Syed Saleem Shahzad / Asia Times Online – 2007-03-01 00:25:48
KARACHI (March 1, 2007) — The Pakistani establishment has made a deal with the Taliban through a leading Taliban commander that will extend Islamabad’s influence into southwestern Afghanistan and significantly strengthen the resistance in its push to capture Kabul.
One-legged Mullah Dadullah will be Pakistan’s strongman in a corridor running from the Afghan provinces of Zabul, Urzgan, Kandahar and Helmand across the border into Pakistan’s Balochistan province, according to both Taliban and al-Qaeda contacts Asia Times Online spoke to. Using Pakistani territory and with Islamabad’s support, the Taliban will be able safely to move men, weapons and supplies into southwestern Afghanistan.
The deal with Mullah Dadullah will serve Pakistan’s interests in re-establishing a strong foothold in Afghanistan (the government in Kabul leans much more toward India), and it has resulted in a cooling of the Taliban’s relations with al-Qaeda.
Despite their most successful spring offensive last year since being ousted in 2001, the Taliban realize they need the assistance of a state actor if they are to achieve “total victory”. Al-Qaeda will have nothing to do with the Islamabad government, though, so the Taliban had to go it alone.
The move also comes as the US is putting growing pressure on Pakistan to do more about the Taliban and al-Qaeda ahead of a much-anticipated spring offensive in Afghanistan. US Vice President Dick Cheney paid an unexpected visit to Pakistan on Monday to meet with President General Pervez Musharraf.
The White House refused to say what message Cheney gave Musharraf, but it did not deny reports that it included a tough warning that US aid to Pakistan could be in jeopardy.
A Parting of the Ways
The Taliban saw that after five years working with al-Qaeda, the resistance appeared to have reached a stage where it could not go much further.
Certainly it has grown in strength, and last year’s spring offensive was a classic example of guerrilla warfare with the help of indigenous support. The application of improvised explosive devices and techniques of urban warfare, which the Taliban learned from the Iraqi resistance, did make a difference and inflicted major casualties against coalition troops.
However, the Taliban were unable to achieve important goals, such as the fall of Kandahar and laying siege to Kabul from the southern Musayab Valley on the one side to the Tagab Valley on the northern side.
Taliban commanders planning this year’s spring uprising acknowledged that as an independent organization or militia, they could not fight a sustained battle against state resources. They believed they could mobilize the masses, but this would likely bring a rain of death from the skies and the massacre of Taliban sympathizers. Their answer was to find their own state resources, and inevitably they looked toward their former patron, Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda does not fit into any plans involving Pakistan, but mutual respect between the al-Qaeda leadership and the Taliban still exists. All the same, there is tension over their ideological differences, and al-Qaeda sources believe it is just a matter of time before the sides part physically as well.
Pakistan Only too Happy to Help
Ever since signing on for the US-led “war on terror” after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, Pakistan has been coerced by Washington to distance itself from the Taliban. The Taliban were, after all, enemy No 1 for harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s training camps.
So when the opportunity arose, Islamabad was quick to tap up Mullah Dadullah. This was the perfect way in which Pakistan could revive its contacts in the Taliban and give the spring uprising some real muscle, so the argument went among the strategic planners in Rawalpindi — in fact, so much muscle that forces led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would be forced into a position to talk peace — and who better than Pakistan to step in as peacemaker and bail out its Western allies?
The next logical step would be the establishment of a pro-Islamabad government in Kabul — delivering a kick in the strategic teeth of India at the same time. After all, Pakistan invested a lot in Afghanistan after the Soviet occupation in the 1980s yet it received little in return. Whether it was former Afghan premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or Taliban leader Mullah Omar, they refused to be totally Pakistan’s men.
A Man for all Seasons
Mullah Dadullah, 41, comes from southwestern Afghanistan, so he is “original Taliban”, and has a record of being a natural leader in times of crisis.
Mullah Dadullah made a name for himself during the Soviet occupation, during which he lost a leg. And with victories against the Northern Alliance after the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, he pushed the alliance into the tail end of Afghanistan. This made him Pakistan’s darling from Day 1.
He was Mullah Omar’s emissary in the two Waziristan tribal areas before the spring offensive of last year. Here he brokered a major deal between the Pakistani armed forces and the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan had lost more than 800 soldiers in operations against the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda and it needed a face-saving way to extricate itself from the mess.
Mullah Dadullah’s peace deal provided this, and the army made an “honorable” withdrawal from the volatile semi-independent region. Whenever the ceasefire was violated, Mullah Dadullah would settle things down.
The 2006 spring offensive was veteran mujahideen fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani’s show. Nevertheless, the main areas of success were not Haqqani’s traditional areas of influence, such as southeastern Afghanistan’s Khost, Paktia and Paktika. The Taliban secured major victories in their heartland of the southwest, Helmand, Zabul, Urzgan and Kandahar. And their leader was Mullah Dadullah, whose men seized control of more than 12 districts — and held on to them.
Pakistani strategic circles are convinced that as a proven military commander, Mullah Dadullah will be able to work wonders this spring and finally give the Taliban the edge over the Kabul administration and its NATO allies.
This, ultimately, is Pakistan’s objective — to revive its role in Kabul — and Islamabad is optimistic that Dadullah’s considerable diplomatic skills will enable him to negotiate a power-sharing formula for pro-Pakistan Afghan warlords.
Even if Mullah Omar disagrees about any major compromise, Islamabad believes that Dadullah would by then have made such a name for himself in the battle against NATO that Omar would have little option but to accept whatever terms were agreed on.
A New String in the Taliban Bow
A notable addition to what can only be described as a limited Taliban arsenal this year is surface-to-air missiles, notably the SAM-7, which was the first generation of Soviet man-portable SAMs.
The Taliban acquired these missiles in 2005, but they had little idea about how to use them effectively. Arab al-Qaeda members conducted extensive training programs and brought the Taliban up to speed. Nevertheless, the SAM-7s, while useful against helicopters, were no use against the fighter and bomber aircraft that were doing so much damage.
What the Taliban desperately needed were sensors for their missiles. These detect aircraft emissions designed to misdirect the missiles.
And it so happened that Pakistan had such devices, having acquired them from the Americans, though indirectly. The Pakistanis retrieved them from unexploded cruise missiles fired into Afghanistan in 1998, targeting bin Laden. They copied and adapted them to fit other missiles, including the SAMs.
Now that the Taliban and Pakistan have a deal, these missiles will be made available to the Taliban. Much like the Stingers that changed the dynamics of the Afghan resistance against the Soviets, the SAMs could help turn things Mullah Dadullah’s, the Taliban’s and Pakistan’s way.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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