ISLAMABAD – The year 2009 was a second watershed in the Taliban-led struggle against foreign forces in Afghanistan as the resistance took the war, previously limited mainly to the south and western parts of the country, to north and eastern provinces. In 2006, the Taliban emerged for the first time as a coherent force since being toppled from power by the United States-led invasion in late 2001.
As the battle ground has extended, new groups have joined in, fighting in the Taliban’s name alongside old-guard Taliban commanders.
For the Western coalition, this sprawling growth of the Taliban is seen as a possible blessing in disguise as it could lead to a dilution of the power of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, opening space for a third force that would push for a political settlement to end the fighting and lead in turn to the eventual withdrawal of the US.
Against this backdrop, President Hamid Karzai has called for a jirga (council) peace process to start by the last week of this month.
An outbreak of militancy in the districts of Chaparhar, Khogiani, Sherzad and near Jalalabad in eastern Nangarhar province, which is the main North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supply route from the Pakistani border to Bagram air base near Kabul, is one of the larger threats to emerge recently. About 80% of NATO’s supplies pass along this route.
Another threat comes from Kunduz province in the north, through which NATO’s alternative supply route runs from the Central Asian republics to Bagram.
Nangarhar’s militants are led by commanders from the group of the late Moulvi Younus Khalis, who headed his own faction of the Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA). The newer groups in the provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan and Kapisa are associated with a faction of the HIA led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
These groups comprise a new generation fighting more on nationalistic lines than on any blend of particular ideology of the Taliban. While Taliban is still the generic name of the struggle and Mullah Omar is the symbolic figurehead, NATO believes these groups could become an amenable third force.
Events in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, the nerve center of the Taliban’s and al-Qaeda’s struggle in the region, have also taken a twist in recent months, raising the prospect of unrest in the troubled region.
Revolution in base camp
Powerful military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, especially in South Waziristan, the killing of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud last year and daily drone attacks have turned the organizational structures of the tribal militants upside down, as well as their relations with Punjabi militants and their ideological affinities with al-Qaeda. And last but not least, the allegiance of the tribals to the Taliban-led resistance in Afghanistan is being tested.
At the beginning of 2010, in the face of military operations, a stream of fighters from the Mehsud tribe of South Waziristan moved to North Waziristan, where they were given shelter by Afghan Taliban commander Sirajuddin Haqqani and the chief of the Taliban in North Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadur. Both commanders had ceasefire agreements with the Pakistani armed forces.
Members of the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi (LJ – an anti-Shi’ite militant group) who were desperately wanted by the Pakistani security forces and who had been under the protection of Baitullah Mehsud, also moved to North Waziristan.
These various “refugee” groups spread throughout North Waziristan, including the town of Mir Ali, turning them into bases. The influx of fighters was so strong that they almost outnumbered local groups and in a matter of months this combination of Mehsud and LJ militants aimed to take control of everything, including the adoption of al-Qaeda’s ideology and strategy.
In the face of constant drone attacks and with the fear of a massive military operation being launched against them at any moment, these groups have been united. There are, though, big differences between the Afghan national resistance, al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and those who claim to be associated with al-Qaeda.
The group seeking ideological dominance in Mir Ali was once linked to the LJ, whose mentor was the slain Tahir Yuldashev, leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan when he operated from South Waziristan. The underpinning of their belief is to stage an Islamic revolution in Pakistan by creating chaos. They were responsible for several assassination attempts on former president Pervez Musharraf and the killing of ex-premier Benazir Bhutto in 2007.
The recent episode of the abduction and killing of former Pakistani intelligence official Khalid Khawaja is an illustration of how they openly refuse orders from Mullah Omar and Bahadur; they have even threatened to kill al-Qaeda members.
The so-called Asian Tigers who abducted Khawaja – they are still holding Colonel Ameer Sultan Tarrar, nicknamed “Colonel Imam” – are a breakaway faction of the LJ. They are headed by a person who uses several names, including Muhammad Umar (as spokesman of the Taliban’s media center), Imran Mota in Pakistan and Usman Punjabi in the tribal areas.
Most of Usman’s members are Pashtuns of the Mehsud tribe who used to live in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi, where they developed their affiliation with the anti-Shi’ite LJ. This group is also linked with Qari Hussain, one of the masterminds of the brazen attack on a Central Intelligence Agency base in Afghanistan in December 2009.
For the activities of the Asian Tigers in North Waziristan, the alias of Usman Punjabi has been cunningly chosen – there is another Usman Punjabi in the area, the driver of Ilyas Kashmiri, head of the notorious 313 Brigade and an affiliate of al-Qaeda. (The position of driver among militants is similar to that of an important lieutenant.)
When Usman (of the Tigers) abducted Khawaja and Colonel Imam in March, blame initially fell on Kashmiri and his driver. This upset Kashmiri, but when he approached the Tiger leader to complain, he was told in no uncertain manner to back off, or his (Kashmiri’s) group would be attacked.
The Tigers’ Usman ignored pleas from Mullah Omar that Khawaja be freed, and continues to dismiss the Taliban leader’s instructions that Colonel Imam be released, saying that he wants evidence, such as an audio or video message, of Mullah Omar in person.
“There is a consensus on one issue among all the groups in North Waziristan, and that is that these so-called Asian Tigers are a plant of a foreign intelligence agency to draw the local mujahideen and the Pakistani armed forces into a broader conflict [an operation in North Waziristan],” an al-Qaeda-linked militant told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity, because according to him a consultation process is underway on what action to take against the Asian Tigers.
“We contacted the family of Khalid Khawaja immediately after his abduction and made it clear that no mujahideen group [belonging to al-Qaeda] was involved in the abduction. At the moment we are investigating the issue whether these people [Asian Tigers] were unintentionally used by any foreign intelligence agency or whether they were actually working for them. Either way, action will be taken against them accordingly,” the militant said.
The accusations that the Asian Tigers are in some way connected with a foreign intelligence agency are unproven, but they do expose the fragility of the unity among militants.
It would be in the interests of Pakistan and the US to exploit any cracks, but, ironically, if the plans for a military operation in North Waziristan were shelved and drone attacks stopped, an internecine conflict between the old guard of the Taliban and al-Qaeda and the new self-acclaimed Taliban and al-Qaeda would undoubtedly erupt, with profound consequences for the war across the border.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Asia Times, 18 May 2010