June 28, 2008 | FDD’s Long War Journal

Pakistan strikes at Taliban in Khyber agency

 The Pakistani government has launched an operation targeting the Taliban in the Khyber tribal agency along the Afghan border. The operation is led by the paramilitary Frontier Corps and police.

Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, has responded by halting peace negotiations and threatening to conduct attacks throughout Pakistan.

The operation was launched in the early morning by elements from the Frontier Corps, the Frontier Constables, and police commandos. The Pakistani Army has not committed to the fight at this time, but gunship are said to have conducted over flights in the region. Sixty Pakistanis have been reported killed and 80 wounded during the early stages of the fighting.

Reports indicate the Pakistani forces are focusing in on the Bara region bordering Peshawar, where local Taliban commander Haji Namdar holds sway. An estimated 700 Frontier Corps paramilitaries are said to have deployed to the area.

The military also reinforced Peshawar, where the Taliban is gaining ground. Roadblocks and checkpoints have been established in Peshawar in an effort to halt the movement of Taliban into the provincial capital. Government and security officials, business leaders, and residents have said the Taliban are poised to take Peshawar.

The Pakistani government has “given full authority” to General Pervaiz Kayani, the Army Chief of Staff, to conduct operations to secure Peshawar. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Syed Yusaf Raza Gilani said the federal government fully supports efforts by the provincial government of the Northwest Frontier Province to conduct peace talks with the Taliban.

Khyber has seen increased Taliban activity this year. Seventeen members of the Frontier Corps were captured just days ago after they refused to abandon their checkpoints. In March, the Taliban blew up 42 trucks transporting fuel to NATO forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan was kidnapped in Khyber in February.

The road through Peshawar to the Torkham border crossing into Afghanistan is NATO's main supply line. An estimated 70 percent of supplies pass through Peshawar and Khyber en route to Coalition forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban have been working to disrupt this flow of supplies to cripple the NATO effort.

The Taliban suspend talks, threaten a nationwide terror campaign

The Pakistani Taliban has reacted to the Khyber offensive by suspending the ongoing peace talks in South Waziristan and threatening additional violence.

“The talks will remain suspended until the government stops talking about operations and attacks against us,” Baitullah said. “I am warning that the fire will not only burn in tribal areas and Frontier Province, it will engulf Punjab and Sindh also.”

Baitullah was behind the devastating suicide bombing and armed campaign in 2007 and early 2008. Hundreds of Pakistanis were killed in scores of suicide bombing that extended into the capital of Islamabad and other major cities.

Baitullah's forces fought the military to a standstill in South Waziristan and killed and kidnapped hundreds of Pakistani soldiers and paramilitary forces. Allied Taliban groups fought successful campaigns against the Pakistani military in the tribal agencies and the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier Province.

The violence forced the Pakistani government to the negotiating table. This year, the government signed peace deals in North Waziristan, Swat, Bajaur, Malakand, and Mohmand. Negotiations are under way in Kohat and Mardan.

The Taliban in Khyber

The Pakistani security forces face a group of virulent local Taliban commanders who are often at odds with each other.

Haji Namdar runs a Taliban group called the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice. The Taliban group enforces a strict version of sharia, or Islamic law, and advocates fighting US forces in Afghanistan. Namdar's followers beat Muslims for shaving their beards and neglecting to attend mosque.

Namdar's forces have increased their influence throughout the Khyber agency. His fighters are said to have joined the radical Lashkar-e-Islam. The group is run by Mangal Bagh who claims to have 180,000 fighters.

Lashkar-e-Islam has fought pitched battles with Ansar-ul-Islam, a rival group. Ten people were killed in heavy fighting between the two groups just days ago.

Rivalries between Baitullah Mehsud's movement and Namdar exist. Namdar called for Baitullah's supporters in Khyber to leave the region after a suicide bomber targeted his headquarters in Bara. Twenty of Namdar's supporters were wounded in the attack carried out by the Hakeemullah Group. Hakeemullah Mehsud, Baitullah's deputy, took credit for the attack.

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