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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org