A revealing interview with Rahimullah Yusufzai on the Taliban and Pakistani sentiment

Kaustav Chakrabarti of Open Security has published an interview on the Taliban and related issues in Pakistan with the deservedly respected journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai. This interview is a treasure trove of valuable information on the situation in Pakistan today. Thanks to Chakrabarti and Open Security for making it available. I reproduce here the latter 80% of this interview. The earlier portion is on material that is generally well known. [Click on the title above for a link to the whole article.]

Links between the Taliban and al Qaeda have grown stronger

Kaustav Chakrabarti, 24 November 2009

. . . .

RY: . . . Osama Bin Laden was given refuge by the Jalalabad shaura (council) of the Mujahideen headed by Haji Qadir. The Taliban inherited these Arabs and Osama Bin Laden. I am witness to the fact that they were initially suspicious of each other. Osama thought that the Taliban was a US-Pakistan creation and that he could not work with them. The Taliban thought that since Osama was working with the Mujahideen earlier he must still be friendly to them.

They had a few meetings, and they resolved their differences; he was allowed to stay on in Jalalabad. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan militants and other Central Asian groups were also allowed to stay. They were already there before the Taliban came to power. But their presence in Afghanistan increased after the Taliban came to power because Taliban gave refuge to everyone who wanted to come; Arabs, Central Asians, Chinese Muslims, and Indonesians.

The Taliban’s links with al Qaeda, however, have grown over the years, since they have been fighting together for long. They have fought a common enemy in a common trench, given blood to each other; so now the bonds are much stronger. The Taliban would still like to confine themselves to Afghanistan. Maybe they would not be very happy to give refuge to people like Osama. But now that the bonds have been strengthened, I do not know if they can push them out.

KC: Mullah Omar regarded Bamiyan Buddha as an Afghan heritage and wanted to protect it. Then why did he allow it to be destroyed? Was there a change in his outlook?

RY: Regarding the destruction of Bamiyan Buddha, the radical elements within the Taliban movement had their way. Mullah Omar, in spite of being the leader, did not have the power to stop this. What they did was something very unwise; it was a heritage, why destroy them. One incident provoked them. A famine had exasperated the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. People had been displaced because of the fighting. The Taliban had appealed to the world for help including the UN. No one was forthcoming as the Taliban was like a pariah. And this got them angry. They thought that while the world was concerned about the statues, no one was concerned about the Afghans. That there was more concern for the dead than for those who were still alive and could have survived if they were given help.

KC: Saudi Arabia maintains that the Taliban would become moderate in due course of time. Do you agree with it?

RY: I think that’s a good point. You know, if you interact with these radical groups and bring them into the mainstream, I think it can moderate their policies. I know at that time [late 90’s], there were some NGOs – Danish, Swedish, the Red Cross – they were interacting with the Taliban and they were influencing them. In fact, Swedish NGOs were allowed to run girl schools. The security situation in Afghanistan was very good during the time of the Taliban.

KC: I understand that the Taliban were hugely popular when they came to power. But what was their popularity among the Afghans in later years?

RY: They emerged in the autumn of 1994. I was the first one to go to Kandahar and tell the world about the Taliban. In fact I was there in Kabul immediately after Najibullah [the Soviet -backed president who had taken shelter in a UN compound prior to his execution by the Taliban], was hanged. I did not see the execution but I saw their bodies hanging from the electricity pole. I spent the previous night in Jalalabad. I was told by the Taliban commanders that the next day Kabul will fall. I was with the BBC team. We left Jalalabad at four in the morning, we got special permit to leave before the curfew was relaxed. And there was jubilation, people were happy. It was the grape season and people were distributing grapes to everyone.

The Taliban were able to stop lawlessness in a very short time. During the rule of the Mujahideen, there were about 42 check posts between Chaman (border town in Balochistan) and Kandahar. Under the Taliban there were only three. The security was excellent. I traveled at night and nothing happened. Under the Mujahideen robberies were common, I too was robbed.

They brought peace after so many years of war. Those who claim that the Taliban were a Pakistani creation were missing the whole point. I was there when the Taliban came to power. The people welcomed them since they were tired of the excesses of the Mujahideen. The people thought that they would bring peace, and they wanted nothing of the Mujahideen. A term was used at that time in the Kandahar region ? Topakayan, which is Pashto for gunmen. The Mujahideen were called the gunmen. Things had become to such a pass that Kandahar was divided into five different regions. Kabul was also like that; Dostum was controlling the northern parts, the Palace area was controlled by Ahmed Shah Masood and Rabbani, the south was controlled by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, western Kabul was in the hands of the Hazara-Shiite groups led by Mazari, and the North west was controlled by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. And this was true of every city in Afghanistan. These groups set up numerous checkpoints which made life miserable for the people. That’s why the people welcomed the Taliban. Earlier there were at least five to six centres of power. With the Taliban there was only one centre of power. They controlled ninety percent of the land.

Their third achievement was ending drug trafficking. They did it with very few resources, no international help and no alternative crops for the farmers. They simply issued a decree banning poppy. And look now; it is feeding the insurgency and has increased manifolds under the watch of the Americans and their allies. And today, it’s not only the Taliban which is benefiting from narcotics trade but others in power also have a share in it.

But this security came at some costs. Their laws were very tough. The non-Pashtuns were a bit apprehensive. The Taliban’s biggest criticism was that the fighting never ended. The Taliban in due course of time became like any other armed group. They were unable to transform themselves from an armed group into a political organisation. So the Taliban became another armed faction which wanted power at all costs, especially since they were in war with the Northern Alliance. They never held any peace talks. They wanted to rule alone, there was no effort made to forge alliances. They really never had any socio-economic policies to improve the life of the people.

KC: What was Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban?

RY: The Pakistanis were initially not even aware of the Taliban movement. I was in Kandahar, and in my presence a phone call came from the ISI office in Rawalpindi. The ISI wanted to exchange some pleasantries. Mullah Omar spoke in Pashto and the ISI guy spoke in Urdu. Mullah Omar’s response was clear: “I don’t know you, I don’t have any work with you, I cannot communicate with you in Urdu, and I don’t want to talk with you”. This was in 1995. People who write about these things have never been to these places, they have never met Mullah Omar or his Shaura. When I came back, the ISI debriefed me about the Taliban. Officers of the rank of Brigadier asked me: “Who are the Taliban, who is Mullah Omar, what kind of person he is.” Had they known, why would they ask me?

At that time, the Taliban were very popular, the movement was spreading like wildfire. And that phone call was the first attempt at contact between the Taliban and the ISI. And then, they thought- wait, hang on, we can offer them support.

The belief that the Taliban were a Pakistani creation is not true, although eventually there were contacts. Pakistan asked the Taliban not to bomb Bamiyan Buddha, they refused. Pakistan asked them to hand over Osama Bin Laden, they refused. Pakistan asked Taliban to hand over Pakistani criminals and militants who had taken refuge in Afghanistan and some of them were with the Taliban, they refused to hand over even one Pakistani. The Taliban were very angry with the transit trade conditions placed on Afghanistan by Pakistan. Pakistan had declared many items as negative which Afghanistan could not longer import through the Pakistani territory since these items, like tires and gadgets, were being smuggled back into Pakistan. This created problems between the two.

Current Situation in Afghanistan

KC: Let us talk about the present situation-How popular is the Taliban now?

RY: Among the Pashtuns they are the strongest group. Western polls suggest that the Taliban control only eleven percent support, I don’t believe that. When the Americans wanted to defeat the Taliban initially, they sided with the wrong people, they befriended these warlords. The same warlords who were defeated by the Taliban were brought back to power. These warlords were hated, that’s one reason why the people turned against the government in the first place.

However, for many reasons, they are not the most popular movement, majority of Afghans don’t like the Taliban. You must understand that it’s a very fragmented tribal society. The Taliban militias are heavily armed, well funded and enjoy the requisite manpower. What has the other side [government troops] got? Hamid Karzai, and the Afghan Army is not a very well organized force. There is no organised military force in Afghanistan.

If you live in places like Kandahar or Helmand, the most powerful group are the Taliban. You have no choice, if you want to live in peace and survive, then you have to agree to cooperate with the Taliban. When the government displays authority in some area, the people will support them. The government is not powerful, and that’s where the problem lies. The tide will turn if the people realise that now the government and the Americans are winning, and the Taliban are weakening. That can happen.

KC: What do you think of the counterinsurgency strategy suggested by Gen Stanley McChrystal?

