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Context of 'December 2001-Spring 2002: Pakistani Government Allows Al-Qaeda and Taliban to Regroup in Pakistan’s Tribal Region'

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The mountains of Waziristan.The mountains of Waziristan. [Source: BBC] (click image to enlarge)In December 2001, al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan are defeated in the battle of Tora Bora, and the survivors generally flee across the border into Pakistan’s tribal region. Many flee into the region of South Waziristan, since it is directly adjacent to Tora Bora and there are no Pakistani government forces guarding the border there (see December 10, 2001). In March 2002, several hundred more militants flee from Afghanistan into South Waziristan after Operation Anaconda (see March 2-13, 2002). They rebuild their central command there, particularly in a remote part of South Waziristan known as the Shakai valley. (Mazetti and Rohde 6/30/2008) Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid will later describe South Waziristan: “With its high mountains, steep slopes, deep ravines littered with broken rock and shale, and its thick forests, it was an ideal hideout. Many of its valleys were virtually inaccessible, except along steep winding paths that required the agility of mountain climbers, and were easy to defend.” (Rashid 2008, pp. 148, 268) In the spring of 2002, US intelligence begins reporting that large numbers of foreigners are hiding in South Waziristan and neighboring North Waziristan. But Gen. Ali Jan Orakzai, the commander of Pakistani forces in the area containing Waziristan, is skeptical. Born in the tribal region, Orakzai is said to be Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s close friend and main adviser on the region. Even in 2008, he will tell the New York Times that he considered the US warnings about al-Qaeda to be mere “guesswork” and that his soldiers “found nothing.” Former US intelligence officials will agree that nothing is found, because they say that Orakzai’s military forces only enter the region in large, slow-moving sweeps that are easily avoided by militants. Robert Grenier, CIA station chief in Pakistan at the time, will later suggest that Orakzai did not want to find the foreigners as this could have caused trouble, including a tribal uprising. Grenier will say, “Orakzai and others didn’t want to believe [the foreigners were there] because it would have been an inconvenient fact.” (Mazetti and Rohde 6/30/2008)

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had promised to seal off the Pakistani side of the border near the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan in return for considerable US economic aid (see November 2001). But Musharraf spent two weeks negotiating with tribal chieftains on the border before starting the deployment. Around December 10, two brigades begin to take up positions along the border. (Smucker 3/4/2002; Nordland, Yousafzai, and Dehghanpisheh 8/11/2002) However, Pakistan does not seal several important parts of the border. The regions of North and South Waziristan, Dir, Chitral, and Balochistan have no Pakistani army presence whatsoever. Bin Laden and many other al-Qaeda leaders likely escape into Waziristan, where they begin to rebuild al-Qaeda (see December 2001-Spring 2002). The CIA intercepts communications between Pakistani officers warning not to harass any foreign fighters entering Waziristan. Several US officers will later tell Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid that they suspect Pakistan deliberately failed to guard these regions in order to allow the fighters to escape. (Rashid 2008, pp. 148) On December 11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says of this border region, “It’s a long border. It’s a very complicated area to try to seal, and there’s just simply no way you can put a perfect cork in the bottle.” (Smucker 3/4/2002) But armed gunmen storm the Indian Parliament on December 13, and a group based in Pakistan and allied with al-Qaeda is blamed (see December 13, 2001). Tensions suddenly rise between India and Pakistan, and Musharraf halts troop deployments to the Afghan border. The border near Tora Bora still is not adequately guarded by Pakistan when the battle of Tora Bora ends on December 17. Less than 100 stragglers entering Pakistan around December 19 are captured by Pakistani forces, but a number of these subsequently escape. (Nordland, Yousafzai, and Dehghanpisheh 8/11/2002)

Al-Qaeda forces have been driven out of Afghanistan but regroup in the tribal border region of Pakistan called South Waziristan (see December 2001-Spring 2002). However, the Pakistani government is strict about preventing US forces from crossing the border in pursuit of bin Laden or any other al-Qaeda figures. According to author James Risen, “Green Berets who served in southeastern Afghanistan say that there have been a series of tense confrontations—and even firefights—between American and Pakistani forces along the border. Both sides have largely covered up the incidents.” (Risen 2006, pp. 181) There is no sign later of a significant change in policy, although minor skirmishes persist. For part of 2002 and into 2003, some US special forces are allowed into the region, but only by traveling with the Pakistani army, and this arrangement does not last for long (see 2002-Early 2003).

