Taliban will let guns do their talking
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - Amid a growing furor in Britain over the deaths in the past few days
of eight British servicemen in Afghanistan, the initiative to seek dialogue
with the Taliban at the highest level of their leadership is gaining pace.
Taliban leader Mullah Omar is now the focus of attention, with the Pakistan
military reportedly saying that it is prepared to act as a middleman to help
the administration of United States President Barack Obama in a "new diplomatic
overture to find an end to the long-running conflict" in Afghanistan.
Mullah Omar, however, is not believed to be in any mood to talk. Over the past
few months, he has consolidated his grip over the various scattered but
powerful resistance groups across
Afghanistan and in Pakistan's tribal areas. His ultimate objective, as it has
been since the Taliban were ousted in the US-led invasion of 2001, is for
military victory against foreign forces.
In Helmand province in Afghanistan, the main theater of the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization's (NATO's) troop surge, 15 British soldiers were killed in
the first 11 days of July - including eight in 24 hours on Friday - taking the
British military death toll in the country since October 2001 to 184, five more
than the lives lost by British forces in Iraq. In most cases, the deaths have
been the result of improvised explosive devices and remote-controlled bombs,
rather than guerrilla attacks.
The British casualties have sparked a political row about the future of
Britain's role in Afghanistan. Liam Fox, the shadow defense secretary, said
that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had "catastrophically" under-equipped the
In the provinces around the Afghan capital Kabul, the Taliban have once again
established a firm grip in the vital provinces of Ghazni, Logar and Wardak,
virtually paralyzing the control of the local administrations.
On Saturday, the governor of Ghazni province narrowly escaped a Taliban-led
attack. In border provinces such as Kunar and Nuristan, where only a few months
ago NATO and Pakistani security forces (on the Pakistani side in Mohmand and
Bajaur agencies) had claimed victory over the Taliban through Operation Lion
Heart, the Taliban are resurgent.
At this crucial juncture, and with national elections scheduled in Afghanistan
next month, Pakistan's military establishment has stepped into the fray. It has
in the past few years been reduced to the role of a client state of Western
countries to clean up the mess in the Pakistani tribal areas, which serve as a
springboard for the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the
subsequent launch of the "war on terror", the Pakistan military and
intelligence communities had played a mainstream role in Afghanistan, with
close links to the Taliban and other jihadi organizations.
Last week, Major General Athar Abbas, a spokesman for Pakistan's Inter-Services
Public Relations (ISPR), in an interview with CNN, said that not only is "the
Pakistan in contact with Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, but it can bring
him and other commanders to the negotiating table with the United States".
Abbas said that in return for any role as a broker between the US and the
Taliban, Pakistan wanted concessions from Washington over Islamabad's concerns
with rival India, which it fears is gaining undue influence in the region.
In response, Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and
Pakistan, said, "There's long been allegations that there are continued
contacts [between Pakistan and the Taliban]. And I think it's a step forward
for the Pakistanis to say publicly what everyone has always assumed," CNN
reported. Holbrooke did not rule out the possibility of talks with the Taliban.
This decision, though, depends on Mullah Omar.
The re-emergence of Mullah Omar
Different intelligence agencies, including Pakistan's, categorized the Afghan
national resistance as being under the command of various groups. These include
the Qari Ziaur Rahman group in Kunar and Nuristan in Afghanistan and Mohmand
and Bajaur in Pakistan; the Haqqani network in Ghazni, Paktia, Paktika and
Khost and Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area; Anwarul Haq in Nangarhar,
besides the network in northern Afghanistan led by commanders loyal to
It was generally agreed that Mullah Omar, although the spiritual and symbolic
leader, had been reduced to being a regional commander of the southwestern
Afghan provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Urzgan, Zabul and Farah. Despite the
spread of the resistance across Afghanistan, it was thought that the central
command structure that the Taliban had acquired in 2006 had been lost and that
coordination within the resistance groups was at a minimum.
This occurred at a time when NATO sent additional troops to Afghanistan early
this year, in tandem with joint operations with the help of Pakistan to stop
cross-border infiltration. Military operations in Pakistan's Mohmand and Bajaur
agencies significantly reduced the number of militants launched into
Unmanned Predator drone attacks in the tribal areas helped keep militant and
al-Qaeda leaders on the run, while operations against Pakistani Taliban chief
Baitullah Mehsud and militants in the Swat area caused a lot of damage to the
In the process of running from pillar to post, though, the militants sought
each other's help and established new lines of cooperation and coordination -
and Mullah Omar once again became active.
A grand shura (council) was convened in the southwest, bringing together
big and small commanders, including Abdullah Saeed, al-Qaeda's
commander-in-chief for Afghanistan.
Mullah Omar, a source from the al-Qaeda camp told Asia Times Online, emphasized
that each group should set up a coherent fighting strategy, and their
preference should be Afghanistan.
Significantly, a major role was envisaged for al-Qaeda and the Afghan war will
now be its prime goal. Al-Qaeda will continue to shift its manpower from the
Middle East to the South Asian war theater, especially from Iraq. These men
bring with them vast experience, especially in the field of improvised
explosive devices and ambush techniques.
The shura also integrated several small commanders from Logar and Kabul
provinces into the larger structures of the Taliban. Previously, these players
had received a minimum of funding, but now, due to their strategic position,
they will receive funds and human resources from bigger commanders like
Sirajuddin Haqqani. The aim is to jointly launch attacks on NATO's main
arteries, such as the supply line from Jalalabad to Bagram air base just
outside the capital Kabul.
In light of these developments, there is little place for the idea of a
dialogue process with anyone - let alone the United States.
Last year, Saudi Arabia sponsored efforts to reach out to the Taliban. This
peace initiative, though, consisted mainly of former Taliban and people who
were not involved directly in the armed insurgency in Afghanistan.
This year, the Saudi efforts seemed about to enter a significant phase when
Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz became directly involved
in the mediation process.
An Afghan-American, Daoud Abedi, a close aide to Afghan commander Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar, became involved in negotiations with the Americans (see
Holbrooke reaches out to Hekmatyar Asia Times Online, April 10, 2009.)
Prince Aziz planned to contact Mullah Omar through the former Taliban
ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef. Despite much effort, this did
not happen, although contact was made with Mullah Bradar, Mullah Omar's
anointed supreme commander of the Taliban and his most trusted lieutenant.
The dialogue developed to the point where al-Qaeda leaders began to feel
threatened - many Taliban commanders in the southwest were desperate to strike
peace deals with NATO and talked of al-Qaeda as a liability. Prince Aziz was
optimistic enough to say that by the end of the year the stage would be set for
the US and the Taliban to begin discussing peace formulas.
Following the grand shura and the military consolidation in Afghanistan,
though, Mullah Omar has sent a clear message to Prince Aziz that a military
victory is the only option for the Taliban and that nothing can stop the war
except a clear defeat of the Western occupation armies in Afghanistan.
Perhaps that is why Pakistan's Inter-Services Public Relations felt obliged to
issue a statement that "strongly denied" the remarks made by Abbas "that the
Pakistani military is in contact with Taliban leader Mullah Omar and it can
bring him and other commanders to the negotiating table".
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at email@example.com