Ragtag Taliban Show Tenacity in Afghanistan

The New York Times

August 4, 2008, Kabul, Afghanistan – Six years after being driven from power, the Taliban are demonstrating a resilience and a ferocity that are raising alarm here, in Washington and in other NATO capitals, and engendering a fresh round of soul-searching over how a relatively ragtag insurgency has managed to keep the world’s most powerful armies at bay.

The mounting toll inflicted by the insurgents, including nine American soldiers killed in a single attack last month, has turned Afghanistan into a deadlier battlefield than Iraq and refocused the attention of America’s military commanders and its presidential contenders on the Afghan war.

But the objectives of the war have become increasingly uncertain in a conflict where Taliban leaders say they do not feel the need to control territory, at least for now, or to outfight American and NATO forces to defeat them — only to outlast them in a region that is in any case their home.

The Taliban’s tenacity, military officials and analysts say, reflects their success in maintaining a cohesive leadership since being driven from power in Afghanistan, their ability to attract a continuous stream of recruits and their advantage in having a haven across the border in Pakistan.

While the Taliban enjoy such a sanctuary, they will be very hard to beat, military officials say, and American officials have stepped up pressure on Pakistan in recent weeks to take more action against the Taliban and other militants there. That included a visit last month by a top official of the Central Intelligence Agency who, American officials say, confronted senior Pakistani leaders about ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Pakistani officials say those ties, which stretch back decades, have been broken. But there is no doubt that the Taliban continue to use Pakistan to train, recruit, regroup and resupply their insurgency.

The advantage of that haven in Pakistan, even beyond the lawless tribal realms, has allowed the Taliban leadership to exercise uninterrupted control of its insurgency through the same clique of mullahs and military commanders who ran Afghanistan as a theocracy and harbored Osama bin Laden until they were driven from power in December 2001.

The Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, a one-eyed cleric and war veteran, is widely believed by Afghan and Western officials to be based in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan Province in Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan.

He runs a shadow government, complete with military, religious and cultural councils, and has appointed officials and commanders to virtually every Afghan province and district, just as he did when he ruled Afghanistan, the Taliban claim.

He oversees his movement through a grand council of 10 people, the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahed, said in a telephone interview.

Mullah Bradar, one of the Taliban’s most senior and ruthless commanders, who has been cited by human rights groups for committing massacres, serves as his first deputy. He passes down Mullah Omar’s commands and makes all military decisions, including how foreign fighters are deployed, according to Waheed Muzhta, a former Taliban Foreign Ministry official who lives in Kabul and follows the progress of the Taliban through his own research.

The Taliban even produce their own magazine, Al Somood, published online in Arabic, where details of their leadership structure can be found, he said.

But while the Taliban may be united politically, the insurgency remains poorly coordinated at operational and strategic levels, said Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of the NATO force in Afghanistan.

Taliban forces cannot hold territory, and they cannot defeat NATO forces in a direct fight, other NATO officials say. They also note that scores of senior and midlevel Taliban commanders have been killed over the past year, weakening the insurgents, especially in the south.

Three senior members of the grand council were killed in 2007, and others have been detained, Mr. Muzhta said. The military council has lost 6 of its 29 members in recent years, he said. Despite their losses, however, the Taliban repeatedly express confidence that the United States and its allies will grow weary of a thankless war in a foreign land, withdraw and leave Afghanistan open for a return of the Taliban to power.

The Taliban say they need little in the way of arms or matériel. “The Taliban are now mounting a hit-and-run war against their enemies,” Mr. Mujahed, the spokesman, said. “It doesn’t need much money or weapons compared to what the foreign troops are spending.”

Even so, Western officials say the Taliban have a steady stream of financing from Afghanistan’s opium trade, as well as from traders, mosques, jihad organizations and sympathizers in the region, and Arab countries.

