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Pakistan Blast Sharpens Concerns on Taliban

January 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: At least 75 people were killed by a suicide bomber at a sporting event in Pakistan today. The attack took place in a village that had formed its own armed anti-Taliban militia, underscoring the trouble Pakistan has had in stemming the violence.

The bomber drove an SUV packed with explosives into the midst of a volleyball tournament on a field in northwest Pakistan. Dozens of players and spectators were killed and wounded when the vehicle exploded. More victims were also feared to be buried beneath rubble from the blast.

It was one of the bloodiest attacks in Pakistan since the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Today’s violence came as the Pakistani Taliban claimed it was behind Wednesday’s suicide bombing that killed seven American CIA employees at a base in Afghanistan.

The group said it had used a renegade CIA operative to carry out the attack, a claim that could not be verified. The Pakistani group said the attack was intended to damage the CIA’s ability to launch missile strikes into Pakistan.

The U.S. has launched scores of strikes into the country’s tribal regions over the past year-and-a-half, attempting to hit militant leaders. One, former Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in August.

The Afghan Taliban has also claimed involvement in Wednesday’s deadly attack, saying that the bomber was a member of the Afghan national army. The Afghan military denied that claim.

In the meantime, at CIA headquarters in Virginia, the agency mourned the loss of fallen colleagues by flying flags at half-staff.

MICHAEL SCHEUER, former CIA agent: This is a tremendous loss for the agency. The agency is a relatively small organization, and its expertise in al-Qaida is even a smaller subset of that overall group.

JEFFREY BROWN: The CIA has declined to release information about the victims. One of those killed has been identified by his father as Harold Brown Jr. of Fairfax, Virginia.

Today, CIA spokesman George Little said: “There is much about the attack that isn’t yet known, but this much is clear. The CIA’s resolve to pursue aggressive counterterrorism operations is greater than ever.”

For the CIA and the U.S. military, the dual claims of involvement in Wednesday’s attack highlight the complexity of a war in which insurgent groups are able to operate along the Afghan-Pakistan border and easily move back and forth between the countries.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the increasing Taliban violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, we go to Thomas Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where he focuses on Afghanistan and Central Asia, and Christine Fair, an associate professor at Georgetown University. Both have traveled and written extensively about the region.

Professor Fair, let me start with you.

The attack on the American base in Afghanistan and now on the sporting event in Pakistan are just to either side of a troubled border, not that far away from each other. Are they in any way related?

CHRISTINE FAIR, Georgetown University: Well, I mean, liminally, in the sense that, the last several weeks, the U.S. has really been focusing their unmanned aerial vehicle strikes, the drone strikes, on an area in the tribal areas called North Waziristan.

And that is an important area, because that is the stronghold of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani. He had been previously an ally of the U.S. CIA during the ’80s. He is now one of those terrorist networks which overlaps with the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban and al-Qaida.

And, so, what is interesting about the attack on the CIA operatives in Afghanistan is it appears to have actually been strategic, aimed specifically to be able to degrade our ability to bomb North Waziristan.

So, in some strange sense, they are related. If, in fact, it is true that the Pakistan Taliban, as they say, conducted this attack in Afghanistan, I believe it’s the first attack that the Pakistan Taliban have actually conducted in Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Johnson, are the Taliban in Afghanistan and pack two separate and distinct entities?

THOMAS JOHNSON, Naval Postgraduate School: Well, I mean, I think that is a very important question.

And people have a debate concerning this. I think they are becoming closer and closer in recent months. And that would be very fearful. But, in the past, the Pakistani Taliban was quite different, much more ideological than the Afghan Taliban.

But one of our worst nightmares, I would suggest, is for these two entities to merge. Now, I think, following up on Chris, that the Haqqani Network probably played a major role in this hit at the Chapman combat operating post.

I mean, the Haqqani Network is very strong in the area of Khost. And they have operated there for many years with a number of spectacular IED attacks. And I think it is also quite interesting, both on December 31 and today, as reported by a number of newspapers in the United States, there has been additional drone attacks in North Waziristan, where the Haqqani network basically runs overtly.

RAY SUAREZ: What is the relationship between the tempo of drone attacks and the attacks by the Taliban on both American and civilian forces?

CHRISTINE FAIR: Well, I think, exactly as Tom noted, we have been really focusing our drone attacks on North Waziristan, because that is the ground zero for the Jalaluddin-Sirajuddin Haqqani Network.

We’re focusing in North Waziristan because the Pakistanis continue to view the Haqqani Network as an ally. So, while the Pakistanis are going south with their military operation into South Waziristan, they have demurred, if not outright refused, to take action against the Haqqani Network, as well as Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

So, we have basically — the United States government has really taken upon itself to engage in these drone attacks to degrade the Haqqani network. And that is why the speculation is rife, and I think to a considerable degree justified, that the effort to take out this CIA base near Khost was actually specifically targeted so that we would be degraded in our ability to continue targeting the Haqqani Network in North Waziristan.

THOMAS JOHNSON: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: We talk a lot about what is going on in Afghanistan and what is going on in Pakistan. But to what extent is it just one big war now, with just the interesting fact of the border there?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well, there has always been a differential between the Pakistani and the Afghan Taliban. Like I said, I mean, it is our worst nightmares were they to merge.

