The Rise and Rise of the Neo-Taliban
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
With the number of international soldiers in Afghanistan at an all-time high, they are prepared for their toughest season yet of fighting the Taliban-led insurgency that has grown beyond recognition in the past seven-plus years.
This year, though, the 70,000 troops - 38,000 of them American - face a new and ominous challenge in the form of the neo-Taliban, a new generation of Pakistani, Afghan, al-Qaeda and Kashmiri fighters who have adopted al-Qaeda's ideology, and who plan new tactics, according to Asia Times Online investigations.
The neo-Taliban's efforts will complement the traditional guerrilla war of the Kandahari clan in southwestern Afghanistan and suicide operations in and around Kabul and in southeastern Afghanistan.
Over the years, the coalition forces have adopted specific tactics to deal with the insurgency, as Jeffrey Young explains in an essay for the US-based counter-terrorism group Chameleon Associates, "In Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots, the US military has been confronted by guerrilla - so-called 'asymmetrical' - warfare. Instead of confronting regular armies, American troops now typically face insurgents and terrorists who fight with whatever they have. The Pentagon has responded by putting greater emphasis on preparing US forces to fight the same way."
The paper, citing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates adds, "The record of the past quarter-century is clear: the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon, the United States in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Smaller, irregular forces - insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists - will find ways, as they always have, to frustrate and neutralize the advantages of larger, regular militaries. And even nation-states will try to exploit our perceived vulnerabilities in an asymmetric way."
Neo-Taliban call new shots
Veteran Kashmiri guerrilla commander Maulana Ilyas Kashmiri is the mastermind of the neo-Taliban's new strategy, which was used with considerable success against Indian security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir until fighting eased there a few years ago.
Ilyas Kashmir was once a hero figure of the Kashmiri separatist movement, but he fell from official grace when Islamabad, under pressure from the United States, wound down operations in Kashmir and diverted its attention to the Pakistani tribal areas to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Ilyas Kashmir was arrested by the military on concocted charges of plotting to murder then-president General Pervez Musharraf in 2003. After being released he left Kashmir, abandoning the jihad there, and settled in the North Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan.
At the height of the Kashmir troubles in the late 1990s, there were close to 800,000 Indian troops in Kashmir, which made it difficult for Pakistani militants operating there to implement traditional guerrilla tactics. Instead, in the first phase, they avoided any direct clashes with the military and hit soft targets. These included the killing or abduction of politicians and foreign tourists, hostage-taking, attacks on isolated police checkpoints and police stations, jail breaks, and the like. The first objective was to cause maximum chaos.
Legendary Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap used similar tactics against the Americans during the Vietnam War. The difference now is that the neo-Taliban plan devised by Ilyas Kashmir will go a step further by undertaking big clashes with troops once military operations are diverted by the chaos that has been caused.
The neo-Taliban plan to spread this chaos across Pakistan, Afghanistan and India though kidnappings and attacks on high-profile people. At the same time, the Taliban's Haqqani network will carry out suicide bombing missions in Kabul and southeastern Afghanistan and the Kandahari clan will try to capture towns and villages in southwestern Afghanistan. The idea is that once the enemy's regular troops are sufficiently diverted, their convoys and bases will be attacked.
The Arab and former Kashmiri fighters that make up the bulk of the neo-Taliban have in the past years fought in Afghanistan under the command and strategy of the Taliban, but they have now effectively peeled off into a separate entity.
The key man in this is the anti-Pakistan Baitullah Mehsud, chief of the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan), based in the South Waziristan tribal area - the same man who claimed responsibility for the attack on a police training center in Lahore on Monday.
He provides base camps for fighters and also raises money. It is estimated that in the past six months in the southern port city of Karachi alone, he has generated at least 250 million rupees (US$3.1 million) through various operations. These include extortion of fuel contractors for coalition troops in Afghanistan and ransom money from kidnappings and threats. The proceeds have been used to launch new guerrilla camps in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Echoes from the Swat Valley
In February, Islamabad and militants in the Swat Valley agreed on a peace deal to end two years of fighting; one of the stipulations was that sharia law be introduced in the area.
Commenting on the accord, a senior Pakistani militant told Asia Times Online, "The peace deal was a good gesture towards the Taliban. But it was then realized that it was a maneuver on the part of the Pakistan army. They withdrew their troops from Swat and mobilized them in the tribal areas. A sizeable number of troops were posted in Khyber Agency to provide protection to the NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] supply convoys, while other troops were beefed up in North Waziristan and in South Waziristan.
"At the same time, [US Predator] drone attacks were carried out on Baitullah's native town of Makeen in South Waziristan. But, before Pakistan could strike the mujahideen into oblivion, we struck first, all around North-West Frontier Province. The war is on," the militant said.
This was confirmed by the inspector-general of North-West Frontier Province, who said this week that over the past week or so the situation in the province had deteriorated rapidly, with kidnappings and other acts of terror on the rise.
The militant continued, "The next thing that is going to happen is the breaking up of the Swat peace deal and the opening up of a war theater. This will shatter the entire American plans in the region and Pakistan will be left with no choice but to surrender to the will of the mujahideen."
Just hours later, on Wednesday morning, it was reported that up to 70 Taliban had stormed the home of a former federal minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q - a major breech of the peace agreement.