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Central Asia/Russia

Taliban draw strength from tribal roots
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Traditional political enmities and tribal rivalries have allowed the Taliban to regroup around Gardez in eastern Paktia province in Afghanistan, from where they will coordinate guerrilla operations in many parts of the country.

Although United States officials claim that Taliban and al-Qaeda resistance in Gardez is weakening, the realities on the ground would appear to indicate otherwise.

US-led forces in the region said on Wednesday that several hundred opposition fighters had been killed in rocket-propelled grenade and mortar fire. "We body-slammed them today and killed hundreds of those guys," Major General Frank L Hagenbeck, the commander of operations near Gardez, 120 kilometers south of Kabul, was quoted as saying.

Front-line commander Abdul Matin Hasankhiel said that hundreds of Afghan and coalition forces had ringed the mountain range and trapped al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters entrenched in caves and bunkers higher up.

However, sources said that the picture given by the US of significant gains being made illustrated that the US did not fully understand the situation, or that it did not want to convey the real picture.

Shah Kot (or Shahi Kot), which lies to the west of Gardez, is the center of the Taliban's activities. The area from Shah Kot to Zarmat is riddled with hundreds of caves, tunnels and passes. This natural complex provides ample room for Taliban fighters to move long distances, even from city to city. Sources suggested that the Taliban and al-Qaeda had entrenched their heavy weapons in this terrain long before the current US attacks began last weekend. These weapons include T54 tanks, 124mm heavy artillery, multi-barrel rocket launchers, 76mm anti-tank guns, Stingers and Sam 7 missiles.

About 4,000 Arab and Afghan fighters, most of them trained, have now regrouped in the Gardez area, many of them equipped with special oxygen masks that allow them to secrete themselves deep in the bowels of the mountains. Previously, famous commander Mullah Saifur Rehman Mansoor, who once belonged to the Harkatul Jihad-i-Islami and whose father was a prominent figure in Shah Kot, was leading the troops. But now sources say that Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani has taken over after arriving with additional forces.

The sources say that the Taliban have given the signal for hit-and-run operations to be launched on the troops and installations of the US and its allies, all orchestrated from the Shah Kot to Zarmat area.

There are strong historical reasons why this region of Paktia is the center of Taliban activity. Most tribes in Paktia, and especially in the Gardez region, have a soft spot for the Taliban. Gardez is the home of the famous warrior tribe, the Galzai, which has two main branches - Ahmed Zai and Soloman Khail.

Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, who captured Khost province from the communist militia in 1991, hails from the Zadran tribe, which is a branch of the Soloman Khail. Similarly, most of the Taliban in Paktia hail from the Galzai or one of its branches. This makes for strong blood ties.

On the other hand, the local government wanted by interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai's administration - that of Bacha Khan - was not even allowed to enter Paktia. Instead, Abdul Rahim Wardek took over, with the consent of the Eastern Council (Shura-i-Sharqui).

Furthermore, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omer hails from the Galzai tribe, which throughout Afghan tribal history has been seriously at odds with the Durrani tribe.

Former Afghan monarch Zahir Shah, who is due in Kabul on March 21 to celebrate Nouroze (The Persian New Year according to the Zoroastrian calender) hails from the Durrani tribe. Karzai is from the Popalzai tribe, a branch of the Durrani.

As a result, the overwhelming majority in Paktia province have rejected the current interim administration. And since most of the Galzai tribe are Taliban, there is no question of this tribe being given official representation anywhere in the country.

As a result, resistance in Paktia will continue until either the US carpet bombs the entire province into oblivion, or external tribes move in and with force occupy the land. Meanwhile, the Taliban and their al-Qaeda associates are more than welcome.

And just across the border in the Pakistan tribal areas, the Nasir tribe is a branch of the Soloman Khail, so they are fully supportive of the Taliban, and are already providing manpower to the Taliban in the form of the Nasir mujahideen.

The Taliban are also once again actively wooing religious scholars, no matter from which tribe they hail. Mansoor has also sent delegations of religious scholars to persuade other tribal leaders to stand up against the US presence in Afghanistan.

This has already had a positive result in Ghazni, traditionally a stronghold of the Hizb-i-Islami, and the birth place of warlord and former Afghan premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The religious scholars are scouring mosques to get people to sign on for a jihad against the US in Afghanistan, just as Afghans did against the Soviet invaders in the decade up to 1992.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency (AIP) has quoted Mansoor as saying in a statement, "The fight against America for the supremacy of Islam and the defense of our country will continue until our last breath."

Meanwhile, the Taliban have once again struck Kandahar airport in the south of the country, with at least one US soldier believed killed and several others injured. This was the fourth strike on the airport. US troops stationed there are in the process of relocating to Bagram airport near Kabul.

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