RY: The Americans are faltering. They have lost the way; they do not know what to do. They are moving from one disaster to another. Obama came up with a new policy when he came to power. He inserted 21000 new troops and changed the commander. He also started focusing more on Pakistan. Now they are doing another review since the first policy has obviously failed. Now the second review is going on. The Americans are actually trying to extradite themselves from the problem. The memories of Vietnam are still fresh, that is the problem. Obama has been asked for 40,000 more troops, which is going to push Obama deeper into the Afghan problem. Afghanistan is known as a graveyard of empires for a reason.

KC: The counter argument could be that Afghans have got the wrong end of the stick from all those who tried to invade Afghanistan. No one ever really did hearts-and-minds in Afghanistan. Can such a strategy work?

RY: How do you do a hearts-and-minds policy with people in uniform. And that too with foreign troops! The foreign presence is not liked- the way they behave, their cultural and religious ignorance. The way they carry out their search operations, the way they bomb people which cause civilian casualties– all cause deep resentment.

It’s too late. Hearts and minds means that you go out of your camps and heavily-guarded fortresses and you interact with the locals on a very regular basis. You ask them for their problems and help them with money and other assistance. But they can’t go out like that, wherever they go, the roads are mined. Children have been taught how to explode the bombs; IEDs are planted by the Taliban and the remote is given to a child and when they see the vehicle coming, they push the trigger. They might be living in areas under the control of the government but they are not for the government. Because people have lost family members, they have suffered. Their family members have been arrested and they have been jailed in Baghram and Guantanamo Bay. So there are many issues involved here. I think that it’s a bit late in the day to revive the policy of wining the ?hearts and minds’.

What they can do is perhaps to buy some people. Which I think is the new policy– ‘to buy’ the insurgents. The Americans have come up with a very insulting term ? ‘ten dollar a month Taliban’– the notion that 10-15 percent are committed Taliban and the rest are fighting for money.

The Pakistan Taliban

KC: Can you explain the Taliban’s meteoric rise in Pakistan.

RY: Many tribal militant groups were tolerated by the Pakistan army when they took refuge in the tribal areas as they were attacking foreign troops in Afghanistan and not the Pakistani forces. Such arrangements began changing in early 2004 when the Taliban started fighting inside Pakistan . In January 2004, the army launched military operations in Waziristan. That was the turning point. The operation was conducted under the American pressure, hoping to dislodge al Qaeda. It was a shock, the fighting was very tough and the army lost many men. Since then the Taliban’s influence has been spreading. Instead of being controlled, it has spread. After every military operation we have seen that the Taliban presence has expanded – from South Waziristan to North Waziristan and then to Bajaur, Mohmand and Swat. The Taliban is spreading in Pakistan largely because the army is using heavy weapons against the people.

KC: Why did Baitullah Mehsud turn against Pakistan Army?

RY: As long as he was concentrating on Afghanistan, Baitullah Mehsud was being tolerated. He told the Pakistan government, “I won’t fight you, but you must not stop me”. He wanted to send his people to Afghanistan and continue to maintain his base. He could not afford to lose his own centre of power in Waziristan. Under the American pressure, the army acted against him. Subsequently, when he turned against Pakistan, the state’s whole focus fell upon his group.

Baitullah was not an al Qaeda member. You can say that Baitullah was pushed into the laps of al Qaeda. Even in the last days of his life he maintained that Mullah Omar was his leader because he was fighting a genuine jihad against the US. He had fought in Afghanistan as a Taliban member. He was very close to the Afghan Taliban. Al Qaeda is asking its fighters to fight on two fronts–If they lose their territory in Waziristan, then where will they find refuge?

KC: Many experts in India and the US feel that Pakistan is still supporting former proxy groups.

RY: The Haqqanis are from Afghanistan, they have been living in Waziristan since 1979. If the Taliban is not interfering in Pakistan, then Pakistan will not like to harm them. I don’t know how much support the Taliban are getting from Pakistan, I don’t think that the Taliban need much support. They get a lot of money from the Arab countries. But even tolerating them is a support. This is the bone of contention between the US and Pakistan; the US wants Pakistan to take them out.

You know, the jihadi groups like Jaish-e- Mohammad were being tolerated by the Pakistan government. Some of them were being used by the State in Kashmir. Musharraf changed the policy in 2004; it was a turning point. When he made the commitment to root out terror groups, he actually meant it. The backlash after the Lal Masjid operation was also a significant turning point. However, you don’t really snap all your contacts. The disengagement has to be gradual. Pakistan has suffered so much, I don’t think that there will be any tolerance for these groups. At one time, they were allies. They were used in Kashmir, and Afghanistan. But I think that that policy is now a thing of the past.

If Pakistan is still supporting the Haqqanis and Afghan Taliban, it is because they want to retain some influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan is very suspicious of the Northern Alliance and vice versa; its mutual hatred. Pakistan will like to have friends in Afghanistan after having invested so much in Afghanistan.

India-Pakistan Relations

KC: What do people in Pakistan think about India now?

RY: I think that there has been a big change in people’s views towards India. People don’t have the stomach for any more wars with India or with any body else. There are so many issues ? security, poverty, unemployment. They know that if they have another war, the problems will become even more acute. I don’t think that there is any support for any hostility with India. People would want the Kashmir issue to be resolved, that would be a huge sign of relief.

KC: If Pakistan agrees to convert the Line of Control into the International Border, what will be the reaction?

RY: I think anything that is a face-saving solution for both the countries and it will be acceptable. Both will have to give and take. I think there will be greater support for such a move this time around — we may not get the whole of Kashmir, but still it will be acceptable. Trade, economic relations have taken a priority.

KC: What does the average Lieutenant and Captain of the Pakistan army think?

RY: Their whole training is geared towards India as the enemy. The soldiers and officers who were asked to fight in Waziristan did not like that. They had to obey orders, they have their careers and they can’t say no. A very few refused, some were even court-martialed. Privately they say that this [counterinsurgency] is not what they were trained to do. They don’t want to fight their own people; they don’t want to bomb their own villages. They don’t want to become martyrs fighting their own people, that too Muslims and Pakistanis. Their whole orientation was against India. But that is changing now. There has been no war since Kargil. Also, they have a very big fight at hand. This is also affecting their orientation- Ok, India is not the only enemy, we have another enemy.

KC: What can India can do to normalise relations?

RY: India is much bigger, India is much stronger, it has more resources. It can absorb all this. It can put a lot of money on the defence. It can also create a lot of problems for Pakistan. We know that. We realise that if we try to match India, we will actually harm ourselves since we have lesser resources. India has to reassure Pakistan; act like a big brother, like an older brother. I realise that post-Mumbai it was very difficult; Mumbai was actually a very dangerous development.

KC: Who was behind Mumbai?

RY: I have no doubt that it was the Lashkar-e-Tayeeba. Not al Qaeda. I tell you, al Qaeda is not that strong or big [in Pakistan].

KC: Who controls Lashkar-e-Tayeeba?

RY: I don’t know. Lashkar-e-Tayyeba had links with the Pakistan Army. I don’t know how much of that still persists. But they are not backed the way they were earlier. LeT has been fighting in Kashmir, and it is a very efficient organisation. It has been getting a lot of funds from various people who think that it is fighting a jihad. I don’t think that al Qaeda is behind LeT. It has different Islamic beliefs from al Qaeda.

KC: Do you think that it is right to accuse India of supporting the Taliban as Rehman Malik has been suggesting?

RY: We don’t have any evidence. But India being a bigger power, why will it sit idle and not take revenge [for Pakistan’s support to Kashmiri militants]. There is a feeling that India is supporting the Baloch separatists. I don’t know whether India was supporting Baitullah Mehsud, there is no evidence of that, but Baitullah himself would not be willing to get any support from India.

Pakistan Counterinsurgency

KC: Post-Swat operations, do you think Pakistan’s counterinsurgency efforts are improving?

RY: Where is the success? There is no proper counterinsurgency policy. Only military means are being employed. I think that they are committing a big mistake by using only the army. They are using the army since the Taliban are very strong. They should have instead used Frontier Corps. The army is not trained for counterinsurgency. Frontier Corps, being Pashtun dominated, are better suited. Besides, the use of heavy weapons and air bombing has caused deep resentment. They are not taking prisoners, they are killing all the Taliban, and their bodies are being dumped. They are creating more Talibans. All these people who are losing family members, and their houses, they will never reconcile. There is no policy for reintegration- that’s the weakest link.

