and al Qaeda brethren. Did no one in the media notice this? Not one journalist noticed that the jihad block of the Pakistan government was silent about the slaughter of the Taliban in Swat? And they call President Bush "incurious"?
While it has yet to play out to its ultimate end, the die is cast. And it happened this year, thanks to a president still maligned by the press for his "mishandling" of the Iraq war. But the thing about history is that it truly is results-based. If the War on Terror continues to play out in Pakistan with real results, historians may note the change came in 2007. How foolish will our journalists look that none of them noticed it happening right under their noses?The assasination of Benazir Bhutto may well be one last attempt to get the Pakistanis fighting among themselves, much as the attack on the Golden Dome temporarily set Shia against Sunni in Iraq. May this attempt at stirring up trouble fail even faster.
A year that started out in near disaster for the Bush Administration has concluded in poignant victory. The quagmire narrative was defeated. Many more battles and challenges lie ahead in Iraq, of course. All but the most diehard partisans, even the New York Times, now acknowledge that some success has been accomplished. There is a chance that Benazir Bhutto's death may reverse course. George Bush's last year in office promises to be eventful.