Plot to divide the Taliban foiled
KARACHI - Along with the Taliban's ongoing progress in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has strengthened its position in Pakistan's tribal areas, reinforced by a steady stream of new recruits from other countries and an expansion of its networks among local tribes.
The situation reached a point where the Pakistani security agencies, in connivance with the Saudi establishment, felt they had to act. They hatched a plot to establish a proxy network in a newly formed Taliban group that rivals the anti-state al-Qaeda franchise of Baitullah Mehsud's Pakistan Tehrik-i-Taliban.
Al-Qaeda was wise to the ploy, though, and the proxies were last Friday wiped out before they could even gain a toehold.
A senior Pakistani militant affiliated with al-Qaeda's setup told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity, "Pakistan and the Saudi establishment tried to create a conspiracy, taking advantage of some tribal feuds between Taliban commanders coming from [tribal] Wazir and Mehsud backgrounds, and planted their proxy network to hijack the whole Taliban movement.
"But on Friday there was a clash in Mohmand Agency in which Taliban commanders close to Baitullah Mehsud terminated the leadership [of the proxies], including Shah Khalid, the local leader of the pro-government Taliban. The move to hijack the Taliban movement vanished into smoke," the militant said.
At least 15 people, including Khalid, the chief of a militant outfit known as the "Shah group", and his deputy, Qari Abdullah, were killed in the fighting. (State-run PTV, however, reported that Khalid had been killed after surrendering to militants loyal to Mehsud.)
Khalid's group had previously been involved only in fighting United States-led forces in Afghanistan and was not interested in local Pakistani affairs. But it recently became a part of a newly formed group headed by North Waziristan's Wazir tribal commander, Gul Bahadur, to rival al-Qaeda's franchise - Mehsud's network.
The roots of the group's formation were originally the result of ethnic differences between the Wazir tribe and the Mehsud tribe, but Pakistani security agencies took full advantage of the situation and encouraged known Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) contacts in the Taliban, such as Haji Nazir from South Waziristan and Haji Namdar from the Khyber Agency, beside Khalid from Mohmand Agency, to be a part of this new Shah group.
Mehsud is now on the offensive, all too aware of the establishment's schemes to undermine him and al-Qaeda.
Since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistan has tried to drive al-Qaeda from the seat of the ideological throne of the Afghan resistance against Western armies by encouraging local Afghan commanders to structure the resistance on tribal lines.
In the broader picture, Pakistan envisaged this would improve the chances of reconciliation between the tribal movement and the Western armies, and the tribals would eventually be tolerated as the rulers of Afghanistan. Pakistan's connections would in the process remain intact in Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda would be alienated.
The story of the current infighting in the Taliban starts in the labyrinth of the regional war theater with the emergence of one Aminullah Peshawari, a well-respected Salafi academic whose influence spread from the Pakistani city of Peshawar in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the tribal areas of Mohmand and Bajaur to the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nooristan.
Aminullah was a known anti-establishment figure and used to meet Osama bin Laden, but he was neither a militant nor operated any militant group. He was a credible anti-American voice in the region.
After the US invasion of Afghanistan and the defeat of the Taliban, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation started operations in Pakistan against al-Qaeda's sympathizers. The Pakistani security apparatus was aware that it had to play its cards very cleverly in its newfound role as a partner in the "war on terror". Pakistani officials thus approached Aminullah and warned him of possible arrest and of being sent to the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The noose was tightened so much that the respected Salafi academic was left with no choice but to blindly follow the footsteps of the Pakistani security agencies, which were desperate that he announce his support for the Laskhar-i-Taiba's commander in Mohmand Agency, Shah Khalid.
Previously, Khalid's group had been banned from operating inside Afghanistan because of his closeness with the Pakistani security agencies. Aminullah's support allowed Khalid to operate in the region freely. Both Aminullah and Khalid were now on the payroll of the ISI and Saudi intelligence.
Aminullah moved around with armed guards and a string of four-wheel drive vehicles in the city of Peshawar. The same protocol was given to Khalid. These sort of allowances and the money helped their networks thrive and they boasted of several successful operations in Afghanistan.
