Taliban line up the heavy artilleryKARACHI - The battle lines have been drawn on the Afghan chessboard for what is likely to be a decisive confrontation between foreign forces and the Taliban-led tribal resistance. Both sides have fine-tuned their strategies, have engaged their pawns, and are poised for action.
The Taliban's efforts are focused on next spring, after the harsh winter weather eases, while North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces aim to "nip this evil in the bud", using the province of Kandahar as their strategic base.
From there, they want to contain and encircle the Taliban in their bases all over southwestern Afghanistan, according to a source familiar with NATO who spoke to Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity.
Central to this plan is the use of air power, even though the Taliban have come down from the mountains and entrenched themselves in civilian populations in carefully chosen pockets. They also have a headquarters in the rugged mountains of Baghran Valley in Helmand province.
To date, the Taliban have mostly engaged their pawns against NATO, with key leaders based safely in the tribal belt between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Once the final push starts, though, they will move to the fringes of the southwestern Pashtun heartland, Baghran, in preparation for the removal of President Hamid Karzai's administration in Kabul.
However, NATO spokesman Mark Laity does not agree with this assessment. "Their [Taliban] intent was to hold the Panjwayee [district of Kandahar province] as a necessary part of their plan to encircle or take Kandahar city. In Helmand [province] they certainly intended to take Sangin, Musa Qala and Nowzad in the north and Garmsir in the south, with the desire to disrupt and isolate Lashkhar Gah [the capital of Helmand province]. In all of these respects, they failed," Laity told Asia Times Online.
The fact remains, though, that while Taliban and NATO forces have confronted each other in various districts, there has been no serious Taliban move for a mass mobilization - as stated, all of the top Taliban commanders are tucked away in the border area with Pakistan, or even in that country.
Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, head of the Taliban's military operations in Afghanistan, is in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan - a virtually independent region in Taliban hands. The one-legged former Taliban intelligence chief Mullah Dadullah is also in Pakistani territory, shuttling between South Waziristan tribal area and border areas near Pakistan's Balochistan province and southwestern Afghanistan.
Haqqani and Dadullah, on the instructions of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, are talking to tribespeople in southwestern and southeastern Afghanistan to smooth the path for the Taliban taking control. The Taliban are pledging to share everything with the tribes, including land, power and resources.
This process is still ongoing and, according to people close to the Taliban, once it is completed the Taliban will call for a full mobilization of troops and Mullah Omar will go to Baghran to command them personally in the push to Kandahar and ultimately Kabul.
Legendary former Afghan premier and mujahideen Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who operates near the Pakistani side of the Afghan Kunar Valley, has become involved in his own agenda, causing a bone of contention between the Taliban and Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA). Hekmatyar has been considered an important player in the Taliban-led insurgency.
Hekmatyar has steadily regrouped his men, from within Parliament to the mountain vastness of Afghanistan. Most of the bureaucracy in southeastern Afghanistan, including Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Kunar, Nanaghar, Logar and Ghazni, is dominated by former HIA members who remain in contact with Hekmatyar.
At the same time, Hekmatyar has successfully rallied his guerrillas around Jalalabad, Khost, Kunar and Paktia. However, Hekmatyar's ties with such people as Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of Nangarhar, and previous association with Karzai stop him adopting an all-out offensive. (Hekmatyar has on several occasions been wooed by Karzai to help break the Afghan deadlock.)
It appears that Hekmatyar, well aware that in the eventuality of an armed national uprising or Taliban victory he will play second fiddle to Mullah Omar, is jockeying to be in a position to help foreign forces achieve a safe exit from Afghanistan, in return for which he would want the leading political role.
In these circumstances, once an uprising began, Hekmatyar would be in a straight race with Mullah Omar to reach Kabul and seize control of it.
In the beginning there was Baghran
Once all issues between tribal leaders and the Taliban have been hammered out, Mullah Omar will move to Baghran, the northernmost district in Helmand province. It is the last Pashtun-speaking district in the southwest before one gets to the neighboring Persian-speaking western provinces, such as Ghor.
Baghran has always been an important hub for the Taliban, serving as a rallying point to mend differences between Tajik commanders and pro-Taliban Pashtun commanders.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Baghran remained one of the few strongholds of the Taliban and all top commanders, including Mullah Omar, took refuge in its mountains. Local lore has it that the Taliban leader escaped to the region on a 50cc motorbike. (This correspondent can vouch for the fact that traveling on such a vehicle would be a challenge, given the precipitous passes and rough tracks.)
