5 years, 10 months ago
With the Taliban’s spring offensive just months away, the Afghan front has been quiet as Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have been heavily engaged in fighting security forces in Pakistan’s tribal regions.
But now Taliban leader Mullah Omar has put his foot down and reset the goals for the Taliban: their primary task is the struggle in Afghanistan, not against the Pakistan state.
Mullah Omar has sacked his own appointed leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, the main architect of the fight against Pakistani security forces, and urged all Taliban commanders to turn their venom against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, highly placed contacts in the Taliban told Asia Times Online. Mullah Omar then appointed Moulvi Faqir Mohammed (a commander from Bajaur Agency) but he refused the job. In the past few days, the Pakistani Taliban have held several meetings but have not yet appointed a replacement to Mehsud.
This major development occurred at a time when Pakistan was reaching out with an olive branch to the Pakistani Taliban. Main commanders, including Hafiz Gul Bahadur and the main Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan, Sirajuddin Haqqani, signed peace agreements. But al-Qaeda elements, including Tahir Yuldashev, chief of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, undermined this initiative.
“We refused any peace agreement with the Pakistani security forces and urged the mujahideen fight for complete victory,” Yuldashev said in a jihadi video message seen by Asia Times Online. Yuldashev’s closest aide and disciple, Mehsud, last week carried out an attack on a Pakistani security post and then seized two forts in the South Waziristan tribal area.
As a result, Pakistan bombed South Waziristan and sent in heavy artillery and tanks for a major operation against Mehsud. Other important commanders are now in North Waziristan and they support the peace agreements with the Pakistani security forces.
Pakistan’s strategic quarters maintain the planned operation in South Waziristan is aimed particularly at eliminating Mehsud.
“While talking to government representatives in the jirga [peace council] we could clearly discern a grudge against Baitullah Mehsud and the Mehsud tribes by the security forces. And there are signs that the government is obsessed with a military operation to make Baitullah Mehsud a martyr,” a leading member of the peace jirga in South Waziristan, Maulana Hisamuddin, commented to Voice of America.
Mehsud came into the spotlight after Taliban commander Nek Mohammed was killed in a missile attack in South Waziristan in mid-2004. Nek was from the Wazir tribe, which is considered a rival tribe of the Mehsud. Haji Omar, another Wazir, replaced Nek, but support from Yuldashev and Uzbek militants strengthened Mehsud’s position. He rose through the ranks of the Taliban after becoming acquainted with Mullah Dadullah (killed by US-led forces in May 2007) and Mehsud supplied Dadullah with many suicide bombers.
Dadullah’s patronage attracted many Pakistani jihadis into Mehsud’s fold and by 2007 he was reckoned as the biggest Taliban commander in Pakistan – according to one estimate he alone had over 20,000 fighters.
The link to Dadullah also brought the approval of Mullah Omar, and when the Taliban leader last year revived the “Islamic Emirates” in the tribal areas, Mehsud was appointed as his representative, that is, the chief of the Pakistani Taliban.
Mehsud was expected to provide valuable support to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but instead he directed all his fighters against Pakistani security forces.
With Mehsud now replaced, Mullah Omar will use all Taliban assets in the tribal areas for the struggle in Afghanistan. This leaves Mehsud and his loyalists completely isolated to fight against Pakistani forces.
According to Taliban quarters in Afghanistan that Asia Times Online spoke to recently, the Taliban have well-established pockets around Logar, Wardak and Ghazni, which are all gateways to the capital Kabul.
Many important districts in the southwestern provinces, including Zabul, Helmand, Urzgan and Kandahar, are also under the control of the Taliban. Similarly, districts in the northwestern, including Nimroz, Farah and Ghor, have fallen to the Taliban.
Certainly, the Taliban will be keen to advance from these positions, but they will also concentrate on destroying NATO’s supply lines from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The Taliban launched their first attack in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province on Monday, destroying a convoy of oil tankers destined for NATO’s Kandahar air field.
“If NATO’s supply lines are shut down from Pakistan, NATO will sweat in Afghanistan,” a member of a leading humanitarian organization in Kabul told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. “The only substitute would be air operations, but then NATO costs would sky-rocket.”