They are forcing them to form lashkars. Salarazai lashkars in Bajaur was being sustained by the army. Their family members have been killed and they cannot sleep in peace. They are always at risk. I keep asking the big landlords in Swat, ” how can you hope to go back and live in your previous grandeur”.They can’t have soldiers guarding them all times. For how long can you have the lashkars? Nobody is talking about the lack of justice. All the forest land is owned by the landlords, most members of the Parliament are feudal Khans. All the shelter-less, landless and jobless have joined the Taliban. Class war is not the only factor but it is one of the factors.

Many people who are being branded as the Taliban are those who think that they cannot get their political rights peacefully. That’s why the army cannot stay there forever. The more it stays there, the more it bombs, more enemies it will create. The army was attacked in its own backyard in GHQ. There is no end to this.

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BBC interview with a child “suicide bomber”

I have for some time believed that it takes a huge degree of inhumanity, wickedness, to train children to become suicide bombers. It appears to be an industry among the Taliban/Al Qaeda. So many bombers have been produced that the process cannot exist without a number of adults being involved and other numbers being willing to ignore it. For me, it is easy to believe that eventually this activity will create such revulsion among the communities being mined for their children that there will be an extreme reaction. How can a society, once fully aware of the practice, continue to allow it? Given my faith on the subject, I am encouraged by the report of a 14 year old boy who was “recruited” to be a suicide bomber. The whole report follows below. RLC

‘I agreed to become a suicide bomber’ Thursday, 12 November 2009 BBC News

A 14-year-old boy in the tribal region of Bajaur, in north-west Pakistan, says he was detained by Taliban forces who tried to turn him into a suicide bomber. The boy is now in army hands.

He provided a detailed account to BBC correspondent Orla Guerin. His story cannot be independently verified.

“There were five people who came after me from a place in Bajaur. They tricked me. They told me they were going to behead my father.

I went with them but my father wasn’t there. They tied me up.

They said: ‘You have two choices. We will behead you, or you will become a suicide bomber.’ I refused.

There were two more guys of my age. They were also training to be suicide bombers. If we refused they would tie our hands behind our backs, blindfold us and start beating us.

They brainwashed us and told us we would go to heaven. They said ‘there will be honey and juice and God will appear in front of you. You will have a beautiful house in Heaven’.

We used to ask them to let us out to pray. They would reply ‘you are already on your way to heaven. You don’t need to pray.’

They beat me hard for five days. I wasn’t given any food. While they were beating me I agreed to become a suicide bomber. They separated me from the other boys.

Mosque mission

They took me to a dark room and started giving me pills. I was handed over to Maulvi Fakir [the Bajaur Taliban commander]. After all this preparation they said I was to go and do the job in a mosque.

It was an ordinary mosque but the cleric there used to talk against the Taliban, and they declared him their enemy. They told me the cleric was a non-believer, a non-Muslim.

They took off my shirt and put the jacket on my shoulders. There were two hooks on my chest. They told me that when you go there you say’Allahu Akbar’ [God is Great] and then you pull apart these two hooks. Then they took me there, showed me the mosque and went off.

I was drugged and I couldn’t feel anything. I only came to my senses when I arrived in the mosque. I saw the peaceful kind face of the cleric, and I saw the mosque was full of holy books. I saw the people praying. And I thought, they are all Muslims. How can I do this? I decided not to and I came out.

I sat under a tree outside the mosque and waited for prayers to be over. After that I made my way back to the Taliban. Then they called me ‘a son of a bitch’ and asked why I had come back without doing it.

I told them I could not do it because they were carrying out body searches of all the people entering the mosque. They took off my vest and handed me over to Maulvi Fakir.

They tied me up but I told them to give me another chance and I would do it. They trusted me. I was roaming around with them for a couple of days. I got to the road, found transport and came home. They followed me to my house. They wanted to know if I was still there or had run somewhere else.

The Taliban had beaten me so harshly my back was scarred. When my parents saw that my mother started to cry, and told me not to go back to them. My father asked them why they were after his son. One day he took his weapon and went after them. But they wanted to kill him so he came back home and closed the door.

Before the Taliban came we used to enjoy freedom. We used to play, and go to our schools. There were no restrictions on us. Morning and evening we used to play games, and sit and chat with friends. We used to listen to music on our mobile phones. They banned that. They stopped us doing anything. They stopped us playing cricket and going to school. We felt like prisoners.

I want to join the army because they are the defenders of the land. They are fighting for the right cause. I want to fight against the Taliban. I have no other intention except to defend my country. The Taliban should be eliminated.

I want to tell the Taliban that they are cruel, and what they did to me was unjust. I can’t kill innocent Muslims.

I am not afraid of them. I am only afraid of God. I am answerable only to Him.”

The relation between Al Qaeda and the various Taliban groups

A lot of nonsense has recently been written about how distinguishable Al Qaeda is from the Taliban. This article, drawing from some knowledgeable sources, reveals several ways the two are interlinked and emphasizes how mutually dependent they are. RLC

Al-Qaida and the Taliban: Knowing your enemy

By Lolita C. Baldor, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – Senior al-Qaida leaders are forging deeper relationships with Pakistani militants and often operating from their camps inside the Pakistan border, fueling Obama administration arguments for a shift in the Afghan war strategy that more narrowly targets the terrorists.

For eight years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has focused mostly on Afghanistan’s Taliban as an unabashed ally of al-Qaida.

Now, however, forced to choose between sending more troops in an intensified counterinsurgency campaign against Afghanistan’s Taliban or largely maintaining troop levels and using more drone strikes to take out al-Qaida along the border, U.S. officials must first determine which enemy is the greater priority.

That dilemma is complicated by the recent rise of a Pakistani faction of the Taliban that operates in close proximity with al-Qaida – even as al-Qaida has lessened activities with its former Afghan Taliban hosts, according to some administration officials.

U.S. officials face a tough challenge in dissecting the structure and leanings of the militant organizations on both sides of the often indiscernible Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and understanding their murky and evolving ties to al-Qaida.

“You cannot meaningfully distinguish between al-Qaida and the co-linked (militant) networks – either in terms of understanding the landscape or crafting a policy response,” said Vahid Brown, a researcher at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

“If you think you can kill al-Qaida leaders, as opposed to doing a broader scale effort against the militant environment, that notion is based on a fundamental misapprehension of the nature of the terrain,” said Brown, describing the complexity of the networks along the border and their threat.

With concerns about Pakistani militants growing, an influential faction inside the administration that includes Vice President Joe Biden is pushing for the U.S. to concentrate more on al-Qaida and less on the Afghan Taliban.

But the push for that strategy butts up against the long-perceived union between al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban, ingrained in America’s consciousness since the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing war in Afghanistan.

The 19 al-Qaida members behind the hijackings that sent planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside plotted their attacks from Taliban-protected safe havens in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996. United in Islamic ideology, they sheltered Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers. Al-Qaida terrorist training camps flourished openly in the 1990s and the two groups shared weapons, financing and tactics.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration repeatedly linked al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban in rhetoric and policy, pairing them in enemies’ lists and economic penalties.

President Barack Obama and his advisers are debating whether U.S. policy should sever that linkage and target al-Qaida, which has appeared to have found new allies inside the Pakistani border.

Over the past 18 months, according to analysts and U.S. counterterrorism officials, al-Qaida leaders have deepened and solidified their relationship with Pakistan’s Taliban and with other violent homegrown militant groups, including Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Janghvi, that are based in the northeastern Punjab province.

Al-Qaida also has strong ties with the network run by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj, who direct the fight against U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan from the Waziristan tribal region in Pakistan.

Brown pointed to the Haqqani network operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas as an example of militants linked to al-Qaida who have demonstrated a growth in technical innovation. Its increased use of roadside bombs and different types of suicide attacks, and the employment of other international jihadists are evidence of the al-Qaida influence, he said.

According to U.S. officials and analysts, al-Qaida leaders have provided training and resources to these groups in camps along the border.

The stronger ties are also evident, the analysts said, in suicide bombings and other violent battlefield tactics long known to be associated with al-Qaida that are showing up more frequently in attacks staged by those Pakistan-based groups.

Pakistan’s Taliban have unloosed a spree of violence inside the country over the past year, attempting to take over the Swat Valley region before being ousted by Pakistan’s army.

In recent weeks, the Pakistani Taliban, aided by other militants, have targeted military and government installations in suicide bombings aimed at forcing the government to back off from its recent push into South Waziristan, the border area where many militants are based. Despite those attacks, the offensive began last week.

At the same time, said Richard Barrett, coordinator of the monitoring team for the U.N.’s Al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee, said there are hints of fracture between al-Qaida and its longtime Afghan Taliban allies.

