Holding Terrain in Afghanistan: Pakistan’s Games of Duplicity Part III

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 9 months ago

In response to U.S. Marine Corps Combat Action in Sangin, Old Warrior said:

… in my mind, if you go to war, go to war right. They are completely robbing most of these young men of the resources that are available to them. Also, as long as the Taliban is crossing over from Pakistan every minute, they will never cease to multiply and that blood vessel needs to be cut quickly. For every Taliban these men kill, another hundred cross the border to replace them. The fundamental strategy of this war is faulty, and it saddens me to see the young, brave men of the infantry, in particular, have to pay the price with their lives. -0311 Vietnam

Recall Lt. Col Allen West’s counsel regarding the difference between occupying terrain and chasing the enemy where he establishes himself.  Population-centric counterinsurgency isn’t any different than occupying physical terrain in time and space, except that the terrain is the mind and will of the population.  That’s why we have “human terrain teams” deployed in Afghanistan (and did in Iraq).

But just like the 80-100 foreign fighters crossing the Syrian border into Iraq for many months on end, and the Quds forces who came across the Iran-Iraq border (many even before the war began), Afghanistan is a theater in a larger, transnational insurgency.  In fact, the problem is even more pronounced in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq.  Iraq was a country.  It’s best not to think of Afghanistan as a country.  It’s also best not to think of the Taliban as a Pashtun insurgency.  It isn’t.  There are Uzbeks, Arabs, Afghanis, Pakistanis and others involved (even a smattering of Europeans).

In Games of Duplicity and the End of Tribe in Pakistan, and then again in Pakistan’s Games of Duplicity Part II, we discussed Pakistan’s gaming the system of largesse with U.S. lawmakers and various U.S. administrations.  There is an important intersecting issue here pertaining to a much-discussed Taliban and al Qaeda ideological alignments.  I previously observed that:

… they have evolved into a much more radical organization than the original Taliban bent on global engagement, what Nicholas Schmidle calls the Next-Gen Taliban. The TTP shout to passersby in Khyber “We are Taliban! We are mujahedin! “We are al-Qaida!”  There is no distinction.  A Pakistan interior ministry official has even said that the TTP and al Qaeda are one and the same.

Finally, recall our discussions of David Rohde’s remarkable captivity by the Taliban and his subsequent escape to Pakistani Army forces.  At the time I found it especially troubling and even somewhat amusing how little the presence of Pakistani forces mattered to Taliban sanctuary.  Now comes a report by The Nation that adds to our knowledge base of the events surrounding David’s captivity and escape, and the collusion of Pakistani ISI with the Taliban.  Extensive quoting is necessary.

On a Friday night in June 2009, New York Times reporter David Rohde and his translator made a dramatic escape from captivity in Pakistan, climbing over a wall while their Afghan Taliban guards slept. Rohde wore sandals and a traditional salwar kameez, and he had a long beard, grown during his seven-month imprisonment. The two men walked in the darkness of the city, a Taliban ministate, past mud-brick huts, and found their way to a Pakistani military base just minutes away.

Rohde had been a prisoner shared by two competing groups of Taliban fighters, both of which appear to have held him not as a political or military tool in their operations against the US and Afghan governments but for his monetary value as a hostage.

Rohde’s escape was an unexpectedly joyous ending to a harrowing episode for him, his wife, his colleagues and friends. But it was by no means the end of the story.

An Afghan who is well acquainted with several of the participants in the kidnapping has provided The Nation and the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute with new details about the perpetrators, as well as new information about what happened after Rohde’s escape. This source’s account reveals how Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) serves as an arbiter for the various Taliban groups that compete with one another for influence, loot and profits. According to the source, the ISI, acting on behalf of one Taliban faction, took two of Rohde’s guards into custody to interrogate them about how he escaped. Then, despite its knowledge of the men’s role in the kidnapping, the ISI simply set them free.