Discussion and Commentary
This description points to fractures within the Taliban organization. But rather than simply sacking Mehsud and replacing him with someone loyal to Mullah Omar, it is more likely that the Taliban will continue in two different factions, with Mullah Omar leading the faction associated primarily with Afghanistan, while Mehsud continues to lead his fighters in an insurgency within Pakistan proper. Mehsud is a powerful man and has been blamed for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. He is careful and evasive; ”he travels in a convoy of pickups protected by two dozen heavily armed guards, he rarely sleeps in the same bed twice in a row, and his face has never been photographed.” Assassination of Bhutto is part of a larger plan.
Baitullah and his allies have even grander plans, the Afghan source says. Her assassination is only part of Zawahiri’s long-nurtured plan to destabilize Pakistan and Musharraf’s regime, wage war in Afghanistan, and then destroy democracy in other Islamic countries such as Turkey and Indonesia.
Baitullah’s alleged emergence as the triggerman in this grand scheme illustrates the mutability of the jihadist enemy since 9/11. As recently as June 2004, Iraq was said to be Al Qaeda’s main battleground, and Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi was the terror chieftain whom US authorities worried about most. Baitullah was then a largely unknown subcommander in South Waziristan. But that same month, a US Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone killed Nek Mohammad, the young, dashing and publicity-hungry tribal leader in Waziristan.
Al Qaeda and tribal militants promoted the young Baitullah to a command position … Since then, Zarqawi has been killed by US forces, Iraq has receded as a haven for Al Qaeda, and Baitullah has come into his own as a terrorist leader in newly unstable Pakistan. Last month a council of militant leaders from the tribal agencies and neighboring areas named Baitullah the head of the newly formed Taliban Movement in Pakistan, a loose alliance of jihadist organizations in the tribal agencies.
Taliban sources who would speak only on condition of anonymity describe Baitullah as a key middleman in the jihadist network: his tribesmen provide security for Al Qaeda’s rough-hewn training compounds in the tribal area as well as foot soldiers for Qaeda-designed attacks. With a long tradition as smugglers, the tribals (most of whom, like Baitullah, take Mehsud as their surname) run an extensive nationwide trucking and transport network that reaches from the borderlands into teeming cities like Karachi, allowing Baitullah to easily move men and weapons throughout Pakistan.
Baitullah has clearly outsmarted the unpopular Musharraf, whom President George W. Bush praised again last week as an “ally” who “understands clearly the risks of dealing with extremists and terrorists.” In February 2005, with his military getting bloodied in the tribal areas, the Pakistani president decided to strike a peace deal with Baitullah and other militant leaders and their frontmen.
Under the terms of the deal the militants agreed not to provide assistance or shelter to foreign fighters, not to attack government forces, and not to support the Taliban or launch cross-border operations into Afghanistan. As part of the deal, Baitullah coaxed the government into giving him and the other leaders $540,000 that they supposedly owed to Al Qaeda.
The large cash infusion bolstered the jihadist forces, and under cover of the ceasefire Baitullah’s territory became an even more secure safe haven. He and other militant leaders have assassinated some 200 tribal elders who dared to oppose them. The Pakistani government struck a similar peace agreement with militants in North Waziristan in September 2006, transforming much of that tribal area into a militant camp as well …
In his few statements to the press, Baitullah has made his agenda frighteningly clear. He vowed, in a January 2007 interview, to continue waging a jihad against “the infidel forces of American and Britain,” and to “continue our struggle until foreign troops are thrown out” of neighboring Afghanistan.
From these accounts it is clear that both Mullah Omar and Baitullah Mehsud will likely continue operations, even if Omar intends to focus on Afghanistan and Mehsud intends to carry out operations first in Pakistan. Even if there are fractures at the top levels of the organization, the loyalty of the fighters to the cause will supersede and overcome personality differences. The fight, they say, will continue unabated, having temporarily subsided in the winter. This emphasis is a necessary product of the extremism within the current generation of Taliban. The New York Times recently discussed the relationship of a long-time, elderly religious extremist in Pakistan to the current generation of extremists.
