Pakistan: After Mehsud, Mullah Omar in the cross-hairs?

August 17, 2009

Bruce Riedel, who led a review of the “Af-Pak” strategy for the Obama administration, says the United States must now target Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, following the apparent death of the chief of the Pakistani Taliban this month.

The one-eyed, intensely secretive founder of the Afghan Taliban is a much more elusive and important player in the “terror syndicate” attacking Pakistan, Afghanistan and the NATO mission in Afghanistan than Baitullah Mehsud, reportedly killed in a U.S. drone strike, Riedel says.

 

“Under his leadership, the Afghan Taliban has returned from near total defeat in 2001 to threaten the survival of the NATO effort in Afghanistan and indeed the future of the alliance,” Riedel, a former CIA officer and now a scholar at Brookings, writes here.

In 2003, the Taliban was active in only 30 of Afghanistan’s 364 districts; now it is a player in 160. “For too long the self-described Commander of the Faithful has been on the rampage. Now is the time for Washington and Islamabad to cooperate to shut him down.”

Going after Mullah Omar and other leaders with strong links to al Qaeda such as Jalaluddin Haqqani is Pakistan’s next test, the Los Angeles Times wrote on Monday.  Both these leaders have directed their efforts at Afghanistan, rather than Pakistan, and Islamabad as a result or otherwise hasn’t really focused on them, it said.

So does this mean the United States is building a case for widening military operations inside Pakistan to include Baluchistan, where Mullah Omar is believed to have long operated from, heading a leadership council known as the Quetta shura? U.S. drone strikes have so far been confined to the sparsely populated Federally Administered Tribal Areas in the northwest and even these have evoked such revulsion among Pakistanis that America is now considered the number one threat to Pakistan, as a poll we wrote about earlier showed.

And so to take the covert “Predator war” to Baluchistan would seem to be crossing another red line in the minds of a majority of Pakistanis already seething at the assault on its sovereignty. “The moral, legal and political dimension of it  (drone attacks) remains a dilemma for the government and parliament. It is difficult for national pride of a nascent nuclear power to swallow that it allows frequent infringement of its sovereignty by an ally,” former Pakistani army lieutenant general Talat Masood wrote in The News

 Riedel doesn’t obviously spell out how the United States should go about taking on Mullah Omar, but is a drone strike possible in  a city such as Quetta ?  The risk of civilian casualties would seem to be high in any such operation either in Quetta or the teeming Afghan settlements and refugee camps in and around the city and nearby the Afghan  border.

And above all the use of such missile strikes remains a matter of debate. Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council of Foreign Relations, says if you were to measure the strikes against President Barack Obama’s stated objective of disrupting and dismantling al Qaeda and those responsible for 9/11 then the strikes must be judged to be ineffective. At best, he argues, it can be part of a national strategy toward Pakistan, and that is something that still hasn’t been put on the table.

“There’s almost no U.S. military policy on Pakistan. There’s limited foreign internal assistance in terms of counterinsurgency training. There are a very small number of [U.S.] troops [inside Pakistan]. The other part is large payment for the Pakistani army to conduct operations. That’s the extent of our military policy.”

[File photograph of a newspaper notice of the most wanted men including Osama bin laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar and  2) Baitullah Mehsud at a news conference last year]

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