Though this new information merely lends more substance to already strong suspicions about the ISI’s close relationship with the Taliban, it’s still an explosive allegation: rather than cooperating with US authorities, Pakistan’s intelligence agency essentially became an accessory after the fact to Rohde’s kidnapping.

[ ... ]

After capturing Rohde, Najibullah quickly saw dollar signs. Realizing that he might have to hold on to Rohde for a long time to shake loose real money in ransom, Najibullah brought him to Pakistan, where the American reporter, his translator and his driver were placed in the custody of the Haqqani network. Rohde, in his forthcoming book, explains how he had made a mistake his second night in captivity: desperate to stay alive, he told Najibullah that he could be traded for “prisoners and millions of dollars.”

The Haqqanis, a mujahedeen clan from Khost province, may be some of the most effective commanders battling US forces. They deploy terrorist tactics—waves of well-trained attackers wearing explosive vests deployed in operations such as the assault on the Kabul guesthouses, the assassination attempt against Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a series of large-scale actions against US combat outposts on the border near Pakistan.

The Haqqanis were even more effective against the Soviets in the 1980s, when they worked closely with the CIA. The late former Congressman Charles Wilson famously referred to Jalaluddin Haqqani back then as “goodness personified.” A former agency official who used to know Jalaluddin said, “I really regret the fact that we are tangling with him, because he is not a guy to fuck around with.”

When the United States invaded Afghanistan, the Haqqanis sided with the Taliban, not Karzai. By 2002 the Haqqanis were almost on the ropes. Jalaluddin was injured in a US bombing raid. So the younger generation took over. Jalaluddin’s son Siraj, trained like his father in the twin arts of paramilitary warfare and charismatic religious leadership, was now in charge.

The Haqqanis are also known to live well. “They do business,” The Nation’s source said. “They’ve done business for years. They are involved in war, but if they find some business opportunity, they do it. They like buying houses and selling them and stuff like that. Now they have trucks and trucking equipment in Peshawar.”

Rohde’s kidnapping was in essence a business opportunity. Najibullah, the young commander who first captured Rohde, was not a subordinate of the Haqqanis; but by bringing Rohde to them, he would build up his reputation with the clan, giving him a safe base from which to conduct negotiations. Najibullah and his men brought Rohde across Afghanistan’s border to the Haqqanis to make it easier to hold him for an extended period, according to the source familiar with the kidnapping. In Pakistan, they figured, they were safe from American rescue efforts, since they understood that the Haqqanis had the protection of the ISI …

The Nation’s Afghan source said that guarding Rohde was a task shared by Najibullah and the Haqqanis, who provided the logistical support, housing and a secure environment in which to operate near Afghanistan. With so much money at stake, each faction was mistrustful of the other. Of Rohde’s three chief guards, one was a Haqqani loyalist and two were Najibullah’s men. So important was this operation to Najibullah that he had his brother Timor Shah act as a full-time guard for Rohde. (These details are corroborated in Rohde’s book.)

Not only were the Haqqanis and Najibullah eager to use Rohde for profit but the main Taliban Shura—the head council that oversees the Afghan Taliban—hoped to get involved as well, according to The Nation’s source …

Throughout his captivity, Rohde was well aware of the likely connections between the ISI and the Haqqanis who held him, though he said no ISI agents made themselves known during his captivity. “I didn’t witness any direct contact between the ISI and the Haqqanis.” That said, he was living proof, in a sense, that Pakistani authorities gave the Haqqanis full freedom to do as they liked. “What I did see,” he emphasized, “was that Pakistan forces never came off their bases, and the Haqqanis were allowed to operate their own Taliban ministate in North Waziristan.”

In Pakistan, Rohde’s escape was devastating for the Taliban. Not only had they lost their prize prisoner but the loss caused the Haqqanis and Najibullah to turn on each other. They were both convinced, in a case of mirror imaging, that the other one must have released Rohde as part of a secret arrangement in which they kept the ransom money for themselves. Instead of suspecting incompetence on the part of the guards, they believed someone was cheating and getting rich.

