A world of conflict since 9/11
Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan
The Taliban were said to have been defeated after an allied invasion of Afghanistan in 2003. In fact, as usual in that country, they have merely been dormant, regrouping and revising their strategy. By winter, they may well control Helmand and other provinces.
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
THREE years ago a United States commander made a casual remark about a spring offensive to be launched against the Taliban in his area, southwest Afghanistan. That fired the imagination of the Taliban leadership, and each year their central command threatened an imminent offensive as a reprisal against the western forces. However, there was no sign of an offensive until the Taliban went into action this spring.
The Taliban leadership in the southwest spent much of 2005 preparing: training workshops led by veterans from the Iraqi resistance taught a revised programme of terror tactics to be deployed by pro-Taliban forces in the secluded Pakistan-administered tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, tucked behind the porous Durand Line. Scattered groups of heavily armed tribal Pashtuns and a mosaic of ideological mercenaries (including Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens and Afghans) regrouped after the fall of Kandahar at makeshift mini-bases south of the border.
The spring offensive was aimed at revitalising pro-Taliban groupings in the southwest rather than provoking an uprising against the government of Hamid Karzai. But first the seemingly disparate groups in these two tribal areas needed to be reunited and mobilised. The objective of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s supreme guide, was to strike a life-threatening blow in southwest Afghanistan to the morale of the mighty US war machine, and to proclaim mastery over southern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s adjoining tribal areas: to prepare the way for the return of the Taliban as a major regional force.
In early spring there were just the usual limited sporadic encounters, leaving their evidence of unburied dead scattered across the mountainous terrain. But in May a seemingly insignificant visit by an emissary from the Taliban central command to the bases in Waziristan radically altered the balance of power in southwest Afghanistan. The emissary was Mullah Dadullah, a Taliban commander with an astute sense of diplomacy.
Dadullah, 40, has a long bushy beard and sharp Kandahari features; he is among the most feared military chieftains in the region. His ability to mediate successfully among the warring factions ahead of the spring offensive was an additional feather in his military cap.
Dadullah, who comes from Helmand province near Kandahar, had a rigorous education in 1994 in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s large western province of Baluchistan. He joined the Taliban at its inception. He was wounded at the Maidan Shehr front near Kabul and lost his left leg. In recognition of services rendered, he was chosen as a key commander of the northern front, with 12,000 troops under his control.
In the late 1990s Dadullah inflicted a decisive defeat at Kunduz on the battle-hardened veterans of the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) led by the former prime minister and strongman, Gulbaddin Hekmatyar. The results justified the confidence that Mullah Omar had in his protégé’s diplomatic skills. It was natural that Dadullah would rise to the top echelons of the Taliban hierarchy and play a decisive role in preparing the 2006 spring offensive.
Winning hearts and minds
Throughout 2005 the Taliban leadership concentrated on restoring full relations with elements of the political leadership in Kabul, whether ostensible collaborators with the US or loyal dissidents. Fresh emissaries were dispatched to semi-autonomous warlords, whose fluctuating domains spanned most of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Crucially, the Taliban initiated strategically valuable contacts with two important groups from the militant mujahideen factions that played a major role in chasing the Russians from Afghanistan: a faction of the HIA and another Hizb faction led by the hardline orthodox cleric, Moulvi Younus Khalis.
Given the hostility between the Hekmatyar and Khalis factions of the Hizb, getting them to join a common anti-Karzai platform was a notable triumph for the Taliban’s diplomacy. An added success was persuading formerly hostile Pashtun commanders, as well as their Tajik and Uzbek counterparts, to synchronise their actions with the resurgent Taliban force in southwest Afghanistan.
During his journey through the two Waziristans, Dadullah distributed copies of a letter from Mullah Omar which read: “Immediately stop attacks on the Pakistani security forces. This is serious chaos and cannot be termed true Islamic jihad. The jihad has been launched . . . so come to Afghanistan to join the jihad against the Americans and their infidel allies.” The charismatic Mullah Omar had always influenced the pro-Taliban commanders and his message had a magical effect. All bowed their heads: 27,000 men in North Waziristan and 13,000 in South Waziristan announced a ceasefire with Pakistan’s army.
Pro-Taliban groups in Waziristan regrouped in the towns of Shawal and Birmal, in Shakai in the south and near the Ghulam Khan mountains in the north.
Dadullah exploited his visit to the limit. In March a three-man delegation was sent by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq) to Afghanistan, where they met Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri (al-Qaida’s number two) and Mullah Omar. They pledged their allegiance to Mullah Omar on behalf of al-Zarqawi and recognised him as a top resistance leader in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The delegation brought audio and video material justifying suicide attacks. There was no precedent for this in conservative, observant Afghanistan: suicide is strictly prohibited in Islam. There had recently been a few suicide operations, but they were isolated incidents and never turned into an effective strategy.
