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Taliban raise the stakes in Afghanistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - After two years of guerilla warfare with almost dry supply lines, the Taliban are now in a position around the important cities of south and southeastern Afghanistan to begin the next phase of their campaign to oust foreign troops from the country.

At present, they are poised to close in on Kandahar, Khost, Jalalabad, Asadabad and Gardez.

A top jihadi field commander told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity that over the past few months the Taliban have continued with their policy of guerilla strikes, even though they have incurred heavy casualties. This has helped the Taliban, who were removed by the US-led attack on Afghanistan at the end of 2001, in two ways. Firstly, the attacks have largely demoralized the Afghan militia, which has virtually stopped conducting search and seize operations, and is now focussed on protecting its base camps. Secondly, Taliban supporters among the masses have gained in confidence and are more openly extending their support in practical terms.

As a result, the Taliban have established their own "governorates" in villages across Kunhar, Nanaghar, Paktia and Paktika. The ground situation in Afghanistan is identical to the post-USSR occupation period and during communist rule in Afghanistan in the early 1990s when the Afghan government's rule was restricted to the cities, and the outskirts and villages were controlled by mujahideen.

To use a practical example, one could look at the situation in Nanaghar. From Turkham, in the Pakistani tribal area on the border, Jalalabad in Afghanistan is barely an hour's drive away along the Jalalabad highway. There are dozens of villages along the route, all of which are occupied by the fighters of the Hizb-i-Islami (HIA) of former mujahideen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The village of Killa Shinwari serves as a form of headquarters where daily resistance meetings are held.

The Afghan militia is well aware of this situation, but it has established what amounts to a truce with the HIA, and neither side transgresses across their marked borders. A similar situation exists around Khost and Kandahar, where verbal truce agreements have been made. As a result, the widespread skirmishes that have characterized these regions the past months have all but stopped, allowing the resistance the time to plot for bigger things.

In the past few weeks, the Taliban have sent representatives, including former Taliban minister and leader Mullah Omar's key lieutenant, Mullah Jalil, on a mission to Pakistan. At a time when Pakistani troops were searching for the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the rugged mountains of South Wazirstan, Jalil and company quietly roamed around the Pakistani port city of Karachi collecting several million rupees (US$35,000) in funds from their sympathizers, and had it transferred through many hands to the "governorates" in Afghanistan.

With these relative safe havens in the corridors around the cities, "global jihadis", whether of Pakistani or Arab identity, have been able to congregate. For instance, Mullah Magrassi, a renowned guerrilla fighter of Bengali or Burmi origin, has reached the Jalalabad area and started training new recruits in the technicalities of ambushes and laying bombs.

Sources close to the Afghan resistance have told Asia Times Online that the battles for the cities are expected to begin next summer. In the mean time, during the long harsh winter that is already well advanced, the mujahideen will lie low in their caves, from where, for the first time, they will launch a series of suicide missions. At present, these squads are few in number, but they are expected to grow in coming months as Bengali, Pakistani, Chechen, Arab and Afghan jihadis swell their numbers. Their targets will include foreign forces in the big cities, and on a much bigger scale than anything in the past to incur maximum casualties.

US-led forces, according to diplomatic sources, are aware of these developments, but they are unable to draw up a comprehensive containment plan without additional forces, which would have to establish camps in all the major cities and important districts. As it is, US forces are spread very thin across the country, with most focussed on the Pakistan border areas where many resistance fighters often take refuge.

In other parts of the country, the resistance grows in strength, and influence, as it prepares for its next phase in its war which has only one goal: The total withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghan soil.

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Oct 30, 2003

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