“There was a big problem between Siraj [Haqqani] and Najibullah,” the source familiar with the kidnappers told me. “A huge issue. Siraj was blaming Najibullah, that he’s the one who took money from the Americans and let the guy go. 
And [Najibullah] was blaming him, that he did it, because it was his compound.”

Even the Taliban Shura in Quetta got involved, the source said. They “thought that Siraj kept the money.”

To arbitrate the dispute about the kidnapping, the Haqqanis turned to the Pakistan government’s intelligence service, according to The Nation’s source. Siraj, the source said, turned over the two guards affiliated with Najibullah to the ISI for questioning. “One of them,” the source said, “was Najib’s brother Timor Shah.”

The guards were allegedly interrogated fiercely and tortured by the ISI. The interrogators demanded to know exactly how Rohde had escaped. Who had let him go, and why? Were the men paid a ransom they had not shared? In other words, the ISI was making sure that the relations between the Taliban factions weren’t destroyed by anyone’s betrayal.

Once the ISI was convinced that there had been no bribes and no ransom, Rohde’s guards were set free. Despite their role in the kidnapping, they were not charged in court or handed over to the Americans. After more than a month in custody, they were let go.

First, while this report ends with musings on civil war within the Taliban, there is no such war.  There might be individuals who battle each other for preeminence, but the various factions seem to me to get along remarkably well, from the Tehrik-i-Taliban to the Haqqani network, to the Quetta Shura, to al Qaeda.  Anyone who questions the religious and ideological underpinnings of Jalaluddin Haqqani’s fighters should make sure to watch this interview by the NEFA Foundation.  Regardless of the internecine battles, the Taliban factions are well connected.

Second, we have previously focused in on Matthew Hoh’s arguments to get out of Afghanistan because the enemy is in Pakistan.

Advocating disengagement from Afghanistan is tantamount to suggesting that one front against the enemy would be better than two, and that one nation involved in the struggle would be better than two (assuming that Pakistan would keep up the fight in our total absence, an assumption for which I see no basis).  It’s tantamount to suggesting that it’s better to give the Taliban and al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan as Pakistan presses them from their side, or that it’s better to give them safe haven in Pakistan while we press them from our side.  Both suggestions are preposterous.

This isn’t about nation-states and imaginary boundaries.  When we think this way we do err in that we superimpose a Western model on a region of the world where it doesn’t apply.  This is about a transnational insurgency, and it’s never better to give the enemy more land, more latitude, more space, more people, more money, and more safety.  Any arguments to this effect are mistaken at a very fundamental level.

Seeing things in terms of Pakistan or Afghanistan is a category error.  We aren’t dealing with European nation-states, but dangerous waters in which rogue elements freely swim, where they exchange ideas and are increasingly becoming radicalized, and where elements of the Pakistani ISI collude with the enemy rather than fight them.

As we focus on physical and human terrain in Afghanistan, it has become painfully obvious that no amount of focus or effort will secure that terrain when the very insurgents we fight are supported by the Pakistani ISI and given both safe haven and free passage across the border.

Finally, the Durand line is imaginary, and unless we chase and kill the insurgents where they are, the campaign in Afghanistan is doomed.  The press is filled with positive reports lately about progress in Afghanistan, but wherever the ebb or flow of the war is, they enemy awaits our withdrawal to reclaim his own territory.  Pakistan is an enemy in this campaign, not an ally.  Unless we take clear-headed action in the coming months to address this problem, not only will the opportunity to win the campaign be lost, but the opportunity to use this theater to wage war on our enemy will have been relinquished.  We will not find a better theater than this one.




You are currently reading "Holding Terrain in Afghanistan: Pakistan’s Games of Duplicity Part III", entry #5770 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,al Qaeda,David Rohde,Haqqani Network,Pakistan,Taliban and was published November 21st, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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