Dadullah set out to win hearts and minds in order to develop an organised strategy of suicide attacks for the 2006 offensive. He showed audio and video material from the Iraqi resistance which explained that suicide attacks were permitted and demonstrated how the Iraqis used them as their most effective weapon. He managed to convince groups from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, as well as Waziristan.
A first group of 450 recruits came from the Kunar Valley. They included 70 women, mostly from Arab and Central Asian countries whose menfolk had been killed in Afghanistan or Waziristan, plus a few locals motivated by husbands or fathers. That was just the tip of the iceberg.
At the same time the Taliban launched sporadic attacks with their few thousand scattered men, with the help of local warlords in regions of Afghanistan. A reinforcement of 40,000 from Waziristan greatly helped the spring offensive, under the overall command of the veteran Jalaluddin Haqqani.
Second only to Mullah Omar
This small, thin man had a string of victories against the Russians to his name, especially the fall of Khost to the mujahideen in 1991. After Khost, Soviet power collapsed like a house of cards and the mujahideen were able to seize control of Kabul in 1992.
Haqqani, unlike Afghanistan’s other leaders and commanders, unconditionally surrendered Khost when the Taliban emerged in 1994. He was not a talib (student) nor part of the movement, so the Taliban paid him no attention. Though he became minister for border areas under the Taliban (in power from 1996-2001), they did not consult him on policy matters. When the Taliban retreated in December 2001 before the US and its allies, Haqqani offered sanctuary in his home in North Waziristan to all fighters fleeing Tora Bora, Kabul and other fronts. Though the Taliban did not heed his advice (which had been to retain their control on Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces and make Gardez their front line) and evacuated all provinces, Haqqani remained loyal to Mullah Omar.
As the spring offensive took shape, Mullah Omar provided Haqqani with all the resources, money and men he needed. Haqqani is now the most powerful person in Afghanistan, second only to Mullah Omar.
He reinforced his connections with commanders all over Afghanistan — Uzbeks, Tajiks and Pashtuns — and sent hundreds of tough young men to these warlords, who were mostly not Taliban. The provinces of Herat, Logar and Laghman were the weakest links in the Taliban resistance. Haqqani made a deal with local warlords whereby they agreed to provide sanctuary for his men and a base for suicide attacks in return for large sums of money. He also formed groups of fighters and sent them to the border provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, Paktia and Paktika.
It was agreed that local fighters would engage in wildcat guerrilla operations while Haqqani’s men would undertake suicide missions against coalition forces.
A 10-man command was set up, each responsible for a different region, although Mullah Omar exercises overall control through a permanent emissary, his former defence minister, Ubaidullah Akhund.
In June and July the results of the strategy became clear. They were surprising. The Taliban seemed to have penetrated deep into Karzai-US alliance territory from Kabul to Kandahar; suicide attacks rattled the nerves of the coalition forces and confined them to the major cities. The Taliban had waited for that since 2003.
Dadullah joined in the action in southwestern Afghanistan, occupying many districts of Kandahar, Urzgan, Zabul and Helmand, and booting out the local Afghan administration. It was a signal to sympathisers that the Taliban were back and their local support revived.
Haqqani delegated his powers in his stronghold Paktia province to the former governor of the Taliban-ruled Nanagarhar province, Maulvi Abdul Kabir. He was not a war veteran but, with Haqqani’s help, has won easy victories. The local warlords loyal to Haqqani and the loyal Punjabi fighters are the Taliban’s greatest strength.
A new strategy
There is now a new strategy. As soon as US aircraft join the action, the Taliban retreat to safe zones. When the coalition troops advance, helped by Afghan forces, they encounter hidden bombs and suicide attacks that are inflicting losses on a scale unknown since the alliance first defeated the Taliban in 2001.
In the east of Afghanistan the situation is different. The regions of Kunar and Nuristan, always hostile to foreign invaders (the Russians could not occupy Nuristan), have never been a fertile ground for Taliban propaganda. Most of the population of Kunar and Nuristan is Salafist and therefore diametrically opposed to the Taliban’s Hanafi thinking. Most of the commanders there were loyal to the Salafist Sheikh Jameelur Rahman; the rest were loyal to Hekmatyar or to the late Ahmed Shah Massoud.
The most powerful commander, Kashmir Khan, was loyal to Hekmatyar and had always been a problem for the Taliban. But when Hekmatyar returned from Iran, Khan fought the coalition forces, albeit independently, since the Taliban did not trust him and he did not wish to join forces with them. Thanks to his contacts Haqqani was able to install Commander Mohammed Ismael in Kunar. The Taliban limited their actions to explosions and suicide operations, with sporadic guerrilla attacks on the coalition forces.
By July the Taliban seemed successful in the south. Every day they captured new districts — Musa Qila, Sangin, Panjwayi. The coalition troops then recaptured the ground. This game cannot last long. The Taliban have reason to believe they will occupy southwest Afghanistan before the start of the winter.