By Syed Saleem Shahzad from Asia Times Online
KARACHI – The Taliban’s spring offensive is in full swing, with almost daily attacks, including suicide bombings, in Afghanistan. More than 200 people, including 14 American soldiers, have lost their lives in the Taliban-led insurgency this year.
This toll – and the damage caused – is small in relation to the insurgency in Iraq, though the techniques applied have been modeled on those used by the Iraqi resistance. What the Afghan resistance lacks in expertise and sophistication, though, it is making up in numbers – to a scale not seen since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001.
Thousands of new volunteers are pouring into the mountainous regions on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan to combat Pakistani troops on the one side and US-led allied forces on the other side. The volunteers include local Waziristanis from the North and South Waziristan tribal areas, Afghans and a small number Central Asian fighters. The vast majority, though, come from North West Frontier Province, Punjab and Karachi.
And in a significant development, many of these fighters would normally have joined in the struggle against Indian-administered Kashmir.
Thousands of jihadis who had fought alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan before the US-led invasion of the country in 2001 subsequently joined with the the banned Jaish-i-Mohammed and Harkatul Mujahideen to fight in Kashmir. However, with India fencing the borders in Kashmir and the United States applying considerable pressure on Islamabad to stop the infiltration into Indian-administered Kashmir, the flow of jihadis has dried to a trickle, leaving them sitting idle.
The Taliban’s recruitment drive for this summer’s offensive, which started last year, targeted these jihadis, and many were persuaded to join the Taliban in North and South Waziristan. Apart from those belonging to the Jaish-i-Mohammed and Harkatul Mujahideen, fighters associated with the Lashkar-i-Toiba have also joined the Taliban in their thousands.
The Taliban have also targeted underground militias that sprang up in Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, with a total of about 50,000 fighters, many of whom received training in Afghanistan under the Taliban. These groups range from 20-2,000 people in each.
The battle from The Base (al-Qaeda)
Whether the Taliban inflict major losses on coalition forces this year or not, the International Islamic Front of Osama bin Laden has unleashed a battle from its new base – the "Islamic state of Waziristan" in North Waziristan.
The strategy is to expand this base further, to the provinces of Paktia, Khost, Helmand and Zabul in Afghanistan. In many villages of these provinces, as in North Waziristan, the Taliban have paralyzed the writ of the Afghan state and have formed their own administrations, which include a Taliban judiciary, police and system of taxes.
Although the Taliban have reached the Pakistani districts of Dera Ismail Khan and Tank, and shut down music centers, a decision to take over full control of these districts in North West Frontier Province has not yet been made.
In Taliban-controlled areas, neither tribal chiefs nor clerics have any say. Similarly, the six-party religious-political alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, has lost its influence. This much has been admitted by the Pakistani minister of interior.
On-the-ground contacts from North Waziristan tell Asia Times Online that as many as 27,000 fighters have grouped in the area. A new command has been formed, with all prominent faces being sent into the background. The new field commander is little-known, an Afghan named Maulana Sagheen Khan Zadran, 41. Of the fighters, about 3,500 are from Pakistani Punjab and Karachi and more than 10,000 from various districts of North West Frontier Province, while the rest are either local tribals or Afghan refugees.
The field commander of the Taliban in South Waziristan is Baitullah Mehsud. Though the exact figures for fighters in South Waziristan are not known, they are believed to run in the many thousands.
"This is the tip of the iceberg as thousands of mujahideen are waiting for the call. They are located in all seven tribal agencies and the rest of Pakistan. In addition to that, thousands of Taliban are still in Afghanistan, and once the Taliban movement gets momentum, they will be regrouped in their respective districts, like the Taliban are organized in North and South Waziristan, in the districts of Paktia, Khost, Helmand and Zabul," a contact said.
Asia Times Online has contacted top Pakistani officials, ranging from those in the Ministry of Information to the Ministry of Interior, the armed forces and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, informing them of this article and requesting interviews. None chose to respond.
A twist in the ‘war on terror’
Since the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, the US-led "war on terror" has been through many phases. The indications are that another major change is happening.
A key policy the Americans devised was to shut down war theaters, be they in the Middle East, South Asia or Africa, as they were perceived as breeding grounds for terror. Thus, after invading Afghanistan and Iraq, the US put considerable diplomatic muscle into twisting Pakistan’s arm to ban all private militias, initiate dialogue with India and clamp down on militancy emanating from the Pakistan-administered side of Kashmir, as well as abandon Islamist leaders in Kashmir.
The results of this, however, have not been what the Americans wanted, for while a lot of the heat might have been taken out of the Kashmir struggle, the focus has shifted to Waziristan and Afghanistan.
Khalid Khawaja is a retired squadron leader in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and belonged to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the 1980s. He wrote a critical letter to the late general Zia ul-Haq, calling him a hypocrite. Zia ordered his dismissal from the ISI and forced his retirement from the PAF. Khalid went straight to Afghanistan in 1987 and fought alongside the mujahideen against the Soviets.
While in Afghanistan he developed close and friendly ties with bin Laden. Khawaja’s name resurfaced after the abduction and murder of US reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.
Asia Times Online asked Khawaja why people were giving up fighting in Kashmir and instead going to Waziristan.
"The feelings of disgruntlement among mujahideen emerged soon after September 11. Even a person like Maulana Fazl Rehman Khalil [chief of the Harkatul Mujahideen] once asked me in a private meeting why the mujahideen should [continue to] fight for the Kashmiri cause.
"The way the situation evolved in Pakistan after September 11, there was just no rationale for people to fight in Kashmir, simply because whatever Indian forces were doing in Kashmir against the Muslim population, Pakistani forces did even worse against Muslims in Pakistan," Khawaja said.
"Jihad is fought not for the sake of land. Jihad is fought when there is a question of faith and the enemy are attacking the faith. After September 11, the Americans attacked our faith. We fought against Soviet Russia for the same reason. Now the Americans have replaced Soviet Russia.
"Now when faith is under attack there is no difference of caste and creed. The collaborators are equally punishable, be it Pakistan or any other country. This is a global rule of mujahideen which is substantiated by clear religious decrees, be it Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. After all, when [US President George W] Bush can say that you are with us or against us, what harm if the mujahideen make the same claims?" Khawaja said.
Saleem Hashmi, a spokesman for the largest indigenous Kashmiri liberation movement, the Hizbul Mujahideen, told Asia Times Online that with regard to the HM’s strategic manpower, it is targeted at Indian-administered Kashmir.
Nevertheless, the situation on the ground tells a different story, and it is clear that that the Taliban have acquired a new and reliable supply of volunteers to feed the movement for many more spring offensives.