Taliban take a hit, but the fight goes onKARACHI - With the killing of Abu Laith al-Libi this week, the Taliban have suffered their biggest loss since being ousted from power in 2001, and they are left without their finest military brain just two months before their spring offensive.
All the same, while there will undoubtedly be a short-term negative effect over the loss of the talisman commander, the Taliban have a groundswell of support in place that is unlikely to be affected in the longer term.
According to reports, Libi, 41, a Libyan, was killed on Monday in an attack by a US Predator drone in Mir Ali, a town in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area near the border with Afghanistan.
The US military placed Libi on its most wanted list in 2006, behind al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al- Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Libi had a reward of US$200,000 on his head following his involvement in the February 2007 bombing at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan during a visit by US Vice President Dick Cheney.
The Western press uniformly describe Libi as al-Qaeda's number three, but it was not his links to the group that made his name. He was the de facto commander in chief of the Afghan resistance against the occupation forces in Afghanistan and he was the main engine behind all of the Taliban's successful attacks, especially in the east of the country.
The strongly built Libi was a committed warrior for the cause of jihad in Afghanistan. Even Pakistani military officers acknowledged his guerrilla fighting skills and his ability to rally his men; they called him a "true mujahid".
On several occasions, Pakistan security forces had him cornered, but each time he managed to escape. He would then send messages to army officers, saying he could have caused havoc in their ranks but he would never fight against a Muslim and preferred to escape.
Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, now killed, claimed the attack on Bagram last year, but Asia Times Online investigations at the time found it was Libi who had planned the attack. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) later confirmed this. Likewise, all major operations claimed by Afghan commanders, especially those led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, were in fact to the credit of Libi.
The common perception is that all Arabs fighting in Afghanistan belong to al-Qaeda. This is not the reality. Arabs are present in Afghanistan in several groups, and not necessarily part of al-Qaeda, as with Libi. He did cooperate with al-Qaeda but always took independent decisions. He was not known to be part of any international terror operations as he was fully committed to the fight against NATO in Afghanistan and to training fighters in modern techniques of guerrilla warfare.
Libi was the best instructor the Taliban ever had. He had established Shankiari training camp in Khost province which was destroyed by NATO in 2006. He trained Afghans in the use of anti-aircraft missiles, among many other skills.
He was not a scholar like Shiekh Essa, who incites people in the tribal areas to rebel against the Pakistani government. He was not a prophet of doom for the West, like Zawahiri, who often calls for the destruction of London and Washington.
Libi was a simple warrior who fought a defensive war (resistance) against NATO in Afghanistan and was fiercely against carrying out attacks on Pakistan.
He was a battlefield ideologue who lived with his men and fought in a foreign country, and the results of his efforts reverberated around the world.
The initial reaction is that Libi's death could result in a strengthening of the Takfiri ideologues in the Waziristan tribal areas. They believe in war against any non-practicing Muslims, which includes attacks on Pakistan. Libi had acted as a restraining influence on them. But for the Taliban, the focus remains fixed on Afghanistan.
The show goes on
NATO's commander in eastern Afghanistan, Major General David Rodriguez, recently said he did not expect the Taliban to mount a spring offensive this year as they wanted to focus their efforts on destabilizing the Pakistani government.
This is not the case. Mullah Omar made it clear by "sacking" Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud - who wanted to concentrate on Pakistan - that all efforts would be aimed at Afghanistan.
If anything, Libi's death could help ignite the spring offensive. Asia Times Online has learned that a Taliban delegation from the Afghan province of Helmand has arrived in South Waziristan. The purpose is to build bridges between various feuding factions and unite them for the spring offensive.
Pressure will even be brought to bear on Mehsud to shift to Afghanistan for a few months to end hostilities between the Pakistani security forces and his Mehsud tribe, which is under siege in South Waziristan.
Apart from Mehsud and a few other groups, all jihadi groups in the tribal areas have now struck peace deals with Pakistani security and are regrouping for the spring offensive.
By the end of last year, leading jihadi groups such as the Harkatul Mujahideen al-Aalmi, the Harkatul Ansaar, the Harkat-i-Jehad-i-Islami, the Ansarus Sunnah and the Ansarul Muslimoon had concentrated their human and material resources in the Waziristans in preparation for a renewed offensive in Afghanistan.
Each of these organization has independent weapons stockpiles, millions of dollars in funds and hundreds of fighters, in addition to secure supply lines for further funds.
The legend of the Faqir of Api (who defeated the British Indian Army in Waziristan and then the Pakistani army in the 1950s) is alive in one of his descendents, Hafiz Gul Bahadur of North Waziristan.
Gul was the deputy chief of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the chief was Mehsud. But since the removal of Mehsud by Mullah Omar, Gul has struck a ceasefire agreement with the Pakistani security forces.
The former chief of the Taliban in South Waziristan, Haji Omar, a Wazir, has also separated from Baitullah and now lives in North Waziristan. He has also struck a deal with the security forces and his now focussed on raising money and men for Afghanistan.
The Uzbeks, the largest group of foreigners in the tribal areas and concentrated in Mir Ali, have joined hands with the Afghan Taliban after separating from Tahir Yuldashev, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. This leaves Mehsud and his followers isolated with members of the banned militant outfit Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and the Takfiri group within al-Qaeda led by Shiekh Essa.
Meanwhile, Pakistani police in the southern port city of Karachi have clarified that Qasim Toori, who was reported to have been killed in five-hour shootout between militants and security forces on Tuesday, is in fact not dead.
Police say he is only injured and is in their custody. He was said to be dead in an effort to catch his whole network, which is believed to be the main financial artery for Mehsud's network.
Thus, Mehsud, with his financial sources curtailed and becoming increasingly isolated, could be the big loser from Libi's death.
The Taliban have taken a hard hit, there is no doubt about that, as Libi was a field commander of exceptional talent. But the momentum for the Taliban's spring offensive was already in place before his death, and now it is gaining pace.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com