The Taliban have systematically been killing Kabul-backed administrators in Baghran. After a fourth high-profile assassination, NATO sent in extra troops to the area backed by air strikes. After heavy fighting, there has been relative calm for six months.
The Taliban claimed to have killed hundreds of British troops in this engagement, while sustaining minimal casualties themselves. However, NATO's Laity dismissed this as "ridiculous", saying that the International Security Assistance Force acknowledged all deaths. "I think you can readily see that if such an incident did happen, then it could not possibly be hidden in the UK and would have massive political repercussions," he told Asia Times Online.
During the 10-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan starting in 1979, Soviet troops withdrew from Baghran in the early days and never regained a foothold there, and it became the headquarters of the mujahideen. Its isolated and inhospitable terrain makes it a perfect base, and it has many escape routes through the mountain passes.
Deep in the valley
"Are you mad going to Baghran, the center of the Taliban who behave like morons?" That was the candid cry of the hotel owner when he heard of my intentions. His hotel was hardly half an hour from Baghran. The next few days in Baghran would confirm how correct the hotelier was.
In the last week of October, the Taliban appointed young Matiullah Agha as district olaswal (administrator) to run affairs in conjunction with the shura (council) of tribal elders and former mujahideen commanders who had fought against the Soviets.
We were guests of a respected elder of Baghran, Khuda-i-Rahim, who lost both arms and a leg fighting the Soviets. He is also known by the respectful name of Haji Lala. Lala is a rich man, owning huge tracts of land where the only cash crop, as all over Helmand, is poppy. Lala spent time in the United States in the 1980s and remembers how his host, a State Department official, taught him a few words of English.
Other respected former commanders live in this small Taliban "fiefdom", but they have hardly any say now that the Taliban have taken power. This is one of the major problems with the Taliban movement - it does not readily embrace the old guard of the resistance, despite all their cooperation, and instead prefers to stick with young lads no matter how incompetent they might be.
One such is Agha, who has never been a commander and is only in his early 20s. Two years ago, on his way from Peshawar, Pakistan, to southwestern Afghanistan, he was arrested in Kandahar. After just two and a half hours of interrogation he revealed the details of a Taliban hideout. The Afghan National Army conducted successful raids and arrested dozens of Taliban.
Despite this, on the strength of his madrassa (seminary) education, the youth was given the job of administrator of a Taliban-controlled district.
The tribal structure of the district allows it to be self-sufficient through community contributions. Donated money is used primarily to maintain water canals, while the Taliban burned down the school and there is no hospital in the area. Policing and courts are run under the Taliban's brand of Islam, with salaries paid from octroi (toll) collections imposed on travelers and transport vehicles.
This grassroots Taliban control is spreading. "Previously, the Americans used to attack us from Ghor province, but now that we have successfully re-established pockets in Ghor, we do not have any threat of attack by land, though the possibility of aerial attacks is still there," said Moulvi Hamidullah, a member of the Taliban shura and a military commander.
How the little kingdom of heaven works
We were scheduled to meet members of the shura and the olaswal, Agha. As we passed through a small village in a valley, we noticed a few dozen men positioned on the rooftops with mortars, machine-guns, rocket-propelled-grenade launchers and rifles. We soon realized it was our reception party. The men were Hamidullah's, and they were posing for photographs.
After a briefing about Taliban rule in Baghran, Hamidullah called Agha on his satellite phone and I overheard him say, "A guest is waiting and he speaks English." The only English I had used was while taking some shots of the shura when I had used an English description.
A few hours passed and we did not hear from Agha. Hamidullah called again and then gathered all his men to one side and began discussing something in earnest. (We later learned that when Hamidullah proudly said that his guest spoke English, Agha had wrongly interpreted it and thought that an attack was imminent - the Taliban speak in code on their satellite phones.)
Late in the afternoon, a band of armed Taliban police arrived in a van. Our host immediately spoke to them, and after half an hour they approached us. They were apologizing repeatedly to Hamidullah, as they had come to arrest us on the instructions of Agha. Hamidullah had clarified that we were guests who wanted to interview Agha.