This month, North Waziristan's Gul Bahadur made public his differences with Baitullah Mehsud and summoned a meeting at which he (Gul) was appointed as the chief of Pakistani Taliban. Khalid emerged as one of Gul's main followers.
Other local Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders, however, suspected that Khalid had links to the state apparatus. A respected Taliban deputy commander in Nooristan province in Afghanistan and Kunar province's Mufti Yousuf advised Khalid to submit to the local discipline of the Taliban instead of operating a separate jihadi network. The advice went unheeded. As a result, tension mounted between Khalid and Omar Khalid, alias Abdul Wali, the regional commander installed by the Taliban.
As for Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan, Baitullah Mehsud, the al-Qaeda franchise, did not want to challenge him as he is a grandson of the legendary anti-British resistance fighter, Faqir of Ipi, and they were not sure he was an ISI proxy.
However, Baitullah Mehsud suspected a few ISI-backed Taliban commanders in the Pakistani tribal areas would aim to take advantage of his and Gul Bahadur's differences, and Shah Khalid was one of them, in addition to Haji Nazeer of South Waziristan and Haji Namdar of Khyber Agency.
So the decision was taken to confront the pure proxies of the ISI, Khalid being the first. He was advised by Omar Khalid to leave the area at once. Khalid agreed, and one of his comrades, Haji Namdar from Khyber Agency, provided him with a base in the agency. But last Tuesday, one of Khalid's men killed a deputy of Omar Khalid's group.
This situation in the most important strategic backyard of the Taliban, which guarantees them access to Nooristan and Kunar provinces across the border, was of major concern to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who also wanted to clarify just who the ISI's contacts were.
Mullah Omar assigned two of the Taliban's most respected regional commanders to intervene. They were Ustad Yasir of the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar and Pakistan's Khyber Agency, and Qari Ziaur Rahman of the Afghan provinces of Nooristan and Kunar and the Pakistani agencies of Mohmand and Bajaur.
These commanders arrived in Mohmand Agency on Friday, but on that day the Taliban's local commander had already begun fighting Khalid, conclusively beating him and capturing his network's arsenal and assets.
As a follow up, Mullah Omar's delegates, including Ustad Yasir and Qari Ziaur Rahman, issued a strict warning that such intra-Taliban bloodletting was not acceptable and that in the future all fighters would work under one umbrella with no stand-alone activities tolerated. This is a clear message to the rivals of Baitullah.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani government has tried to play the killing of Khalid and his fellow jihadis to its advantage. The bodies were taken to Peshawar in a procession arranged by various Salafi organizations. The highest political figure of a Salafi political party to have received direct patronage from Riyadh, Allama Sajid Mir, attended prayers in Peshawar and held a press conference in which he maintained that the majority of the Taliban were deviants, terminology generally used by the Saudi religious apparatus against al-Qaeda.
The Pakistani national press played up the incident under banner headlines of discord among the supporters of the Afghan battle against coalition forces.
Baitullah Mehsud hit back by announcing a deadline for NWFP's secular and liberal government, which signed a peace deal with the Taliban, to resign within five days or face the consequences. But at the same time the Taliban resumed operations in NWFP - a clear aggressive gesture against the state's writ.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda have come out of this sideshow in the tribal areas as strong as ever, and more recruits keep pouring in.
The Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan is viewed by global militants as a part of the promised battles of Khurasan (ancient Khurasan comprising mostly Afghanistan, the Pakistani tribal areas and parts of Iran), hinted at in the Prophet Mohammad's sayings concerning the End of Time battles.
It is believed the militants of Khurasan will eventually win this battle and then go to the Middle East (the Land of Two Rivers is said to be Iraq and Syria) to support the armies of the promised Mehdi to fight against the anti-Christ in Palestine. Based on this theory, jihadi websites are calling on Muslims to support the Afghan jihad instead of going to Iraq.
But the revival of al-Qaeda in the Pakistan region will provide a new lifeline for the Iraqi resistance as newly trained fighters from Afghanistan can go to Iraq when fighting slows in the winter months in Afghanistan.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]