February 26, 2010

Taliban United

We have touched in this blog on developments that seem to suggest the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups have started working ever-more closely together. This article by David Rohde of the New York Times makes spells out the case more explicitly by drawing on Antonio Giustozzi's latest bookir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0231701128 - Decoding the New Taliban: Insights form the Afghan Field.

"The Taliban and their cause have moved effortlessly across national, ethnic, and tribal boundaries. Claudio Franco describes how Pakistan's tribal areas have served as a base for the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. In December 2007, the Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud was able to create an alliance of Pakistani jihadi groups, which ranged from Sunni hard-liners eager to kill Shia, to Punjabi militants eager to kill Indian forces in Kashmir, to Pashtuns eager to topple American-backed leaders in Kabul and Islamabad. Mehsud, who was killed in an American drone strike in August 2009*, blocked Pakistani government efforts to split the Pakistani Taliban along tribal lines.

"Baitullah's masterstroke was his involvement in the creation of the TTP in December 2007," Franco writes, using the acronym for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or Taliban Movement of Pakistan. "Treating the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] like a section of the Muslim Ummah, and tribals as a single community of believers, the brains behind the TTP were able to introduce a mutual assistance mechanism designed to break the government's strategy."

Franco writes that the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban both operate under a loose Taliban command structure headed by the longtime Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Omar. Broad directives are issued by Mullah Omar, but local Taliban ground commanders in both countries carry out local operations as they see fit. He concludes that the Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban are wings of the same broad Taliban movement. "The Afghan Taliban never appear as an external actor," he writes. "They direct the Pakistanis as if they were another of their regional Wilayat, or governorates."

Another important point to look at in the article is how the "semi wild men of the tribal lands" (as a starry-eyed aid worker in Islamabad once said) have become pretty clever at the old technology thing:

"In her essay, "Reading the Taliban," in the Giustozzi volume, Joanna Nathan marvels at the Taliban's haphazard, yet sophisticated and extremely effective p.r. strategy. A movement that seemed to reject modernity in the 1990s is now adept at using technology to monitor its enemy, disseminate its message, and shape its image. One Taliban commander operating just south of Kabul in Wardak Province, for example, recognized the publicity value of carrying out attacks near Kabul. "Being near Kabul allows the news and military events that happen here to reach all the international media outlets," he told Al Somood, the Taliban's official magazine, in 2008. "For instance, when we destroyed 54 logistics vehicles in July, local and international journalists rushed to report the event."

The idea that Taliban leaders think of informational influence as an integral part of their operational planning actually puts them a few steps ahead of their ISAF and Pakistani opponents.

Rohde makes two very nail-on-the-head conclusions.

1. All this talk of talking to the Taliban seems a little too hopeful if you consider that the Taliban (whichever branch) sees itself as doing pretty well at the moment. Why start thinking about negotiating when you feel you are winning (ie managing to stay in the fight) and your opponent is talking about leaving in a year and a bit?

2. An Afghan surge is unlikely to work while the Afghan Taliban is drawing on support from its now integrated branch on the other side of the Durand Line. However, this article was probably written before news emerged of the arrests made by Pakistan, which we talked about here and here.

But, considering the mystery surrounding Pakistan's intentions in relation to those arrests and their possible repercussions

, it's worth keeping Rohde's final words in mind.

"Another scenario is more likely, and arguably more frightening. There is one prospect worse than Pakistani influence over the Afghan Taliban, and that is the Afghan Taliban’s immunity to Pakistani influence. Pakistan’s generals may find that in fact they now do not have the influence over the hard-line Afghan Taliban that they believe. A new generation of Afghan Taliban might remain unwaveringly committed to the jihad that they are waging with their Arab, Uzbek, and Pakistani brethren. They could hunker down in their tribal area strongholds and dare the Pakistani army to dislodge them. What then? As the American troop presence in the region shrinks in 2011 and 2012, the Afghan Taliban could re-emerge with a vengeance."