The fracturing of the Taliban - S Iftikhar Murshed - Monday, March 14, 2011

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The writer is the author of Afghanistan, the Taliban Years, published by Bennett &Bloom, London.

There is a need for Pakistan to constantly review its Afghan policy because of the perpetually changing ground realties. In the nineteenth century imperial Britain and Russia in their competition with each other understood this only too well and came to the conclusion that their respective interests were best served by a stable Afghanistan. This, however, was easier said than done because the ethnic diversity of the country has been at the heart of its past and present turmoil.

The emergence of Afghanistan as a state in the last two centuries owed itself more to Britain’s imperial ambitions than any desire among its peoples to forge a national identity. British writers claimed that their country had contributed significantly to give “a national unity to that nebulous community which we call Afghanistan (which the Afghans never called by that name) by drawing a boundary all round it and elevating it into a position of buffer state between ourselves and Russia.” External compression was, therefore, applied by the advancing empires of Britain and Russia to foster effective cohesion among the Afghan groups.

The conflicting interests of imperial Britain and Russia did not permit either to establish itself in Afghanistan. The alternative to an armed clash over the territory was to transform it into a buffer state. It was also in their interest, if Afghanistan was to play this role, to ensure that chaos and anarchy did not prevail in it. A strong ruler was, therefore, needed in the country. Both imperial powers feared chaos in a leaderless Afghanistan more than the unfriendliness of an Afghan ruler.

Britain also believed that strong leadership could only be provided by the largest ethnic group, namely, the Pushtuns. This became of paramount importance for the British who often played a decisive role in the selection of the amir – always a Pushtun. They not only provided him subsidies and weapons to build an army and consolidate power but also encouraged the subjugation of ethnic minorities. In the words of a Russian historian “after 1849 Dost Muhammad turned to the conquest of non-Afghan peoples living north of the Hindu Kush (Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Turkmen) with the support of the British India Company.”

Like the British, Pakistan has also crafted its Afghan policy on support for a friendly Pusthun leadership but without the resources available to the former imperial power. Thus when Mullah Muhammad Omar Akhund set forth in August 1994 from Maiwand, Kandahar with a small group of followers to punish a local warlord, he was encouraged by Islamabad. His movement, which was a reaction to the prevailing anarchy after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent misrule of Burhanuddin Rabbani regime, gathered momentum and within weeks Kandahar city was taken by the Taliban.

In less than two years since their emergence, Jalalabad fell to the Taliban onslaught with only 20 casualties. In Sarobi, where Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Masood had sent their own commanders to strengthen its defence and mine the approaches, the local Ahmadzai tribe joined the Taliban, and the commanders around Sarobi either surrendered immediately or fled to Kabul. It had been claimed that the capital could sustain a siege for more than a year but its surrender came virtually overnight on Sept 27, 1996, with only 200 fatalities.

Taliban justice in the 75 percent of Afghan territory that they controlled was both swift and harsh. Admittedly, there was no longer any theft, murder or molestation of women but the peace and security that prevailed resembled that of a prison. The two most significant achievements of the Taliban regime were the eradication of poppy cultivation and the de-weaponisation of their society. This was certainly remarkable as a firearm was almost a part of the Pushtun tribal attire and as natural to them as the wearing of a necktie is to males in western societies.

Yet despite their hardships, ordinary Afghans during the early months of Taliban rule had hopes for a better future because, unlike Pakistan, their leaders were honest. An incident indicative of these expectations – that were later to be shattered by the obscurantist world view of the Taliban – was a conversation that a Pakistan consulate official in Kandahar had with a mechanical engineer whose monthly take-home pay was equivalent to a paltry $ 20 (US). The man said that he was not in the least bitter about his inadequate emoluments because his leaders were even poorer than he was. The reason for this was that the Taliban were a volunteer movement and none of its members down from Mullah Omar, to provincial governors, ministers and fighters received any pay.

For decision-makers in Islamabad, who harboured the unreal dream of strategic depth, Taliban control of Afghanistan was of supreme importance for Pakistan. Indian influence in Afghanistan had ceased to exist and peace and security prevailed in the country under a strong Pushtun leader. Pakistan’s post-9/11 Afghan policy is built around the restoration of Taliban dominance in Afghanistan albeit in a modified form. The problem is that the Taliban movement seems to be fracturing.

The international media has reported that in recent months more than a 1,000 Taliban fighters have defected and many of them have joined the Afghan National Security Forces. Though this is only a fraction of the movement’s estimated armed strength of around 30,000 men, the defectors have provided valuable intelligence to the US-led troops enabling them to kill or capture hundreds of seasoned fighters as well as overrun key Taliban bases in Helmand and Kandahar over the past one year.

Zabiullah, a senior Taliban adviser, recently admitted that the group is confronted with a severe leadership crisis. He said: “In 16 years of the Taliban’s military and political life, this is our most difficult phase.” Reports in the western media indicate that morale among the Taliban is at an all-time low. Taliban fighters have complained that their two key commanders in the vitally important south, Abdul Qayum and Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor, are ineffective and do not inspire any confidence.

Furthermore, there has been an absence of coordination among the so-called Quetta and Peshawar shuras as well as the Haqqani network which is predominant in the eastern provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost. Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, has not been seen or heard since he fled Afghanistan in 2001. His influence also seems to have diminished dramatically as was evident from his inability to save his close friend, Col Imam, who was recently killed by a splinter group in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

At another level, popular support for the Taliban among the Pushtuns could be in decline. The UN statistics indicate that in the first 10 months of 2010 the insurgents were responsible for 1,800 civilian deaths which is three times the number of fatalities caused by NATO and US forces.

The coming of spring will herald what is cynically called “the fighting season” in Afghanistan. The ground situation is likely to change and a constant policy review will be required. There was a time when an Afghan Cell meeting presided by the president or the prime minister was regularly held and there is need to revive this system to enable Pakistan to respond to the emergent realities.


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