Barrett said that Afghan Taliban leaders, including the reclusive, one-eyed Mullah Omar, may have changed their once-approving view of al-Qaida. Barrett said the Afghan Taliban may worry about U.S. repercussions if they “are seen as very closely wedded to al-Qaida” and likely to allow that group tore-establish sanctuaries there.

While the Afghan Taliban share many of al-Qaida’s violent goals, including the defeat of the Kabul government, Barrett said, they are more regionally focused and do not hold the same global jihadist views.

Some U.S. military and intelligence officials, however, warn against underestimating the relationship between al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban.

While the Taliban and al-Qaida may have differences, senior counterterrorism officials say that al-Qaida still has strong historical ties to Mullah Omar and that is not likely to go away. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is arguing for an additional 10,000 and 80,000 troops to mount a counterinsurgency campaign against the Afghan Taliban to stabilize the country and boost Afghan security forces.

But rising U.S. casualties, escalating violence and declining American support for the war have put political pressure on the White House to rethink that strategy. The counterproposal urged by Biden and others would maintain current troop levels and use special operations forces and targeted unmanned aircraft strikes against al-Qaida and other insurgents.

Recent U.S. government estimates put the number of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan at about 25,000, while analysts and other officials say there are only about 100 al-Qaida members in the country. Totals for al-Qaida in Pakistan are more difficult to pin down, but estimates are in the low hundreds, while Taliban there number also in the thousands.

Biden and others argue that if the aim is to prevent future attacks against the United States, then the goal must be to defeat al-Qaida.

Military analyst Frederick Kagan told Congress this past week that any move to defeat al-Qaida cannot be separated from efforts to defeat its allies and proxies. The Afghan Taliban may not be planning attacks terrorist against the United States now, but he said that, with continued association with al-Qaida, the Taliban eventually may pursue global jihad.

Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University and a longtime government adviser, said al-Qaida continues to work with the Taliban and other insurgents on both sides of the border, providing resources and training to bolster their fight.

He and others argue that to narrowly focus the fight on al-Qaida leaders, particularly those targeted by drone strikes inside the Pakistan border, would be to oversimplify a complex enemy, and ultimately fail.

Fareed Zakaria on why we need to stay in Afghanistan

Fareed Zakaria has to be one of the savviest guys we have on our side, so whatever he thinks I would like to hear. Here is his case for how to look at Afghanistan. And again I like his case because it stresses the need to stay inside Afghanistan, and explains it well. I don’t know if he is right, but I agree that, Yes, it is now time to face how desperate the situation is. RLC

Time to Deal in Afghanistan
By Fareed Zakaria The Washington Post Monday, September 14, 2009

It is time to get real about Afghanistan. Withdrawal is not a serious option. The United States, NATO, the European Union and others have invested massively in stabilizing that country over the past eight years, and they should not abandon it because the Taliban is proving a tougher foe than anticipated. But there is still a large gap between the goals the Obama administration is outlining and the means available to achieve them. This gap is best closed not by sending in tens of thousands of more troops but, rather, by understanding the limits of what we can reasonably achieve in Afghanistan.

The most important reality of the post-Sept. 11 world has been the lack of any major follow-up attack. That’s largely because al-Qaeda has been on the run in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The campaign against terrorist groups in both countries rests on ground forces and intelligence. A senior U.S. military official involved in planning these campaigns told me that America’s presence in Afghanistan has been the critical element in the successful strikes against al-Qaeda leaders and camps. Were America to leave the scene, all the region’s players would start jockeying for influence over Afghanistan. That would almost certainly mean the revival of the poisonous alliance between the Pakistani military and the hardest-line elements of the Taliban.

It is worth reminding ourselves that Afghanistan is not in free fall. The number of civilian deaths, while grim, is less than a tenth the number in Iraq in 2006. In the recent Afghan election, all four presidential candidates publicly endorsed the U.S. presence there. Compare this with Iraq, where politicians engaged in ritual denunciations of the United States constantly to satisfy the public’s anti-Americanism.

The Obama administration’s answer to the worsening situation in Afghanistan appears to be: more. More troops, civilians, tasks and missions. There is nothing wrong with helping Afghans develop their country. But if the goal is to give Afghanistan a strong, functioning central government and a viable economy, the task will require decades, not years. Afghanistan is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. It has had a weak central government for centuries. Illiteracy rates are somewhere around 70 percent. Building a 400,000-strong security force, as some in Congress have proposed, will be arduous in this context, not to mention that its annual cost would be equivalent to 300 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product.

The focus must shift from nation building to dealmaking. The central problem in Afghanistan is that the Pashtuns, who make up 45 percent of the population and almost 100 percent of the Taliban, do not feel empowered. We need to start talking to them, whether they are nominally Taliban or not. Buying, renting or bribing Pashtun tribes should become the centerpiece of America’s stabilization strategy, as it was Britain’s when it ruled Afghanistan.

Efforts to reach out to the Taliban so far have been limited and halfhearted. Some blame President Hamid Karzai, who, bizarrely, wants to start this process himself by negotiating with Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, who has shown no sign of wanting to deal. But the U.S. government remains deeply reluctant as well, or at least wants to wait until Taliban forces are on the defensive. But, as one American official said to me, “Waiting to negotiate till you are in a position of strength is a bit like waiting to sell your stocks till the market peaks. It sounds good, but you will never know when the time is right.”

The dealmaking should extend to the top. U.S. officials should stop trashing Karzai. We have no alternative. Afghanistan needs a Pashtun leader; Karzai is a reasonably supportive one. Let’s assume the charges of corruption and vote rigging against him are true. Does anyone really think his successor would be any more honest and efficient? The best strategy would be to see if we can get Karzai to work with his leading opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, in some kind of coalition. The muddied elections actually create an opportunity to build a national unity government.

There are three ways to change security conditions in Afghanistan. First, increase American troops. Second, increase Afghan troops. Third, shrink the number of enemy forces by making them switch sides or lay down their arms. That third strategy is what worked so well in Iraq and what urgently needs to be adopted in Afghanistan. In a few years, Afghanistan will still be poor, corrupt and dysfunctional. But if we make the right deals, it will be ruled by leaders who keep the country inhospitable to al-Qaeda and similar terrorist groups. That’s my definition of success.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and the author of “The Post-American World.” His e-mail address is comments@fareedzakaria.com.

Taliban kill Shiite Children as a stipulated religious obligation

It is hard to visualize a world in which the whole agenda of the Taliban and Al Qaeda would be actualized. Part of it, only occasionally mentioned in the public discourse, is the stipulated anti-Shia orientation of the Taliban / Al Qaeda movement. They would, if they could, stamp out Shi’ism as a religious service. It is not merely that they cannot tolerate the American or other Western presences in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or the secular rulerships of the Middle East, or the Russians who now hold Chechnya, or the Uzbek secular government; it is also that other Muslims are intolerable. Shiites, yes, but also even other Muslims, those who have little concern about enforcing the sharia law as the Taliban/ Al Qaeda understand it. So, from here the movement appears to foster the internecine conflicts we hear about today from the Christian Science Monitor.
There is increasing talk about withdrawing from Afghanistan: What would be left behind? Can we live with that kind of world? Here is what the CSMonitor tells us has just happened. RLC

Pakistani Taliban attack Shiite children
Officials say the Sunni militants have attacked the minority sect as part of their strategy. Four children were targeted as they headed to school.
By Huma Yusuf

September 08, 2009

Taliban militants killed four schoolchildren in a remote town in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt on Tuesday. Local officials say the attack has sectarian dimensions as militants – who hail from the majority Sunni sect – targeted students of the minority Shiite sect. Previously, the Taliban have singled out minority sects as part of their strategy in Pakistan.

According to Agence France-Presse, some students were on their way to school when they were ambushed by the militants. (Click here to see a map of the region from the Council on Foreign Relations.)

The students were going to school in Atmankhel town of Orakzai district when the militants opened fire, killing four boys and wounding six others, local administration official Asmatullah Khan told AFP.

“It appears to be a sectarian attack as the slain students belonged to the minority Shiite sect of Islam,” he said. “The attackers were Taliban.”

Residents said the dead students were all younger than 16, but were not able to give the exact ages of the victims.

Eyewitnesses report that tribesmen from Atmankhel retaliated after the attack on the school children, killing two militants and leaving several wounded, reports Dawn, an English-language Pakistani daily.

The Pakistani Taliban have attacked schools in Pakistan’s northwest since 2007, the Inter Press Service reported in January. According to the Associated Press, more than 170 schools were blown up or burned down by January as part of the militant campaign. These attacks did not, however, result in casualties, as the militants usually struck the schools when they were closed.

