September Issue 2003
The Taliban Strike Back
Once again Afghanistan is in turmoil. Today, a strong resistance is building up against the US-led western coalition and President Hamid Karzai’s beleaguered regime. Yet another jihad has been declared, more ‘martyrs’ are being produced, while the Afghan people, as in the past, have little say in decisions that affect their destiny.
The American and British invasion of Iraq triggered a noticeable increase in the number of attacks on the US-led coalition forces and their Afghan allies in Afghanistan. Though the Taliban and other anti-US groups were involved in such attacks even before the occupation of Iraq, their campaign has assumed a renewed urgency in recent months. US military officials admitted that the number of attacks against their troops not only doubled in the spring of 2003, but also became more sophisticated. Regrouped and willing to take risks, Taliban military commanders are now threatening to extend their theatre of operations from their strongholds in the southern, southwestern and eastern provinces to northern Afghanistan. In fact, some Taliban guerilla attacks have already been reported in the northern provinces of Balkh, Faryab and Kunduz, where Uzbek warlord, Abdur Rasheed Dostum, his Tajik rival, Atta Mohammad and the Hazara leader, Ustad Mohaqqiq, hold sway.
By retreating from major cities and going underground, instead of putting up a last stand in 2001, most Taliban fighters managed to survive and hide their cache of weapons. It was a wise move because the Taliban could have faced decimation at the hands of the superior US fighting machines. With the US now preoccupied with the growing resistance in Iraq and the Afghans growing increasingly restless over the slow pace of reconstruction, the Taliban and other opposition groups are finding it relatively easy to bolster the resistance movement and find recruits for their anti-US campaign.
There have been a series of daring assaults in recent months: the ambush in Gereshk in Helmand province in which suspected Taliban fighters killed three Afghan and two American soldiers and wounded several others; the murder of an expatriate engineer working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Urozgan province; the killing of four German soldiers who were part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in an apparent suicide bombing in Kabul, and the death of several Afghan soldiers, policemen and aid workers in Taliban guerilla attacks in small towns and outposts. Religious scholars supporting the Karzai government have also been targetted. Missile assaults on coalition bases, hit-and-run attacks on their patrols and remote-controlled bombs targetting coalition vehicles, are now a routine affair.
So daring have the Taliban become that they recently launched frontal assaults on a number of district headquarters in the southwestern Urozgan and Zabul provinces, occupied the administrative and police centres, and killed scores of soldiers and cops. American and Afghan government spokesmen even reported attacks by a force of 600 to 800 Taliban fighters in the two provinces. It was, by far, the biggest concentration of Taliban fighters after the American invasion of Afghanistan. The formation of such a large armed force 200 kilometres from the Pakistan border would not have been possible without local support. It was obvious that many Afghans were willing to take risks by offering sanctuary to the Taliban fighters. As Khalid Pashtun, a senior government official in Kandahar commented, the Taliban were employing the same traditional tactics used successfully by the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation.
Though the ISAF and the US military, headquartered north of Kabul at Bagram airbase, had maintained all along that they didn’t expect the war in Iraq to cause any deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan, the importance of the US-led attack on Iraq and the opportunity it created for anti-US forces was not lost on the Taliban. One of their top military commanders, Mulla Dadullah, used the opportunity to claim responsibility for some of the attacks on the coalition troops and threaten further assaults. Referring to the US-UK invasion of Iraq, he argued that it was part of the crusade against Muslims, and urged the Afghans to join the jihad to evict “all foreigners, all crusaders” from Afghanistan. It was the first time since losing power that a top Taliban leader had agreed to be interviewed — a testimony to their growing confidence after remaining underground for more than a year.
Increased attacks against coalition forces in parts of Afghanistan, particularly in those areas inhabited by the ethnic Pashtun majority, shows that some Afghans are heeding the Taliban’s appeal. As Dadullah claimed, the Taliban had regrouped under 10 military commanders appointed by their supreme leader, Mulla Mohammad Omar, forged new alliances and waged a guerilla campaign in the Pashtun-inhabited provinces bordering Pakistan. By declaring that the guerilla-style attacks would henceforth be executed in the non-Pashtun majority northern provinces, where the Taliban have traditionally enjoyed little or no support, Taliban commanders are hoping to exploit the hostility and frustration felt by ordinary Afghans towards corrupt pro-US warlords and their tyrannical rule.
Likeminded former mujahideen leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also declared “jihad” against the foreign forces in Afghanistan calling President Karzai a puppet of the US. Himself a Pashtun from northern Afghanistan, Hekmatyar attempted to exploit the anger of the Pashtun majority over the loss of power to ethnic minorities such as the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks. Though both Hekmatyar and the Taliban have denied forming an alliance to fight coalition forces and the Karzai government, it is likely that their fighters are cooperating at the local level while confronting a common enemy. With his party’s organisational and propaganda skills, Hekmatyar was expected to bolster the strength of the Taliban, who retain a reservoir of fighters but lack resources.
The Karzai government’s public support for the US invasion of Iraq did not go down well with most Afghans, while the perception that their President was an American creation has become palable. The fact that President Karzai still needs American bodyguards for his protection has further damaged his reputation. Karzai’s efforts to rein in the warlords and make the slowly emerging Tajik-dominated Afghan National Army ethnically balanced, is turning members of his coalition against him. With the presidential elections coming up next June, the former mujahideen as well as the pro-west royalists and liberals are coalescing into rival alliances to stake their claim for power. Already, the monarchists have formed the Wahdat-i-Milli (National Unity Party) under the leadership of former king Zahir Shah’s cousin, Ghazi Sultan Mahmood. Their rivals, including former mujahideen affiliated with the Northern Alliance, have held meetings to organise a united front against the pro-west forces. The former communists too have revived their party under a retired general, Noorul Haq Uloomi. In the process, the uneasy Karzai-led coalition cobbled together as a result of the US-backed and UN-sponsored Bonn conference in December 2001 is under threat.
The disarray in the ranks of the Afghan government is causing disaffection among its supporters and providing a window of opportunity to the Taliban and other opposition groups. Some Karzai government officials have conceded that their supporters have become demoralised due to the friction in the ranks of the Karzai-led Afghan coalition and the diminished US commitment to stabilising and rebuilding war-ravaged Afghanistan. Increased Taliban guerilla activity has not only fuelled insecurity and hampered reconstruction, but also triggered tensions on Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan due to Kabul’s allegations that the Taliban militants have their hideouts in Pakistani territory. US military officials had to intervene recently to prevent further escalation in hostilities when the Pakistan embassy in Kabul was attacked by a mob protesting alleged encroachments by Pakistani military on Afghan territory. The resultant instability in the area has benefited the resurgent Taliban.
However, the Taliban and their allies still have to overcome a number of challenges before they can revive their credibility and inspire the war-weary Afghan people. The majority of Afghans are fed up of war and long only for peace and reconstruction, not another round of fighting. The six-year Taliban rule was not popular with many Afghans who will certainly refuse to support their return to power, while most Afghans are well aware that Afghanistan would again become isolated and foreign economic assistance would stop should the Taliban regain power. Most non-Pashtuns kept their distance from the Taliban in the past and would do so again. Meanwhile the Taliban lack the resources required to sustain an armed struggle and there is no indication that any outside country or organisation is ready to finance their campaign. Moreover, past rivalries and ideological and personal disputes will continue to haunt efforts to forge an effective alliance between the Taliban, Hekmatyar and other anti-US groups. Given this scenario, at this stage though the Taliban might be capable of rendering parts of Afghanistan insecure, they are unlikely to bring down the Karzai government or force a coalition pullout from Afghanistan.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.