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    South Asia
     Jan 24, 2008
Taliban wield the ax ahead of new battle
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - With the Taliban's spring offensive just months away, the Afghan front has been quiet as Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have been heavily engaged in fighting security forces in Pakistan's tribal regions.

But now Taliban leader Mullah Omar has put his foot down and reset the goals for the Taliban: their primary task is the struggle in Afghanistan, not against the Pakistan state.

Mullah Omar has sacked his own appointed leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, the main architect of the fight against Pakistani security forces, and urged all Taliban 



commanders to turn their venom against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, highly placed contacts in the Taliban told Asia Times Online. Mullah Omar then appointed Moulvi Faqir Mohammed (a commander from Bajaur Agency) but he refused the job. In the past few days, the Pakistani Taliban have held several meetings but have not yet appointed a replacement to Mehsud.

This major development occurred at a time when Pakistan was reaching out with an olive branch to the Pakistani Taliban. Main commanders, including Hafiz Gul Bahadur and the main Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan, Sirajuddin Haqqani, signed peace agreements. But al-Qaeda elements, including Tahir Yuldashev, chief of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, undermined this initiative.

"We refused any peace agreement with the Pakistani security forces and urged the mujahideen fight for complete victory," Yuldashev said in a jihadi video message seen by Asia Times Online. Yuldashev's closest aide and disciple, Mehsud, last week carried out an attack on a Pakistani security post and then seized two forts in the South Waziristan tribal area.

As a result, Pakistan bombed South Waziristan and sent in heavy artillery and tanks for a major operation against Mehsud. Other important commanders are now in North Waziristan and they support the peace agreements with the Pakistani security forces.

Pakistan's strategic quarters maintain the planned operation in South Waziristan is aimed particularly at eliminating Mehsud.

"While talking to government representatives in the jirga [peace council] we could clearly discern a grudge against Baitullah Mehsud and the Mehsud tribes by the security forces. And there are signs that the government is obsessed with a military operation to make Baitullah Mehsud a martyr," a leading member of the peace jirga in South Waziristan, Maulana Hisamuddin, commented to Voice of America.

Mehsud came into the spotlight after Taliban commander Nek Mohammed was killed in a missile attack in South Waziristan in mid-2004. Nek was from the Wazir tribe, which is considered a rival tribe of the Mehsud. Haji Omar, another Wazir, replaced Nek, but support from Yuldashev and Uzbek militants strengthened Mehsud's position. He rose through the ranks of the Taliban after becoming acquainted with Mullah Dadullah (killed by US-led forces in May 2007) and Mehsud supplied Dadullah with many suicide bombers.

Dadullah's patronage attracted many Pakistani jihadis into Mehsud's fold and by 2007 he was reckoned as the biggest Taliban commander in Pakistan - according to one estimate he alone had over 20,000 fighters.

The link to Dadullah also brought the approval of Mullah Omar, and when the Taliban leader last year revived the "Islamic Emirates" in the tribal areas, Mehsud was appointed as his representative, that is, the chief of the Pakistani Taliban.

Mehsud was expected to provide valuable support to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but instead he directed all his fighters against Pakistani security forces.

With Mehsud now replaced, Mullah Omar will use all Taliban assets in the tribal areas for the struggle in Afghanistan. This leaves Mehsud and his loyalists completely isolated to fight against Pakistani forces.

Taliban aim for the jugular
According to Taliban quarters in Afghanistan that Asia Times Online spoke to recently, the Taliban have well-established pockets around Logar, Wardak and Ghazni, which are all gateways to the capital Kabul.

Many important districts in the southwestern provinces, including Zabul, Helmand, Urzgan and Kandahar, are also under the control of the Taliban. Similarly, districts in the northwestern, including Nimroz, Farah and Ghor, have fallen to the Taliban.

Certainly, the Taliban will be keen to advance from these positions, but they will also concentrate on destroying NATO's supply lines from Pakistan into Afghanistan. The Taliban launched their first attack in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province on Monday, destroying a convoy of oil tankers destined for NATO's Kandahar air field.

"If NATO's supply lines are shut down from Pakistan, NATO will sweat in Afghanistan," a member of a leading humanitarian organization in Kabul told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. "The only substitute would be air operations, but then NATO costs would sky-rocket."

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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