No Defeat for the Taliban

The Taliban intelligence chief Quri Ahmadullah came across as brash and unbowed in an interview he granted on December 28 to a reporter of the Pakistani Pashtun newspaper Shariat. He invited the reporter quite openly to the Pakistanvillage of Datha Khail, south of Tora Bora and eight miles from the Afghan border, where he has taken up residence since the Taliban was put to flight.
Surrounded by guards brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles, Ahmadullah made these points:
A. The Taliban had not been defeated in battle; it effected a tactical retreat from Afghanistan’s main cities to stay clear of heavy American bombardments.
B. Osma bin Laden, Mullah Omar and the rest of the Taliban leadership were alive and fit. Some were still in Afghanistan, the rest on the Pakistani side of the border. Omar, according to the intelligence chief, is in safe hiding in a secret location northeast of Kandahar. Ahmadullah said he himself left Jalalabad on November 14, first moving to Tora Bora and then over to Pakistan. Most of the Taliban’s Pashtun fighters escaped from Tora Bora to the Parachinar region of western Pakistan.
Asked how they all managed to cross over, the Taliban officer pointed to his Pakistan landlord, Malik Gulmarjan. Our Pashtun brothers in Pakistan will do anything to help us, he declared, even handing over their homes.
C. On the future, Ahmadullah said the Taliban heads were busy regrouping to counter-attack the interim government in Kabul. He revealed that ten days before the interview, he sent his deputy Abdul Huq Wasiq across to meet Mullah Omar’s men. He was caught by US special forces near Ghazni.
debkafile‘s analysts draw three conclusions from Ahmadullah’s statements.
1. His lack of concealment in exposing his hideout and identity to the Pakistani reporter means he is not afraid. He presumes the rulers of Islamabad will not dare send the Pakistani army to lay hands on him for fear of provoking a general showdown with the Pashtun tribes of the borders areas.
2. For the Taliban leaders, the war is far from over. They are avowedly gathering themselves for the next round.
3. Although he spoke the name of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban intelligence chief omitted mention of al Qaeda as participants in future battles, which he discussed as an internal Afghan affair.
debkafile‘s military experts estimate net Taliban fighting strength in the Pakistan frontier regions at 15-18,000 soldiers. They have intermingled with local tribesmen in the guise of civilians in search of a living for their families, but their weapons are within easy reach. Another 6-8,000 Taliban fighters are on active service in Afghanistan, whether in pockets of resistance scattered round the country or the mountains of Hindu Kush and Little Pamir. This group has kept charge of most of the Taliban’s arsenal of heavy weapons.
The fighting force at the disposal of Hamid Karzai’s interim government would be outnumbered in a wholesale Taliban counter-offensive, no more than 20,000 soldiers, who exist anyway only on paper. To raise this number, the interim prime minister would have to engage in drawn out wheeling and dealing with all the anti-Taliban factions and militias. Assuming Karzai’s own Eastern Alliance, a predominantly southern Pashtun militia, is in the bag, he must still draw in the ousted president Burhanuddin Rabbani’s ethnic Tajik faction of the Northern Alliance, plus its strongman, the ethnic Uzbek general Rashid Dostum.
Karzai had the foresight to name Rabbani’s man, General Fahim, defense minister and General Dostum deputy defense minister. But still the figures do not add up to a force able to stand up to the Taliban if they decide to return to the fray.
To even up the balance, Karzai will have to rely on foreign military aid, which is why he is preparing to accept the UN-mandated international force in the teeth of objections from wishes of his coalition partners. They are doing what they can to keep the foreign troops out or down to a token minimum, because their presence cuts into their leverage.
This tussle, still unresolved Sunday, is an early test of Karzai’s leadership.
He is bound by a rigid timetable. His interim term of six months comes to an end in May, just after the spring thaw allows the Taliban to mount an offensive. This timetable is therefore crucial to his prospects of forming a stable government.

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