But, you know, I think that it’s open to question. I find it very interesting. I have always suggested that, you know, the Pakistani military has played a major role recently in South Waziristan that has been a stronghold for the Pakistani Taliban.

But I always suggested to many people I have talked to that an indicator of how serious they were in attacking the Afghan Taliban was when they started to go after them in North Waziristan. And this is an area that Haqqani controls.

So, I think that it is very problematic if these two organizations merge for the United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan, as well as Islamabad.

RAY SUAREZ: I ask about one big war because, as you have mentioned, Haqqani is operating on both sides of the border. The United States military is operating on both sides of the border, with boots on the ground in Afghanistan and drones in the air in Pakistan.

Is it one big war?

CHRISTINE FAIR: Well, I actually view them somewhat differently. The Pakistan Taliban, in the same way that the Afghan Taliban is not a coherent, univocal organization — Haqqani is a really good example.

He affiliates with the Taliban, but he is not really the Taliban. He actually overlaps with al-Qaida, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban. Even more so, the Pakistan Taliban is also a network of networks. So, under the previous leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who was actually killed in a drone strike in August, it was really hard to argue that the organization was as coherent as people said.

And, in fact, they were really clear in their mission that they were going after the Pakistani state and going after the army for working with the United States. Now, the new leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, is far more brutal, if one can imagine that, than Baitullah Mehsud.

So, Hakimullah is vigorously anti-Shia, which is why, under Hakimullah Mehsud’s leadership, the Pakistan Taliban have gone after these anti — these Shia processions, vehemently anti-Shia.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s talk a little bit more about the brutality because now there seems to be an appetite, a willingness on the part of the Taliban in Pakistan to target and kill large numbers of civilians, Shia, as you mentioned, but also the general run of humanity, in marketplaces and…

CHRISTINE FAIR: But it’s not new. I mean, that is the interesting thing. Suicide bombings have been around in Pakistan for a while.

And what is interesting about the Pakistani Taliban is that we always focus upon the so-called Pashtun elements in the tribal areas.

THOMAS JOHNSON: Right.

CHRISTINE FAIR: What is less appreciated is that they have really strong ties in the Southern Punjab. And it is in the Southern Punjab where these anti-Shia militias have always been very robust. And it is not new. They have been there since the late ’70s, early ’80s.

And they were really pioneers of these mass murders, largely with their anti-Shia objective. And, so, what you have seen with Hakimullah Mehsud is the TTP, it is really reaching into these anti-Shia militia roots. And they have demonstrated over several decades a complete willingness to engage in outright violence.

THOMAS JOHNSON: Can I add a point here? I mean, I think it is also very interesting that Qari Mehsud — Qari Hussain Mehsud — who claimed responsibility for the attack at the base in Khost, is also very close to Haqqani.

And I don’t think it is unreasonable to think that Haqqani didn’t outsource it to the Pakistani Taliban, because, you know, Qari Hussain Mehsud is actually one of the leading suicide planners in Pakistan.

RAY SUAREZ: A frequent feature of these latest stories has involved, on the Afghanistan side of the border, people in Afghan uniforms, as suicide bombers, suddenly turning around the guns and shooting at their fellows…

THOMAS JOHNSON: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: … various guises of using the cover of a uniform to unleash an attack.

What you can tell us?

THOMAS JOHNSON: I think this is very important. I mean, there were reports a couple of years ago that an entire truckload of Afghan national police uniforms, ANP uniforms, were missing. And I have been waiting, as a number of other analysts, for years to start to see operations under the guise of the ANP, when the Taliban and other insurgents were actually utilizing these uniforms.

I think that we have underestimated, and also have underestimated the degree to which the Taliban have infiltrated the Afghan national police, as well as the Afghan national army.

Let me give a fast story. In Kandahar this year, I was told by a number of reliable sources that our interpreters at the Kandahar Air Base in Kandahar had been infiltrated by the Taliban. And the Taliban went to our interpreters and said, hey, we’re not going to even kill you.

But what we want to know is, every time people are going out to have a jirga meeting out into Panjwayi, which is district in Afghanistan, in Kandahar Province, and other areas.

So, I think that we have to really start to focus. And I think the United States, as well as the coalition, has to start to focus on the infiltration of the insurgents into both the Afghan police, the Afghan national army, and other elements.

RAY SUAREZ: But is there any — quickly, is there any way of stopping that kind of operation?

CHRISTINE FAIR: Well, I don’t think so.

The thing that is so shocking — and, you know, we talked about this in the past — we are eight years into this war, and our — the linguists, the number of linguists we have in our inventory are so minuscule. So, we are always going to be reliant upon this network of interpreters, who are there for their own reasons, as well as our own.

And, so, this is going to be a persistent source of insecurity. Especially as turning over the security to the Afghans has become such a priority under this administration, how can we possibly vet these people, when we have so few resources and we are under the pressure to produce them so quickly?

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Fair, Professor Johnson, thank you, both.

CHRISTINE FAIR: Thank you.

THOMAS JOHNSON: Thank you.