US troops investigate two dead bodies on March 17, 2002, as Operation Anaconda comes to a close.US troops investigate two dead bodies on March 17, 2002, as Operation Anaconda comes to a close. [Source: Joe Raedle/ Reuters]The US launches Operation Anaconda, a major offensive in Shah-i-Kot valley, near the town of Gardez, Afghanistan. About 2,000 US and allied soldiers attack a Taliban and al-Qaeda stronghold in the valley. The goal is to surround and cut off the Taliban and al-Qaeda from being able to retreat into Pakistan. Officially, the operation is hailed as an easy victory. For instance, Gen. Tommy Franks calls the operation “an unqualified and absolute success.” (Krushelnycky 3/20/2002) A Pentagon spokesperson calls the operation “a great success,” and says that of the hundreds or even thousands of enemy fighters trapped in the valley,“less than 100 escaped.” (Bearak 3/14/2002) Up to 800 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are reported killed. (Bearak 3/14/2002)
Unexpected Resistance - However, other accounts paint a different picture. The operation runs into unexpected resistance from the start, and eight US soldiers and a small number of allied Afghan fighters are killed in the first few days. The London Times later notes, “what was to have been a two-day operation stretched to 12.” Australian special forces troops who took part later say the operation was botched. “They blamed much of the problem on inadequate US air power, poor intelligence, and faulty technology.” (Krushelnycky 3/20/2002; Maynard 6/18/2002)
Militants Able to Escape - It appears that, as in Tora Bora, Afghan warlord armies supervised by a small number of US special forces, were given the key task of cutting off escape routes. At least one of the warlords involved had tricked the US military earlier in the war. “Although [Afghan] commanders insisted from the start of the campaign that the slopes were surrounded, [one Afghan commander] admitted that there had been at least one escape route” left open. The Guardian notes that “US troops spent weeks planning the attack on Shah-i-Kot, training and arming Afghan soldiers to prevent a repeat of the battle at Tora Bora,” but nonetheless, “nearly all the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters appeared to have fled the area.” (Baker and Vogel 3/4/2002; McCarthy 3/15/2002) Most flee across the border into Pakistan (see December 2001-Spring 2002). The New York Times even reported that “some participants… said the Taliban had more or less come and gone as they pleased, visiting villagers in nearby towns.” (Bearak 3/14/2002) One captured Taliban soldier who fought in the battle later claims that bin Laden made a brief personal appearance to rally his troops. (Nordland, Yousafzai, and Dehghanpisheh 8/11/2002) Only about 20 prisoners are captured and fewer than 20 bodies are found. (Bearak 3/14/2002; Burns 3/18/2002) After retreating, the Taliban and al-Qaeda will change strategies and no longer attempt to congregate in Afghanistan in large numbers.

In the wake of the defeat of al-Qaeda and the Taliban at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, many of them flee into the tribal region of Waziristan, just across the Pakistani border (see December 2001-Spring 2002). These tribal regions normally have no Pakistani military presence, and the Pakistani army left the border near Waziristan unguarded (see December 10, 2001). (Rashid 2008, pp. 148, 268) In early May, the US begins applying pressure on Pakistan to act. On anonymous Defense Department official tells the Washington Post, “We know where there is a large concentration of al-Qaeda.” He notes there are several hundred in one Waziristan border town alone. A senior US offical says, “We are trying to encourage, wheedle, coerce, urge the Pakistanis to move more aggressively” against the Waziristan safe haven, but have not been having much progress. (Ricks and Khan 5/12/2002) Pakistan finally moves army units into Waziristan in late May 2002, but even then the 8,000 troops remain in the administrative capital of Wana and do not attempt to seal the border with Afghanistan. (Rashid 2008, pp. 148, 268)

In June 2002, US military officers in Bagram, Afghanistan, tell Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid that up to 3,500 al-Qaeda-linked militants are hiding out in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan (see December 2001-Spring 2002). They say they cannot understand why the Pakistani ISI is turning a blind eye to them. Some Pakistani army units moved into the area in May, but they only patrol the administrative capitol of Wana. At the time, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is claiming he has no troops to spare for the tribal region due to tensions with India. (Rashid 2008, pp. 268) Pakistan will not allow US troops to enter the tribal regions (see Early 2002 and After).

Since its defeat in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in late 2001, thousands of al-Qaeda-linked militants have been regrouping in the Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan (see December 2001-Spring 2002). The Pakistani army finally entered Waziristan in May 2002 (see Late May 2002), but the army remains in the administrative capital of Wana, leaving al-Qaeda free to operate in the countryside. Emboldened, al-Qaeda begins setting up small mobile training camps in South Waziristan by August 2002. (Rashid 2008, pp. 148)


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