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American soldiers have launched a major operation this week that has seen hundreds of US and Afghan troops mass near Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, raising suspicions over a possible unilateral military strike in North Waziristan. If undertaken, the assault would end years of frustration with Pakistani military inaction concerning Islamic terrorists who take refuge there after staging hit-and-run attacks against American and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Called “Operation Knife Edge,” the allied forces are deploying right up to the Pakistani border with helicopter gunships and heavy artillery, blocking the main road between the two countries and conducting house-to-house searches. An Afghan Defense Ministry official said the operation was “largely against the Haqqani network,” the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) and the Afghan security forces’ chief threat in eastern Afghanistan. Last month, Haqqani fighters carried out an assault in Kabul itself that saw the US embassy attacked. They also wounded 21 US troops in a bombing in Wardak province.
“These networks are directly responsible for recent attacks against the people of Afghanistan and coalition forces,” said US captain Justin Brockhoff.
After US Navy Seals flew deep into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden last May at his luxury compound in Abbottabad where he was living undisturbed, the Pakistani government warned the United States not to violate Pakistani sovereignty again. But Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, admits American forces may cross the border during this current operation, but this time to confront the Haqqani organization.
“They [USA] may do it, but they will have to think ten times because Pakistan is not Iraq or Afghanistan,” General Kiyani told the Pakistani politicians on Tuesday.
A story in the Washington Post last month further indicates Operation Knife Edge may extend into Pakistani territory. It states that American government officials warned their Pakistani counterparts a week after September’s US embassy attack that the United States would take unilateral action against the Haqqani network if they did not do so. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters the United States is going “to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our forces,” which could be interpreted as an ultimatum.
The American government has long been aware of the ties between the Haqqani network and Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) and wants these bonds cut. In a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last month, Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even accused the Pakistanis of waging a “proxy war” in Afghanistan through the Haqqani organization. Mullen told his audience he had had a four hour conversation with Pakistan’s army chief that included discussing “the need for the ISI to disconnect from Haqqani.”
Pakistani officials, naturally, deny any such ties exist. Which is not unexpected from a government that says it did not know bin Laden was living comfortably in its midst for so many years.
North Waziristan is a rugged, mountainous tribal area in north-western Pakistan that borders Afghanistan’s Khost province. The Haqqani network, headed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, made its name fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, for which he received American and Pakistani help. Pakistan’s tribal territories also served as his base during that conflict.
Haqqani took part in the civil war in Afghanistan after the Soviets were driven out and later sided with the Taliban, becoming a minister in the Taliban government. He fled back to the Pakistani tribal area after the 2001 US-led invasion and resumed guerrilla warfare there, but this time against NATO and Afghan government troops. He also became closely allied with al-Qaeda and may now be sheltering some of its members in North Waziristan.
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