At the same time, Taliban leaders can still exploit their position as moral authorities — Taliban means religious students — which gives them overarching power over the various commanders, bandits, smugglers and insurgents fighting around Afghanistan.

That aura is increasingly terrifying. Known for their harsh rule when in power, the Taliban have turned even more ruthless out of power, and for the first time they have shown great cruelty even toward their fellow Pashtun tribesmen.

The Taliban have used terrorist tactics — which include beheadings, abductions, death threats and summary executions of people accused of being spies — as well as a skillful propaganda campaign, to make the insurgency seem more powerful and omnipresent than it really is.

“The increasing use of very public attacks has had a striking effect on morale far beyond the immediate victims,” the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit group that seeks to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts, said in a recent report.

Some of that brutality may be attributed to the growing influence of Al Qaeda, but much of it has by now taken root within the insurgents’ ranks.

After the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Al Qaeda and the Taliban both sought refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which have since become a breeding ground where they and other foreign fighters have found common cause against the American forces in Afghanistan and have shared terrorist tactics and insurgent strategies.

Pakistan’s tribal areas along the border are now the main pool to recruit fighters for Afghanistan, General McKiernan said. Pakistani insurgent groups in the region — Pakistani Taliban — have also become a potent threat to the security and stability of Pakistan itself.

Jihad does not recognize borders, the Taliban like to say, and indeed much unites the Taliban on both sides of the border. They share a common Pashtun heritage, a longstanding disregard for the Afghan-Pakistani border drawn by the British and the goal of establishing a theocracy that would impose Islamic law, or Shariah.

In fact, the dispatches of the Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, carry the symbol of the Islamic Emirate, the name the Afghan Taliban used for their government.

Mr. Mehsud and his cohort have sworn allegiance to the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, as well as to Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former minister in the Taliban government who now commands Taliban forces in much of eastern Afghanistan.

Western military officials often describe Mr. Haqqani as running a distinct network with close links to Arab members of Al Qaeda, but he and his followers have also proclaimed allegiance to Mullah Omar.

Even Mr. bin Laden has paid tribute to Mullah Omar as Amir ul-Momineen, or Leader of the Faithful, the paramount religious leader.

To avoid jeopardizing their sanctuary or their hosts, however, the Taliban have always maintained the pretence that their leadership is based inside Afghanistan and that the insurgency is made up entirely of Afghans.

The two Afghan Taliban spokesmen, Mr. Mujahed and Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, who speak regularly by telephone to local journalists, never reveal their whereabouts. They profess sympathy for their Muslim brothers, the Pakistani Taliban, but deny that there is any joint leadership or unified strategy.

They also claim that the Afghan Taliban broke with Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attacks, which led to the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government dismisses those claims, however, and insists that the Taliban on both sides of the border are directed by Pakistani intelligence officials with the aim of destabilizing Afghanistan and maintaining some sway over their neighbor.

While the Pakistani government was one of the only supporters of the Taliban government when it was in power from 1996 to 2001, today the Pakistani authorities profess not to know the whereabouts of Mullah Omar or his colleagues.

But Afghan and NATO officials say the Taliban today operate much as the mujahedeen did in the 1980s, when they used Pakistan as their rear base, to drive out the Soviet Army, which had invaded Afghanistan.

Many members of President Hamid Karzai’s government, who were themselves mujahedeen, say the Taliban are even using some of the same contacts from 20 years ago, including a well-known trader in Quetta who handles logistics, housing and other supplies.

He was widely known to be the front man for the largest Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, according to one former mujahedeen commander who is now a senior official in the Afghan government.

Meanwhile, Taliban spokesmen dismiss the idea of negotiations or power-sharing deals with the Afghan government, even though Afghan officials say that more Taliban members have made overtures to talk in recent months.

“We carried out the fight to oppose the invaders,” one of the Taliban spokesmen, Mr. Ahmadi, said. “Now they are on the brink of humiliation. That’s the aim of our fight.”

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