We were then driven to the district headquarters of Baghran to meet with Agha, who was now prepared to meet us after Hamidullah's clarification, but he needed to do some face-saving.
He was short with a small frame, not physically imposing, yet he was in charge of battle-hardened war veterans. Agha hails from the Pir Ali Zai tribe and people of the area had serious reservations about him using the title "Agha", which is usually reserved for the descendants of the Holy Prophet in Afghan society.
Agha was camera-shy, according to a strict interpretation of Islam, although he eventually allowed his turban-draped face to be pictured. Other commanders were happy to be pictured, although they also covered their faces, but for a different reason. Should they be injured, they would have to go to a hospital in one of the bigger cities in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and they didn't want to be recognized.
In the midst of our meeting, Agha suddenly stood up and dialed a number on his phone and handed it over to my colleague, Qamar Yousufzai. A voice asked where we were from and which publication we represented, and then insisted that we needed to produce a letter from Taliban quarters in Pakistan. Until we could do that, the Taliban could not know whether we were journalists or spies sent by the Afghan government. The Taliban deal swiftly with spies - after a brief "trial", their heads are cut off.
Now a new debate started between our host, Lala, and Agha, with the latter insisting that he would arrest us and Lala saying he would have to go through him before doing so. This standoff was to last 45 hours.
Lala was enraged by Agha's actions and told his friend Hamidullah to tell the Taliban that even if Mullah Omar sent instructions to surrender his guests, he would not, and would resist them with arms. The next day we were sent to a hiding place and told we would be provided with a vehicle to get us out of Baghran. But the Taliban were on to this and posted men all around with instructions to shoot at any suspicious vehicles.
Ultimately it was agreed by all that our case would be handed over to the "court" on the Friday, so we were presented in a local mosque.
An elderly man with a white beard was the qazi (judge) . When he saw us, he smiled at the British aliens-turned-Pakistanis.
Lala made it quite clear before the proceedings that "from one corner to another corner of Baghran there is nobody who would dare to block me, and it is only because the elders asked us to present my guests in court that I am here".
Agha then gave his ever-changing version of events: "We have a lot of respect for Haji Lala and his friends, but we were informed by some anonymous sources that they are spies of the Afghan government, and we needed to investigate. If the elders of the area, whom we respect a lot, intervene in our functions, then what is the need of this administration? Will they remove us and take the power in their own hands?"
The judge noted that we were Pakistanis and Muslims - not by any definition British or alien - but since somebody had created a doubt with information that we were spies, the matter should be checked. In the meantime, we could not leave Baghran and would stay as "guests" for one night.
Agha immediately protested and asked the qazi to give him as much time as he required for his investigations. So the qazi altered his decision, saying that we would be guests until the investigations were over and would surrender all our belongings to the Taliban for the investigations.
Our cameras, mobile telephones, books and dairies were taken away, and even our toiletries examined. This was too much for Qamar Yousufzai, who launched into a tirade against the Taliban, accusing them of being "savages". His intensity brought a smile to their faces.
We were concerned that the Taliban would now have a grudge against the elders, whom they wanted to be subservient, and we were caught in the middle.
Fortunately, Lala allowed me to use his phone and, after a series of calls between my contacts in Pakistan and the Taliban, we were allowed to go free - they finally accepted that we were journalists.
This experience can hardly be termed pleasant, but it gave us the opportunity to see first-hand how the tribal system really works when it comes up against movements such as the Taliban - and what life in a remote area is like.
The Taliban talk of a new kingdom on Earth. There is a long way to go in villages where people mix earth with their bread to make it go further, don't have schools or hospitals, and have no running water and only mud huts to protect themselves from the numbing cold and stifling heat. Add to this the threat of kidnapping or worse from warlords, the harsh justice of the Taliban, or bombs falling from the sky, and the kingdom is a long way off.
But the battle for the "kingdom" has already begun. Come spring, and Baghran could emerge as the epicenter of a defining struggle in yet another bloody chapter of the country's tortuous history.
News of our run-in with the Taliban spread instantly from the local community to Kandahar. Unfortunately, there was a bitter twist: some journalist told the Associated Press of the US (whose report was then broadcast on Afghan Radio) that we had been disowned by all media organizations and therefore we were spies. This appeared to be professional jealousy, in that we - non-Pashtuns with no background in right-wing Islamic ideology - had managed to reach the very heart of Taliban country.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.