The Taliban have targeted members of the minority Shiite sect before. In 2008, the Taliban besieged Parachinar, a Shiite enclave in Pakistan’s tribal belt, reported The New York Times.

The Taliban, which have solidified control across Pakistan’s tribal zone and are seeking new staging grounds to attack American soldiers in Afghanistan, have sided with fellow Sunni Muslims against an enclave of Shiites settled in Parachinar for centuries.

Writing in Newsday, James Rupert explained that the Afghan Taliban also targeted the Shiite minority in Afghanistan.

In the five years of Taliban rule over most of Afghanistan, the bitterest warfare and deadliest atrocities were those between the Taliban, drawn mainly from Afghanistan’s dominant Pashtuns, and the minority Hazaras, set apart from other Afghans as followers of the Shiite branch of Islam and historically the most downtrodden of the country’s ethnic groups….

The brutality of the Hazara-Taliban conflict has been rooted partly in the special antipathy that the Sunni Muslim Taliban and their Arab allies have for Muslims of the Shia sect…. “They do not regard us (Shias) as people,” said Ahmed Hussain, another Bedmushkin resident.

In recent months, the Taliban have also set their sights on members of Pakistan’s Sufi sect. In March, CBC News reported that the Taliban bombed the mausoleum of Sufi poet Rahman Baba on the outskirts of Peshawar, and the caretakers of Sufi shrines in Pakistan’s southern Sindh Province have also been attacked.

The killing of the schoolchildren in Pakistan comes as the military is engaged in a fresh offensive against Taliban militants in Khyber Agency, a neighboring tribal region. According to the South Asian News Agency, more than 57 militants have been killed and 107 arrested by the Pakistan Army in the past week.

Abbas Daiyar of Daily Outlook Afghanistan reports that the Uzbeks are behind the attaks in Kunduz

I had missed the report by Abbas Daiyar, reproduced on The Atlantic Community website, that the recent insurgency in Kunduz has been produced by Uzbeks connected to Al Qaeda. The Uzbek involvement in the Afghanistan/ Pakistan war displays the ambiguities of the insurgent movement in the region. The Uzbek insurgents are in a sense created by the repressive practices of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan. Any form of dissent in that country is branded as “wahhabi Islamism” and dealt with severely. Karimov cannot bear dissent – displayed brutally by the gunning down of hundreds of people in Andijon in 2005. So only the most extreme can survive. What that means is that whoever opposes Karimov has little place to go but to extremists. And who are the dissidents they can link up with? Al Qaeda of course.

This is not to say that they are “moderate”; only that their agendas include removing Karimov, not a major interest of Al Qaeda, whose sights are actually on the Arab world, mainly Egypt and Saudi Arabia; nor of the Taliban who are animated as much by their Pushtun perspective as their conservative view of the world. Also, note that these are not the Uzbeks associated with Dostum, who have long seen themselves as part of Afghanistan. The two kinds of Uzbeks have little interest in each other. So far, we hear of no serious attempts to link up with each other.

We have already noted how complex the situation is for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The situation for dissidents in Uzbekistan is analogous in some ways. Daiyar says that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has been drawn into the Afghanistan war by the American deal to transport materiel into Afghanistan through the northern route. The result of these developments for the government of Afghanistan and coalition of western nations supporting it, however, is that the opposition continues to be a fragmented body of dissidents who unite when they can but have little common interest in each other’s agendas. So there is no single head to be lopped off in this war, but a diverse collectivity of people who for the time being agree to fight the Americans.

Daiyar’s report is very helpful and may be revealing one reason for the recently announced enlarged concerns of the American military in Afghanistan. [Click on the title for a link to the Atlantic Community site.]

The Taliban: Are they close to folding or not?

The word on the Taliban is contradictory. On one had we hear that things are so bad in Afghanistan that the Americans might even give up; it’s adding up to another Vietnam, they say. But then McClatchy news, one of the most independent and creative American news sources around, tells us that the Taliban in Pakistan is on the verge of caving in.
We would like to know: what is it? Is the truth simply that the Americans cannot stick it out — again? Or is the recent activity of the Taliban a desperate attempt to hold on until the Americans leave? The venture in Afghanistan has hardly been taken seriously by the Americans for several years and now, after only a few months, even the top general is hinting that the war against the Taliban cannot be won.
In the mean time, Saeed Shah says, the Taliban, at least on the Pakistan side, is having a hard time holding out. And of course there is still the problem of Osama Bin Laden: he is still hanging out there somewhere among the Taliban after funding the most massive attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor.
There is a lot of unfinished business out there, much more than the capture and punishment of OBL. I fear that the American government will discover how strategic Afghanistan/ Pakistan is only after they have abandoned a serious attempt to fulfill promises repeatedly made out there. To leave without finishing the tasks at hand will be costly beyond measure to the modern world. These countries — the Persian Gulf states, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India — and the regions north of them and south of them (that is, the Indian Ocean) are collectively becoming a key flashpoint for vital world wide interests: they control not only 70% of the world’s oil reserves and 70% of the world’s gas reserves, and large amounts of uranium and other minerals critical to the 21st Century economy, but also they happen to be the locus of the most active and aggressive anti-American, anti-western militants in the world. I know there are other flash points, but this one has to be one of the most significant. I am dismayed that some of the (otherwise) most sensible and knowledgeable authorities on world affairs would countenance abandoning the Afghanistan/Pakistan war.
Anyway, McClatchy — again — gives us another way to think about what is going on out there. Thanks, Saeed Shah and McClatchy, for providing another useful contribution to the picture. [Click on the title above for the source page.]

McClatchy Washington Bureau
Posted on Sun, Aug. 23, 2009

Is Pakistan’s Taliban movement on the way out?

Saeed Shah | McClatchy Newspapers

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s extremist Taliban movement is badly divided over who should be its new leader, and analysts and local tribesmen say the al Qaida-linked group may be in danger of crumbling.

A wave of defections, surrenders, arrests and bloody infighting has severely weakened the movement since its founder, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed Aug. 5 in a U.S. missile strike. The announcement this weekend that Hakimullah Mehsud, a 28-year-old with a reputation as a hothead, would succeed him is likely to further widen the split.

Hakimullah has support from Taliban groups in Orakzai, where he is based, and Bajaur, both parts of the wild Pakistan tribal zone that borders Afghanistan. But the heart of the Pakistani Taliban movement lies in the Waziristan portion of the tribal area, where the warlike Mehsud and Wazir clans live and where a commander named Waliur Rehman is backed as the next chief. Rehman was very close to Baitullah Mehsud.

“There’s no way that the Mehsuds and the Wazirs are going to accept Hakimullah as chief. During his lifetime, Baitullah had given every indication that when he’s no more, Waliur Rehman is the next guy,” said Saifullah Mahsud, an analyst at the FATA Research Centre, an independent think tank in Islamabad. “Waliur Rehman is a cool, calm, calculated guy, a very good listener… That’s why the Taliban had liked Baituallah so much, he was a very cool guy, a very calm guy.”

Any breakdown in the Pakistan Taliban is likely to have impact on both U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and al Qaida and its leader Osama bin Laden, who is believed to have taken refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Baitullah Mehsud had turned the focus of his movement from sending fighters into Afghanistan to fight U.S. and NATO forces to launching attacks within his own country. A new head of the Pakistan Taliban could reverse that, once again sending hundreds of fighters into Afghanistan. A weakened Taliban would be less able to provide protection for bin Laden.

Analysts said that the fact that Hakimullah was announced as leader in Orakzai and not in Waziristan was evidence of his weakness, suggesting that he cannot operate in the Taliban’s heartland. But this could still herald fresh danger for Pakistan.

“Hakimullah is going to show his leadership by launching more suicide attacks,” said Khalid Aziz, chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training, an independent consultancy in Peshawar. “The (Pakistan) army has done a good job, it’s broken the Taliban’s system. It (the Taliban) is already factionalized. These schisms could become wider and they break up into fiefdoms.”

Baitullah Mehsud had turned the Pakistan Taliban into a formidable military force in 2007 by joining together 13 disparate groups under an umbrella organization known as Tehreek-i-Taliban. Without his presence, the groups could devolve into disparate actors.

A series of setbacks last week could further debilitate the movement.

Pakistan authorities arrested the Taliban’s high-profile spokesman, Maulvi Umer, in the tribal areas, while a key interlocutor between the Taliban and al Qaida, commander Saifullah, was also detained at a house in Islamabad where he was receiving medical treatment.

