Despite the Taliban regime’s fall in October 2001, the US-led allied forces have failed to uproot the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. They are gaining strength with every passing day, regrouping and reorganizing their resistance movement in the war-torn country.
Pakistan sources who talked to DEBKA-Net-Weekly in Islamabad report that the Taliban and al Qaeda are back together and backed by a new influx of Pakistani volunteers. They are expanding their areas of operation in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, which used to be their strongholds. The sources say that on their recent visits to Islamabad, Lt Gen David Barno, the former commander of US troops in Afghanistan, and the chief of American Central Command, General John Abizaid, urged Pakistan to launch fresh military operation against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters ranged in its territory. They were forced to acknowledge that the Taliban-al Qaeda problem was back to square one.
In the four years since the fall of the Taliban regime, US military operations in Afghanistan have passed through three phases.
In the first, the Taliban government was thrown out, with its administrative headquarters in Kabul and religious head office in Kandahar. It was replaced by a provisional government headed by Hamid Karzai, an educated Pashtun who enjoys the confidence of the US and other Western countries.
In the second, al Qaeda and Taliban training and other terrorist infrastructure in southern and eastern Afghanistan were destroyed by aerial and ground action.
In the third, a campaign was initiated to restore law and order and governance in the rural areas liberated from the control of the Taliban militia. A start was made on the building of the foundations for a liberal democracy in the form of a constitution that paved the way for free and fair elections.
Taliban and al Qaeda reunited
While this three-point plan went forward, Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters reunited and began setting up bases in remote parts of Afghanistan, mostly along the Pak-Afghan border. They took good advantage of the social, geographical and political realities in this tribal belt which favor their cause. Pakistani, American and Afghan authorities have no way of controlling this lawless, inaccessible region. By early 2005, the partners-in-terror were ready to move and launch their guerrilla war in earnest.
They have come a long way since they were hounded out of their strongholds by heavy US precision bomber between October 7 and December 2001. Then they scattered in search of sanctuary against the allied onslaught.
Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar's decision to retreat from Kabul and Kandahar forced most of their commanders to go into hiding in Pakistani tribal areas. Ordinary Taliban foot soldiers easily melted into the civilian Afghan population. Many removed their black turbans and joined the new Afghan administration. Others chose to go back to their tribes and resume routine life as ordinary citizens.
But since early 2005, there has been a tidal change. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources report increasing numbers of better trained, better equipped and better-led Taliban cadres and al Qaeda fighters, who are operating out of sanctuaries in Pakistan, have stepped up hit-and-run raids into southern and eastern Afghanistan. They are striving to demoralize Karzai’s newly-conscripted army and police and induce large-scale desertions.
The Taliban resistance movement is now focusing on reasserting its grip on Zabul, Spin Boldak and Hilmand, places high up in mountainous terrain. They are perfectly suited to mounting guerrilla sorties because they lead to safe routes that cross areas demarcated by the Durand Line, which separates Pakistan from Afghanistan.
Terrorists acquire sophisticated guerrilla techniques
This line exists only on the map. In practice there is no demarcation at all.
Dozens of villages sit where the Line should be, part in Afghanistan and part in Pakistan. But on both sides they belong to same Noor Zai and Achakzai tribes and for centuries have moved from side to side without restrictions.
These conditions enable Taliban and al Qaeda fighters to raid targets on Afghan soil from the unmarked mountains before melting away into those villages. Pakistan tribal areas thus provide the Taliban and al Qaeda with natural strategic depth for their offensive in Afghanistan.
Their operations in 2005 show the Taliban and al Qaeda to be primed in today’s most advanced guerilla techniques. They have also laid hands on fresh resources in personnel and supplies, which coalition forces believed to have been choked off.
US intelligence watchers see the Taliban and al Qaeda seeking to reinvigorate and resurrect their twin movements with the help of increasingly sophisticated tactics. They have moved on from the classical guerilla warfare tactics of Afghanistan in which a small band of fighters carries out a hit-and-run strike and disperses into the mountains.
In several recent battles in the east and south, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources to have concentrated their strength in an attempt to hold on to strategic positions, particularly in the southeast near the Pakistan border.
In the early days, the Taliban and al Qaeda would launch attacks on coalition and Northern Alliance forces in groups of 10 to 15 men. Today, their assault units are between 100 to 150 men.
As DEBKA-Net-Weekly has reported, this is precisely the tactic now employed by Iraqi insurgents of deploying large numbers of fighting men for each attack.
Yet the fact remains that Afghan rebels have taken massive casualties in their engagements with coalition and Afghan government troops in the first two weeks of May 2005. In some of the bloodiest fighting since the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, coalition forces called in air strength to strike large groups of militants attempting to hold on to strategic ground. American and British warplanes inflicted devastating losses on those enemy units.
As a result, more than 100 Taliban fighters were killed in battle across southern and eastern Afghanistan this month, against losses of nine Afghan soldiers, two US Marines and one Afghan police officer.
Attacks in big bands lead to big losses
On the other hand, Pakistani intelligence sources report that the confinement of coalition forces mainly to Kabul, the capital, Taliban and the al Qaeda fighters have gained ground in other parts of the country.
In September 2003, Taliban captured four southern and southwestern districts in Afghanistan – a major success that was trumpeted by Hamed Agha, the military spokesman of the Taliban. Though the Taliban forces had little trouble capturing these cities, they could not hold on to them against American air power. This realization does not conflict with the Taliban-al Qaeda overall strategy, which is to draw the Americans into a costly war of attrition.
In another change of tactics registered by Pakistani intelligence sources, the rebels are not only attacking US forces, but also Afghan police officers, foreign and local aid workers and midlevel officials. The United Nations last week reported that attacks on aid workers, many of them Afghans, have redoubled significantly since the beginning of May 2005. These intermittent assaults make the southern and eastern regions safe one day and dangerous the next. This uncertainty is slowing the pace of reconstruction and investment; it is also alienating the populace, almost entirely ethnic Pashtun, from the government in Kabul and its American backers.
On the other hand, US intelligence findings reported to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources reveal a partnership has sprung up between the terrorists operating from safe havens in neighboring Pakistan and aided by militant Muslim groups and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the radical Hizb-e-Islami, who enjoys covert support from the Pakistani establishment.
The Americans believe that the morale and fighting capability of the Taliban and its al Qaeda partners have been bolstered by Hizb-e-Islami reinforcements. The Taliban have also launched a bimonthly newsletter – Masone (Appearance), besides distributing leaflets in the same way that the mujahideen communicated with the Afghan people during the Soviet invasion.
In yet another significant move, Taliban leaders recently collected signatures from a number of leading Afghan clerics on a call for jihad against US-led forces.