“The religious forces are very divided right now,” I was told by Abdul Hakim Akbari, a childhood friend of Rehman’s and lifelong member of the J.U.I. (Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam) I met Akbari in Dera Ismail Khan, Rehman’s hometown, which is situated in the North-West Frontier Province. According to this past summer’s U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, approved by all 16 official intelligence agencies, Al Qaeda has regrouped in the Tribal Areas adjoining the province and may be planning an attack on the American homeland. “Everyone is afraid,” Akbari told me. “These mujahedeen don’t respect anyone anymore. They don’t even listen to each other. Maulana Fazlur Rehman is a moderate. He wants dialogue. But the Taliban see him as a hurdle to their ambitions. ”
Rehman doesn’t pretend to be a liberal; he wants to see Pakistan become a truly Islamic state. But the moral vigilantism and the proliferation of Taliban-inspired militias along the border with Afghanistan is not how he saw it happening. The emergence of Taliban-inspired groups in Pakistan has placed immense strain on the country’s Islamist community, a strain that may only increase with the assassination of Bhutto. As the rocket attack on Rehman’s house illustrates, the militant jihadis have even lashed out against the same Islamist parties who have coddled them in the past … For now, it is Islamist violence that seems to have the political upper hand rather than the accommodation of Islamist currents within a democratic society …
The jihadist websites haven’t given up on Afghanistan, with Jihad Unspun claiming that “The Taliban have already made it clear that despite the US troop increase in Afghanistan and the new equipment they may be using, it will not deter the increasing number of their attacks. As the harsh Afghan winter retires and the annual spring offensive gets underway, the Taliban are poised for the most aggressive fighting yet.”
But U.S. command in Afghanistan is conveying a far different message than either the Pentagon (which is deploying Marines to deal with the spring offensive) or the Taliban themselves. Army Major General David Rodriguez has flatly stated that NATO won’t have to fight Taliban this spring.
The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is unlikely to stage a spring offensive in the volatile eastern region bordering Pakistan, the commander of U.S. forces in that area said Wednesday.
Army Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez told a Pentagon news conference that Taliban and al-Qaida fighters operating from havens in the largely ungoverned tribal areas of western Pakistan appear to have shifted their focus toward targets inside Pakistan rather than across the border in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think there’ll be a big spring offensive this year,” Rodriguez said.
That is partly due to ordinary Afghans’ disillusionment with the Taliban movement, he said, and partly because the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters see new opportunities to accelerate instability inside Pakistan. He also said Afghan security forces are becoming more effective partners with U.S. forces.
The Taliban has generally staged stepped-up offensives each spring, when the weather is more favorable for ground movement, although an anticipated offensive last spring did not materialize.
U.S. officials have said in recent days that they do expect a spring offensive in the southern area of Afghanistan, a traditional Taliban stronghold where fighting is most intense. That is one reason why Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week approved the deployment of an additional 2,200 Marines to the southern sector where NATO forces are in command.
Unstated in this account is that the Taliban didn’t need to stage a spring offensive in 2007 because they have transitioned to insurgency and terrorist tactics rather than more conventional kinetic engagements with U.S. forces. According to the Afghanistan NGO Security Office, the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan is “just beginning.” They further state that “We totally disagree with those who assert that the spring offensive did not happen and would instead argue that a four-fold increase in armed opposition group initiated attacks between February to July constitutes a very clear-cut offensive.”
It isn’t clear why Rodriguez is singing the praises of the campaign in Afghanistan when the recent battle for Musa Qala failed to provide proof of principle for the British strategy of trying to negotiate with the Taliban, and there are shattered illusions of peace in Kabul after the recent bombing of the Serena hotel. “The Taliban are following a new strategy, their spokesman announced. They will go after civilians specifically, and will bring their mayhem to places where foreigners congregate.”
But what is clear is that the Taliban have safe haven in the tribal area of Pakistan, and the recent launch of a Pakistani offensive against them with approximately 600 troops – less than a Battalion sized force – will be met with stiff resistance from Mehsud, who has warned them to stay away. Mehsud himself will avoid capture, and whether the Taliban launch a spring “offensive,” they will certainly continue the insurgency within both Pakistan and Afghanistan until the U.S. employs significant force projection.