Separately, 60 Taliban fighters gave themselves up in the Swat valley in Pakistan’s northwest. Many Taliban in Waziristan have defected since Baitullah Mehsud’s death.

In a further sign of internal discord, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed Sunday that militants had killed Baitullah Mehsud’s in-laws, including his father-in-law, on suspicion of giving away his location. The former Taliban leader had been staying at his father-in-law’s house in Waziristan when he was killed by a missile fired from a U.S. drone.

The Taliban’s vulnerabilities were showing even before Baitullah Mehsud’s death.

The Pakistani army’s operation against the Swat Taliban, which started in May, did not see other Taliban factions come to their aid, and the threatened response to the military offensive in terrorist attacks across the country was much less ferocious than feared.

Over the last year, and especially over the last few months, tribesmen from areas where the Taliban are present have started their own traditional militias, known as a “lashkar”, to battle the extremists themselves.

“There are so many lashkars now operating against them (the Taliban) in different areas. That has changed the equation. It’s not possible for the Taliban to confront the lashkars everywhere. The lashkars are really coming up very strongly,” said Rahimullah Yousafzai, a veteran Pakistani journalist and expert on the Taliban.

Hakimullah is dreaded even within the Taliban ranks, with a reputation for killing first and asking questions later.

He made his name by attacking convoys of NATO supplies going through Pakistan’s famous Khyber Pass on their way to troops in Afghanistan. Sporting a scraggly beard and the long hair that is typical of the Pakistani Taliban style, Hakimullah craves the limelight. In November last year, he invited local journalists to his base in Pakistan’s tribal area, where he drove around in an American Humvee that his men had looted from a NATO convoy.

Hakimullah has personally called journalists to claim responsibility for extremist attacks inside Pakistan, including the assault on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team earlier this year and the bombing of a luxury hotel used by Westerners in north western city of Peshawar.

But even such a high-profile figure is something of a mystery. Pakistani intelligence agents and others asserted over the weekend that Hakimullah in fact was dead and that he was being impersonated by a relative.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

A frantic Al Qaeda appeal?

Al Jazeera reports that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, has called upon the Pakistani people to rise up against the Americans who, he claims, have taken over the country.

The statement seems so farcical that one wonders how many Pakistanis will take it seriously.

He says, “the American crusader” is manipulating Pakistan’s destiny. Such language, “Crusader” and the like, will probably have less salience in Pakistan than in the Arab world from which Zawahiri comes, and to which he has addressed most of his public statements. There is no Crusader history in Pakistan.

“The Americans are today occupying Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he says. He is reaching here. True, the Americans are not popular in Pakistan, but how many Pakistani’s will believe that the Americans have occupied their country?

It is tempting to wonder if this is the voice of desperation. I don’t think we should underrate the Al Qaeda leadership, but this seems so fantastic as to seem frantic, even to Pakistanis who have their own grudges against the United States.

Pakistan’s further slide into the abyss

For years I have been saying that it couldn’t get worse than this — and it gets worse. The situation in Pakistan is going from bad to worse. What is most astounding is the inability of the Pakistani leadership to deal with the rising power of the Taliban and other like-minded Sunni radical groups essentially cultivated by the government. Now the government capitulates and wants to call it a victory. I collect here some interesting statements on the rapid descent of this proud country. I grieve and pray for God to save them.

Here is what Bill Roggio [The Long War Journal] has to say:

“Pakistan signs sharia bill into law”
By Bill RoggioApril 13, 2009 4:31 PM

The Pakistani government has approved the controversial bill that will allow for the implementation of sharia, or Islamic law, into a large region of northwestern Pakistan.

President Asif Ali Zardari signed the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation into law today after a majority of the Pakistani Parliament passed the bill. The regulation allows for the establishment of sharia courts in the Malakand Division, an administrative region that encompasses more than one-third of the Northwest Frontier Province and includes the districts of Malakand, Swat, Shangla, Buner, Dir, Chitral, and Kohistan.

The sharia law was referred to the Pakistani government after the government negotiated an agreement known as the Malakand Accord with the Taliban in Swat. The agreement calls for the withdrawal of the Pakistani Army from Swat, the release all Taliban prisoners, the withdrawal of any criminal cases against Taliban leaders and fighters, and the imposition of sharia. The government agreed to the terms of the Malakand Accord after the military suffered its third defeat against the Swat Taliban in two years.

The Taliban had threatened to renew the violence in Swat if the sharia law was not signed by President Zardari. Amir Izzat, a spokesman for the pro-Taliban Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammed [TNSM or the Movement for the Enforcement of Mohammed’s Law] threatened to declare any member of parliament as a non-Muslim if they voted against the law. Sufi Mohammed, the leader of the TNSM, which serves as a front for the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan, walked out on the peace agreement after bashing Zardari for not signing the sharia regulation into law.

President Zardari had said he refused to sign the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation into law until the security in Swat was restored. As recently as April 9, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, said President Zardari would not sign the regulation into law.

“The president of Pakistan has not signed the agreement and not approved the agreement yet because he’s waiting for the TNSM to fulfill its end of the bargain, which was, essentially, to make sure that the Taliban — whose leader happens to be his son-in-law — they do not continue to use force,” Haqqani told a forum in Washington, according to The Washington Independent. “Since that has not happened, the agreement has not been enforced.”

But the Taliban have repeatedly violated the ceasefire in Swat. Taliban forces have attacked military convoys and captured soldiers and government officials. Most recently, on April 11, a Taliban force wounded three security personnel after ambushing a convoy in Swat. Meanwhile, the Swat Taliban have advanced on neighboring Buner and are now in full control of the district, which is just 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad.

The Malakand Accord and the subsequent signing of the sharia law have emboldened the Taliban and the multitude of Islamist groups in Pakistan. Islamist political parties are now calling for the imposition of sharia throughout the country.

Here is a comment on this entry by one of the bloggers:

Posted by Micah at April 14, 2009 1:35 AM ET:

Interesting, but the media and everyone for the most part seems to miss the fact that Taliban completely took over Buner province sunday afternoon and the media was turned the other way after they assumed the incident ended 24 hours earlier upon their saturday afternoon withdraw. India Times and a couple Pakistan publications seem to be the only ones who caught the news.

Obviously President Zardari signed this bill as a reaction to the Buner take-over on Sunday, which may be the fastest consolidation of power so far in the battle for the north-west; AND THE MEDIA MISSED IT!!! Below is my blog, most of which is news straight from my contacts in Buner:

I have just got news from my friends in Buner district (that area i stayed in with the Pashtos that neighbors Swat). Friday afternoon, as stated in the media, Taliban crossed the mountains into the district through the same pass we took from Swat. Only about 100 entered to setup a meeting; a very small number. They agreed to pullout of Buner and leave Saturday afternoon after a Jirga meeting was held. The media was very updated on this, and reported the Taliban’s pullout of Buner on Saturday. However, the media seems to have overlooked what happened the next day and forgot about the whole ordeal assuming it was over. Well it didn’t end. Twenty four hours later, the Taliban, with large swaths of fighters, returned and may have consolidated the fastest spread of their power in this whole war…

Yesterday, around noon, thousands of Talibs poured into Buner district a day after they stated their official departure. In a period of around 5 hours, Taliban took the entire provincial province. There was no resistance at all, Pakistani police and military were ordered not to interfere or cause any tension. The Pir Baba shrine has been shut down (as that is considered a site of idolization according to the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam). The Taliban control 100% percent of the district. According to my friend in Pir Baba, the Taliban are everywhere, they are burning televisions, shutting down DVD shops, and now are beginning youth-recruiting campaigns. My friend is very worried, as he works for a local school in Pir Baba with an IT institute. The school is locked and no one is going to it. Women’s classes stopped about 6 months ago when there were fears that Taliban were beginning to look into the prospects of expanding into Buner district.

So, this is HUGE news, and its not in the news at all, unfortunately. The media turned its eye away when they assumed it was all over on Saturday afternoon when the few Talibs left Buner. Well, Taliban are in complete control of it now and its another world than when I was there last June. They are everywhere, at guard posts replacing what was before police check points, are driving around on pickup trucks with loudspeakers announcing the implementation of Shariah courts as well as asking the youth to join.

