Last week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 206 ran the first article of a two-part series from its exclusive Pakistan sources on the state of play in the ongoing war against the displaced Taliban and its al Qaeda allies in Afghanistan. Our on-the-spot sources affirmed that the pair are riding back to control important regions of the country. They are described as better trained and better armed than ever and fortified with fresh recruits and supplies.
But they are also taking heavy losses and threatened with a fresh Pakistan-US counter-offensive.
After lying low for a long period, Taliban and al Qaeda propagandists have emerged on Arabic-language television and the Pakistani media to boast of their successes in Afghan battles. Their goal is to raise funds and support from Muslim sympathizers outside Afghanistan. Many phone directly to the international media along with bolder, bloodier operations, a twin tactic designed to shake faith in the Washington-backed Afghan government’s ability to assert its control, and the US military’s resolve to crush the rebels.
The Taliban’s currently unfolding strategy against the Allied Forces was decided in consultation with al Qaeda and its Arab recruits. It is based on the following key points:
- The Taliban is well integrated in the Afghan population.
- The US is up to its ears in Iraq, leaving anti-government Afghan forces plenty of time to build up their strength.
- The time is ripe for psychological warfare to drive home American ignorance of their next moves.
- Taliban and al Qaeda will keep up sporadic operations, but hold back from large-scale responses to US counter-insurgency operations so as not to tip their hand.
- To maintain a level of harassment that keeps the US and its allies chronically on edge.
- Growing public support for the Afghanistan’s deposed Taliban will make it easier to conscript such allies as Ismail Khan, the sacked governor of Herat province, General Rashid Dostum and the leaders of other disenchanted segments of Afghan society.
The overall plan is to chip away at popular support for President Hamid Karzai and his US backers step by step. At its nadir, the Taliban will come out in the open and strike hard. Until then, the Taliban and al Qaeda have shut down their known war bases in Pakistani territory. As one source noted, their message is “You will see us soon – in Kabul”.
Decentralization Iraq style
According to US intelligence sources, the present strategy was charted at a meeting presided over by Mullah Mohammad Omar in the Pak-Afghan tribal belt. The core decision was to take a leaf from the insurgency tactics employed in Iraq. The participants were agreed that the Iraqi guerrillas and their al Qaeda allies had dismantled or dispersed their central command structures and left the composite groups, mostly Islamists, to operate almost autonomously.
They decided therefore that decentralization of their command was the key to their security and ability to successfully carry through an underground campaign of resistance.
A short while after the meeting, all the prominent Taliban commanders dropped out of sight from the battlefield and went to ground.
Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar took refuge in the lawless tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan; the rest melted into the local Afghan population.
These withdrawals created a temporary, artificial lull in the attacks, which was the aim. A new generation of anonymous mujahideen, – unknown in Afghanistan – including Arabs, Pakistanis, Afghans and others – was selected in the meantime and dispersed in remote hideouts.
American sources tell DEBKA-Net-Weekly that these new fighters are all highly proficient in the latest guerrilla tactics and geared to executing specific missions. For instance, a small band was assigned to disrupt oil supplies in Spin Boldak. As soon as their mission was accomplished, they scattered to await the next assignment. Similarly, another group was assigned to blow up a helicopter in Ghazni, armed with all the necessary data, such as maps and flight routines. They too dispersed when the operation was done.
These and other instances point to another change in Taliban-al Qaeda’s methods of operation; they are now target-oriented rather than relying on random attacks as before.
According to the information reaching our intelligence sources, these small combat teams number no more than a few hundred. At present, they are charged with pinpoint missions in important Afghan cities like Khost, Ghazni, Kandahar and Jalalabad. But they have earmarked the capital, Kabul for their June 2005 offensive.
The meeting presided over by Mullah Omar reportedly decided to establish the central Taliban office at Asadabad, near the Pakistani border and several mobile training camps in Parachinar and Miran Shah, both in Pakistan. Mullah Omar heads the senior military committee, with two of his commanders, Mullah Dadullah and Ahktar Usmani.
Afghanistan was divided into operational zones under the overall command of Saiful Muslameen.
The famed Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, the Hizb-e-Islami chief, is in charge of Kunhar, Jalalabad, Kabul, Logar and Gazni.
Mullah Saifullah Mansoor rules over Khost, Paktia and Paktika.
Maulana Jalaludin Haqqani is in command of Gardez.
Taliban and al Qaeda operatives carry out hit-and-run operations against allied forces in Khost, Paktia, Paktika and Gazni. Because they do not control territory there, they use Northern and Southern Waziristan provinces of Pakistan as launching pads and havens for retreat.
Despite denials from Islamabad, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Pakistan sources confirm that the Pakistani army launched a fresh military operation in North Waziristan after the May 3 capture of al-Qaeda’s chief operational commander, Abu Faraj Al Libbi, from the border areas of Pakistan. Unlike previous strikes in South Waziristan to root out Taliban and other foreign fighters, the new operation is aimed at pinpointed targets rather than sweeping through a broad swathe of territory. It is said to have been prepared on the advice of US intelligence, which drew a line around certain areas in Miranshah, Data Khail and Mir Ali. The senior al-Qaeda operative, Haitham al-Yemeni, was the first quarry to be eliminated when a CIA Predator rocketed his car on May 8.
Pakistani troops acting on an American intelligence tip off raided the North Waziristan house of Afghan commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and arrested his elder son, Sirajuddin Haqqani.
US sources named Jalaluddin the elder, a legendary mujahideen commander in the 1980s war against the Red Army, as Taliban’s senior contact for recruiting and training youths for targeted attacks.
But even he was not the main target. US intelligence sources report the new North Waziristan offensive was launched after local tribes informed American undercover operatives of sightings of al Qaeda’s Number Two Ayman al-Zawahiri in recent weeks at different places, including Birmal in Paktika province in Afghanistan, near North Waziristan, and in Zabul province, the Taliban epicenter.
Mullah Omar was also reportedly spotted in Zabul, as was top Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah.
These movements indicate the top-level meeting for plotting the next Taliban-al Qaeda steps must have taken place somewhere in Zabul.
This month, scores of rank-and-file Taliban and al Qaeda fighters took up the Karzai government’s amnesty offer. This is a gain as against the Taliban-al Qaeda inroads in parts of the country. But, according to our sources in the Pakistan-Afghanistan theatre, General Pervez Musharraf‘s regime continues to keep the Taliban movement alive in the hope of using it as a stepping stone to the recovery of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. Washington’s continued reluctance to take steps against Islamabad for helping the Islamist terrorists is a stumbling block to an effective counter-terror strategy.