Taliban's new commander ready for a fight

Posted in Terrorism | 23-May-06 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

KARACHI - The Taliban's military offensive has begun in earnest in southern Afghanistan, with many key districts already captured by the militia that retreated from power in 2001 after the US-led invasion.

The scale and frequency of the Taliban's revitalized insurgency can be attributed directly to the recent appointment by Taliban leader Mullah Omar of legendary mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani as overall military field commander.

In the latest action - the biggest since the Taliban's ousting - in Helmand province, between 300 and 400 heavily armed Taliban fighters stormed a remote village. At least 100 people were killed, including 15 or more Afghan police and a female Canadian soldier.
Haqqani, a cleric, rose to fame during the decade of opposition to the Soviets in the 1980s. Coincidentally, at that time he was an ally of the United States.

... Meet Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, the only real hope for the Taliban resistance movement to be successful against US-led forces in Afghanistan. Saleem Shahzad is spot on with his assessment, Through the eyes of the Taliban (May 5, '04)

Mullah Omar has provided Haqqani with major powers, funds and huge stockpiles of arms and ammunition and, most important, hundreds of youths who have been trained by the Iraqi resistance in urban guerrilla warfare.

Mullah Omar has demarcated specific areas of Afghanistan to different commanders, but now Haqqani is commander-at-large. He has also been charged with coordinating suicide attackers throughout the country. He is authorized to wage battles anywhere he chooses in Afghanistan.

Haqqani was not part of the Taliban movement when it first emerged from Zabul, but he was the first and most powerful commander of the Afghan resistance to surrender to the Taliban, unconditionally, in 1995. The defection paved the way for the Taliban to secure territorial advantage and finally victory in 1996.

Haqqani, in his 50s, had stunningly captured the first major city since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 - Khost - in 1991, from the puppet communist government of president Mohammad Najibullah.

Afghan parents still tell their children about the hero Haqqani, a thin man of small stature, who refused to stay in Peshawar in Pakistan, preferring the mountains, from where he kidnapped Soviet soldiers and ambushed their convoys. Haqqani stood out from other mujahideen as he was never blamed for warlordism, and he appeared to be truly dedicated to the cause of peace in Afghanistan.

Haqqani held relatively low-key positions throughout the Taliban's tenure, but remained loyal to Mullah Omar. During this time he is said to have run several al-Qaeda training camps for Osama bin Laden, with whom he was friendly.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and soon after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Haqqani was invited to Islamabad, where the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), with which he had close ties, offered him the presidency of Afghanistan, but on the condition that he break all ties with Mullah Omar and carve out a "moderate Taliban" faction. (In declassified US State Department documents, Haqqani is described as the tribal leader "most exploited by the ISI [and US] during the Soviet-Afghan war to facilitate the introduction of Arab mercenaries". [1])

Haqqani refused the offer and went back to the Ghulam Khan mountains between Khost and Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area and began his campaign of pitched battles against US-led forces. He then became a prime US target, with a number of attacks aimed specifically at eliminating him.

But although Haqqani still commanded great respect all over Afghanistan and especially among the tribal elders of Khost, Paktia, Paktika and Gardez, he still did not belong to the Taliban core - Mullah Omar's "kitchen cabinet".

He thus was not given a central role in the Taliban resistance, although he continued to mount random attacks in his area.

Mullah Akhtar Osamani and Mullah Dadullah were the central commanders, but they were not able to make any significant military breakthroughs when the Taliban's spring offensive was launched last month. Thus Haqqani's elevation.

Fresh funds, arms and human resources, and Haqqani's unquestioned military acumen honed in years fighting the Soviets, have revitalized the insurgency. An immediate spinoff was that veteran Afghan resistance figures, such as Saifullah Masoor, the commander of the renowned resistance leader Nasrullah Mansoor, who were previously sitting on the fence in Gardez and other areas, are now hand in hand with Haqqani.

The regions that the Taliban have targeted and the patterns of mobilization are similar to those used in the mid-1990s when the student militia emerged as a force to fill the chaotic political vacuum created after the withdrawal of Soviet troops and seize Kabul.

There are, though, two main distinctions today: the Taliban do not have the support of Pakistan, as they did to a large extent in the 1990s, and many independent groups have now gathered under the Taliban umbrella.

Thus the Taliban-led movement has converted into an organized revolt, concentrated in the southern provinces of Zabul, Helmand and Kandahar. Strengthened by loyal tribes, the targets are US-led coalition forces, as well as the Afghan National Army (ANA).

According to Asia Times Online contacts in Afghanistan, intense and constant battles have virtually paralyzed the ANA's ability to retaliate, and many villages and districts in the three key southern provinces are now under Taliban control. The ANA is therefore concentrating on keeping the major Afghan cities under the writ of the Kabul administration of President Hamid Karzai.

"Once again we are facing a mid-1990s-like situation when bloodshed was everywhere and the situation went from bad to worse and these circumstances allowed the Taliban movement to emerge and boot our government out," said former Afghan prime minister Ahmad Shah Ahmadzaid in a telephone conversation with Asia Times Online. Ahmad Shah was the acting premier before the Taliban took power in 1996.

"The Karzai administration writ is nowhere, and the Afghan nation is once again in limbo," Ahmad Shah maintained.

Solid spadework
While Haqqani has provided the spark for the resistance, he could not have succeeded had thorough groundwork not been laid over the past year or so.

The Taliban launched a major recruitment drive last year. This coincided with the government of Pakistan clamping down on jihad activities in Indian-administered Kashmir.

This played right into the Taliban's hands as many former members of Pakistani jihadi organizations, including from the banned Laskhar-i-Toiba and the banned Jaish-i-Mohamed, gathered in North and South Waziristan, where the Taliban have established a virtual Islamic state along the lines of the former uncompromising fundamentalist religious Taliban regime in Afghanistan. All have pledged their allegiance to Mullah Omar.

According to authoritative estimates obtained by Asia Times Online, about 27,000 fighters are gathered in North Waziristan alone. More than 13,000 are believed to be in South Waziristan. The Taliban leadership there had formed about 100 suicide squads by February, assembled under the motto "fight until the last man and the last bullet".

Partners, not followers
Now that the spring offensive has gained sustainable momentum, some of the old guard of the Afghan resistance against the Soviets have jumped into the fray, but as partners of the Taliban rather than followers of Mullah Omar.

One such is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan, who operates in the Kunar Valley and Nooristan province on the border with Pakistan. According to reports from the area, his commanders and their men are grouping to pitch battle before the Taliban mobilize cadres in eastern Afghanistan.

In the Khugiani district in eastern Nangarhar province, Moulvi Yunus Khalis, the chief of his own faction of the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan, and his two sons, especially Anwarul Haq Mujahid, have started up activities and are instigating all tribes to revolt against the Kabul administration, as well as against foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Sporadic information coming out of the country also suggests revolts by many small warlords in the southern Pashtun heartland against the Karzai administration. However, at present they lack effective coordination among themselves, and with the Taliban.

Should they get organized, say people with close knowledge of the insurgency, a military mobilization all the way to Kabul could be only a few weeks away.

1. Asia Times Online, Pakistan through the US looking glass, September 20, 2003.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.