Another strange change is that Buneris have been absolutely against the Taliban for years, for the trouble they caused in Swat. However, since there is no war in Buner and the Taliban took it over without any fighting or harm to the local population, strangely enough, the Taliban are getting public support and actually gaining more popularity than would have been expected (not making this up. My friend is telling me this first-hand, and he is against the Taliban who pose a potentially direct threat to his employment in the IT center at his school in Pir Baba, if it is to be discovered). One of the reasons for this change of mind amongst the public in Buner is because of the Pakistan government’s lack of development in Buner (it is a very poor district that never obtained the same development as Swat did, thanks to its tourist industry Swat has benefited from through most of its existence until two years ago. Buner, being part of the lower Swat valley (not the provincial district itself though) has always sort of been looked at as the “poor man’s Swat valley.”)

I still can’t believe this is happening. I wonder how many days it will take the media to discover this, and I wonder why something as big as this has not been reported in the media. Maybe because this is a HUGE embarrassment for the Pakistani government and they are trying to figure out what to do with the situation before throwing the spotlight on it? I have no idea. Supposedly the Taliban are talking of Islamabad being the next stop (they certainly are about 100km closer than they were 2 days ago), but this could just be exaggerated euphoria considering their pride has probably swelled from this latest take-over of Buner district (afterall, they still have not yet taken Peshawar).

However, if it is true that Taliban is changing its public-image and is obtaining acceptance in Buner, it will become a major recruiting grounds for Taliban, as Buner district never obtained the same amount of educational and economic development as Swat or even Mardan district, and the Taliban’s seeding of madrasa’s will have a huge effect in their recruiting mission, as these madrasas teach the much desirable applicable sciences and literacy teachings, in addition to Islamic studies (Deobandi) and small-arms weapon training. I suggest USAID’s project in Peshawar immediately start throwing a development plan together in the much ignored Buner district, or Taliban will be filling in this missing gap VERY fast. In fact, it may already be too late.

If you want my theory, i think the 100 or so Taliban that were sent into the countryside of Buner on Friday were just an experiment to see how Buneris would react to their presence. There was a slight skirmish, but nothing major. When the Jirga meeting was held, it was another test to see how they would be reacted to politically among the elders of the Jirga, so when they agreed to pull out Saturday, they really just went back to Swat district to report their impressions and general consensus. When the Taliban determined they faced very minuscule resistance from police and Buneri civilians, they saw this as the green light to send in thousands of fighters 24 hours later on Sunday afternoon, knowing all too well they could take the province without any risk of retaliation against them.

In a mere few hours hours, Buner district was consolidated by Taliban. It took a massive two+ years for this same Taliban movement, lead by Mulauna Fazlullah, to consolidate it’s power over Swat province. Amazing. What I find even more astonishing is the sheer level of lowness in the Pakistan military’s morale. Technically, the Swat-truce is not official yet, because President Zardari has refrained from signing it (mostly because of the controversy and America’s reaction if he does). It goes to show both sides desire the truce and are recognizing it despite the fact that it officially not active at all, and the moderate broker of the truce, Sufi Mohammad, pulled out of the deal one week ago after frustration of the government’s delay to make it official. It is astonishing that both sides are still abiding by the truce and not using its “unnofficial” status as a legitimate reason to resume the fighting against one another.

Since both sides are recognizing the truce, despite the fact that its non-existent without Zardari’s signature, Taliban is most likely in direct violation it’s agreements (officially or unofficially) in that they are running an actively armed militia in the streets of Buner’s public life; while shots were not fired in obtaining their hold on the district, they still took power with the show of force as an active militant group. Therefore, the military has the full right to intervene with armed force and still recognize the agreements stated in abiding by this truce. The fact that they have not, and Taliban have just taken over Buner district as if its a freebie, goes to show the military is finished, has no desire to fight, and the Taliban still have the drive to continue the armed struggle with high-morale, if the military were to react in such a way. A further embarrassment and a clear admission of the Pakistani military that they have failed and surrendered to the Taliban’s will. The truce, which both sides recognize, provided the Taliban with their main desire to implement Shariah, but failed to disarm the Taliban as an armed movement in the public sphere, which was the main terms the Pakistani military demanded as the trade off for the truce to go into effect.

In reality, since the military did not intervene in reaction to their demands failing to be met by the the deal brokered by Sufi Mohammad, the only benefit the military gained was the relaxation of not having to go to the front lines any longer to fight another battle; if they cared about the current violation in Buner and the Taliban’s greater grasp on power, the military would have done exactly that: reacted with force. Instead, in a mere few hours, the Taliban did in Buner what took them over two years to do in Swat. Which district is next, and will the military refrain from trying to repel it in any way?

Pathetic. If the military reacted to the small contingent of Talibs who were sent into Buner on Friday, the Taliban may not have been so quick to just send huge fleets into Buner 48 hours later. As far as the deal of the truce is concerned, Taliban got everything they wanted without compromising anything. The military obtained nothing for the Pakistani government; they just don’t have the drive to fight anymore.

Posted by Micah at April 14, 2009 1:38 AM ET:

Oh, and when I say “yesterday”, I am actually referring to Sunday since I wrote this original blog on a monday.

The media seems to have turned its back away from the incident after Saturday afternoon (April 11) when the small contingent of Talibs departed Swat, and totally missed what happened Sunday (APril 12).
. . .

Oh and about Zardari, once again i wrote it before he signed the bill, and I don’t have time to edit right now.

Anyways, it seems the Taliban sent more fighters in Saturday, agreed to depart, but sent in swaths more on Sunday and took power Sunday. According to my contacts. On Saturday, the Pir Baba shrine actually was not occupied by the Taliban (it was closed as a security measure by police), but was occupied by Taliban only as recently as Sunday, as well as their presence in the center of Hazrat Pir Baba.

Here is what the New York Times has to say:

April 14, 2009
Allied Militants Threaten Pakistan’s Populous Heart

This article was reported by Sabrina Tavernise, Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Eric Schmitt and written by Ms. Tavernise.

DERA GHAZI KHAN, Pakistan — Taliban insurgents are teaming up with local militant groups to make inroads in Punjab, the province that is home to more than half of Pakistanis, reinvigorating an alliance that Pakistani and American authorities say poses a serious risk to the stability of the country.

The deadly assault in March in Lahore, Punjab’s capital, against the Sri Lankan cricket team, and the bombing last fall of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the national capital, were only the most spectacular examples of the joint campaign, they said.

Now police officials, local residents and analysts warn that if the government does not take decisive action, these dusty, impoverished fringes of Punjab could be the next areas facing the insurgency. American intelligence and counterterrorism officials also said they viewed the developments with alarm.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand the gravity of the issue,” said a senior police official in Punjab, who declined to be idenfitied because he was discussing threats to the state. “If you want to destabilize Pakistan, you have to destabilize Punjab.”

As American drone attacks disrupt strongholds of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal areas, the insurgents are striking deeper into Pakistan — both in retaliation and in search of new havens.

Telltale signs of creeping militancy abound in a belt of towns and villages near here that a reporter visited last week. Militants have gained strength considerably in the district of Dera Ghazi Khan, which is a gateway both to Taliban-controlled areas and the heart of Punjab, the police and local residents say. Many were terrified.

Some villages, just north of here, are so deeply infiltrated by militants that they are already considered no-go zones by their neighbors.

In at least five towns in southern and western Punjab, including the midsize hub of Multan, barber shops, music stores and Internet cafes offensive to the militants’ strict interpretation of Islam have received threats. Traditional ceremonies that include drumming and dancing have been halted in some areas. Hard-line ideologues have addressed large crowds to push their idea of Islamic revolution. Sectarian attacks, dormant here since the 1990s, have erupted once again.

“It’s going from bad to worse,” said a senior police official in Dera Ghazi Khan. “They are now more active. These are the facts.”

American officials agreed. Bruce Riedel, who led the Obama administration’s recently completed strategy review of Pakistan and Afghanistan, said the Taliban now had “extensive links into the Punjab.”

“You are seeing more of a coalescence of these militant groups,” said Mr. Riedel, a former C.I.A. official. “Connections that have always existed are becoming tighter and more public than they have in the past.”

The Punjabi militant groups have had links with the Taliban, who are mostly Pashtun tribesmen, since the 1980s. Some of the Punjabi groups are veterans of Pakistan’s state-sponsored insurgency against Indian forces in Kashmir. Others made targets of Shiites.

Under pressure from the United States, former President Pervez Musharraf cut back state support for the Punjabi groups. They either went underground or migrated to the tribal areas, where they deepened their ties with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

At least 20 militants killed in American strikes in the tribal areas since last summer were Punjabi, according to people from the tribal areas and Pakistani officials. One Pakistani security official estimated that 5 percent to 10 percent of militants in the tribal regions could be Punjabi.

The alliance is based on more than shared ideology. “These are tactical alliances,” said a senior American counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss intelligence matters. The Pashtun Taliban and Arab militants, who are part of Al Qaeda, have money, sanctuary, training sites and suicide bombers. The Punjabi militants can provide logistical help in Punjabi cities, like Lahore, including handling bombers and target reconnaissance.

The cooperation between the groups intensified greatly after the government’s siege of Islamic hard-liners at the Red Mosque in Islamabad, in mid-2007, Pakistani and American security officials say. The siege has since become a rallying cry.

One such joint operation, an American security official said, was the Marriott bombing in Islamabad in September, which killed more than 50 people.

As this cooperation intensifies, places like Dera Ghazi Khan are particularly vulnerable. This frontier town is home to a combustible mix of worries: poverty, a growing phalanx of hard-line religious schools and a uranium processing plant that is a part of Pakistan’s nuclear program.

It is also strategically situated at the intersection of two main roads. One is a main artery into Pakistan’s heartland, in southern Punjab. The other connects Baluchistan Province in the west to the North-West Frontier Province, both Taliban strongholds.

“We are being cornered in a blind alley,” said Mohammed Ali, a local landlord. “We can’t breathe easily.”

Attacks intended to intimidate and sow sectarian strife are more common. The police point to a suicide bombing in Dera Ghazi Khan on Feb. 5. Two local Punjabis, with the help of Taliban backers, orchestrated the attack, which killed 29 people at a Shiite ceremony, the local police said.

The authorities arrested two men as masterminds on April 6: Qari Muhammad Ismail Gul, the leader of a local madrasa; and Ghulam Mustafa Kaisrani, a jihadi who posed as a salesman for a medical company.

They belonged to a banned Punjabi group called Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, but were tied through phone calls to two deputies of the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, the police said.

“The phone numbers they call are in Waziristan,” said a police official, referring to the Taliban base in the tribal areas. “They are working together hand in glove.” One of the men had gone for training in Waziristan last summer, the police said. The operations are well-supported. Mr. Kaisrani had several bank transfers worth about $11 million from his Pakistani account, the authorities said.

Local crimes, including at least two recent bank robberies in Dera Ghazi Khan, were also traced to networks of Islamic militants, officials said.

“The money that’s coming in is huge,” said Zulfiqar Hameed, head of investigations for the Lahore Police Department. “When you go back through the chain of the transaction, you invariably find it’s been done for money.”

After the suicide attack here, the police confiscated a 20-minute inspirational video, titled “Revenge,” for the Red Mosque, which gave testimonials from suicide bombers in different cities and post-attack images.

Umme Hassan, the wife of a fiery preacher who was killed during the Red Mosque siege, now frequently travels to south Punjab, to rally the faithful. She has made 12 visits in the past several months before cheering crowds and showing emotional clips of the attack, said a Punjabi official who has been monitoring her visits.

“She claimed that they would bring Islamic revolution in three months,” said Umar Draz, who attended a rally in Muzzafargarh.

The situation in south and west Punjab is still far from that in the Swat Valley, a part of North-West Frontier Province that is now fully under Taliban control after the military agreed to a truce in February. But there are strong parallels.

The Taliban here exploit many of the same weaknesses that have allowed them to expand in other areas: an absent or intimidated police force; a lack of attention from national and provincial leaders; a population steadily cowed by threats, or won over by hard-line mullahs who usurp authority by playing on government neglect and poverty.

In Shadan Lund, a village just north of here, militants are openly demanding Islamic law, or Shariah, said Jan Sher, whose brother is a teacher there. “The situation is sharply going toward Swat,” Mr. Sher said. He and others said the single biggest obstacle to stopping the advance of militancy was the attitudes of Pakistanis themselves, whose fury at the United States has led to blind support for everyone who goes against it.

Shabaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, said he was painfully aware of the problems of insurgent infiltration and was taking steps to restore people’s faith in government, including plans for new schools and hospitals. “Hearts and minds must be won,” he said in an interview Monday. “If this struggle fails, this country has no future.”

But people complain that landowners and local politicians have done nothing to stop the advance and, in some cases, even assist the militants by giving money to some of the religious schools.

“The government is useless,” said Mr. Ali, the local landlord. “They live happy, secure lives in Lahore. Their children study abroad. They only come here to contest elections.”

The police are left alone to stop the advance. But in Punjab, as in much of the rest of Pakistan, they are spread unevenly, with little presence in rural areas. Out of 160,000 police officers in Punjab, fewer than 60,000 are posted in rural areas, leaving frontier stations in districts virtually unprotected, police officials said.

Locals feel helpless. When a 15-year-old boy vanished from a madrasa in a village near here recently — his classmates said to go on jihad — his uncle could not afford to go look for him, let alone confront the powerful men who run the madrasa.

“We are simple people,” the man said. “What can we do?”

Sabrina Tavernise reported from Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan; Richard A. Oppel Jr. from Peshawar, Pakistan; and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington, Waqar Gillani from Dera Ghazi Khan, and Pir Zubair Shah from Peshawar.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Hope for negotiations with the Taliban?

It’s very hard to assess what is going on in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan at this time. Swat has been handed over to the Taliban, a move that the Pakistanis represent as a device to bring the Taliban under government control. So far, there is no sign of it. At the same time the Pakistan military has crushed a group they claim to be the Taliban in Bajaur. The reports, however, indicate that those who were attacked were fairly benign while some of the most dangerous insurgent elements are still at large.

The most interesting development is the news, reported today by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times, that “preliminary discussions with the Taliban leadership were already under way” between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban, even before Obama expressed an interest in negotiating with the Taliban. I was most struck by a sentence buried in the article: “The Taliban leadership council first approached the government about peace talks last year, a senior security adviser said, after suffering heavy battlefield casualties and seeing the election of a civilian, antimilitant government in Pakistan.” That the Taliban took the initiative suggests that they see, or at least at that time saw, limitations in what they could accomplish.

I am worried about the flawed arguments being presented about how hopeless the American cause is in Afghanistan. Those who offer such ideas generously quote Kipling’s colorful depictions of the Afghans in the nineteenth century and pointedly remind us that the Soviets were hopelessly bogged down in Afghanistan. “Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires”, etc.; they believe all the clichés. These arguments forget that the British were unable to decide for sure whether they cared about establishing a serious presence in Afghanistan in the nineteenth century. There was a Forward policy and then there was a retreat to more secure territory; and there was, in the case of the disastrous retreat by the British army in 1842, a plethora of flaws in leadership. The Soviets in more recent times were in a different position. True, they also were conflicted about the Afghanistan venture, but more importantly they were faced with an American and Saudi- supported insurgency emanating from Pakistan’s tribal territory. Lots of money and arms were supporting the Mujahedin struggle against the Soviets. And there was a huge refugee population from which to recruit holy warriors.

That’s not the situation now. The Taliban- Al Qaeda coalition are faced by a gradually improving Afghan army from the east, a frustrated (but again conflicted) military regime in Pakistan that finally acts like it’s fed up with the radical Islamists they protected for so many years – fed up at least for now – and with them is joined an American –NATO force that now finally, after years of neglect by the Bush administration, acts like it will make a serious commitment to the problem. So the Taliban-Al Qaeda coalition has to rely on corruption in Afghanistan and Pakistan and on the illicit drug industry to survive. It’s true that they have a firm grip on some places but if they are hemmed in by sufficient forces and if the nations interested in resolving the issue remain committed, then the Taliban-Al Qaeda coalition have reason to think about negotiating.

It seems to me that this could be a significant shift in the situation. One of the conditions in our modern world that many of us have noted is that the effective instruments of political activity of the past have shifted. State institutions are being seriously challenged by person-centered coalitions of the sort that were far more viable before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which established the practice of giving state institutions rights of sovereignty. The Taliban and Al Qaeda in the Middle East, and FARC and the drug cartels in Latin America are organizations for the exertion of influence that resemble the pre-Westphalia agreement. Even so, all of them earnestly want to grasp the reigns of state power. If and whenever one of them would, it would be an event of significance because it would seem to give legitimacy to such groups. Criminal gangs seem to control several of the states in Africa. And some of us wonder if in fact the coalition headed by Vladimir Putin in Russia is in fact a kind of criminal mafia.

In any case, the discussions with the Taliban seem promising. The Taliban demands in any deal seem eminently reasonable from here: an end to house searches and arrests, and the release of Taliban detainees from Afghan jails and the United States detention centers at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram Air Base. There are also “other things” they want, unspecified in Gall’s article. But if we can believe what we read there is hope.