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    South Asia
     Apr 11, 2008
The Taliban talk the talk
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - With the destruction of a bridge on the Indus Highway in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) region of Darra Adamkhel last weekend, the Taliban have taken another step towards choking the supplies that flood through Pakistan to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) mission in Afghanistan.

At the same time, the Taliban believe an agreement Russia concluded with NATO at its summit last week will not alleviate the situation. Moscow agreed to the transit of food and non-military cargo and "some types of non-lethal military equipment" across Russia to Afghanistan. NATO is acutely aware that the 70% of its supplies that enter Afghanistan through Pakistan are in jeopardy with the Taliban's new focus on cutting transit routes.

These developments take place as the Taliban-led battle in


Afghanistan is about to enter a new phase; for the first time since their ouster in 2001, the Taliban will scale back their tribal guerrilla warfare and concentrate on tactics used by the legendary Vietnamese commander General Vo Nguyen Giap, an approach that has already proved successful in taming the Pakistani military in the tribal areas.

"For the first time, the Taliban will have a well-coordinated strategy under which we will seize isolated military posts for a limited time, taking enemy combatants hostage, and then leaving them," "Dr Jarrah", a Taliban media spokesman, told Asia Times Online in a telephone conversation from Kunar province in Afghanistan.

"This is the second tier of General Giap's guerrilla strategy. The third tier is a conventional face-to-face war. This aims to demoralize the enemy," Jarrah explained. "We have been delayed by rainfall, but you shall see action by mid-April."

Jarrah claimed the Taliban have already launched some attacks over the past few weeks in Nooristan province, killing several American soldiers. Jarrah said retaliatory bombing only resulted in civilian casualties.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda used these tactics against the Pakistani military in the South Waziristan tribal area during 2007. This involved targeting remote military posts and forts and other installations on the fringes of towns such as Bannu. The Taliban would occupy the positions for only a few hours, long enough for them to take scores of soldiers as hostages. These would then be swapped with Taliban prisoners or used as bargaining chips for ceasefires and other demands.

The Taliban's new focus is the brainchild of several retired Pakistani military officers who are now part of the Taliban movement. They are complemented by men trained by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence's India cell to fuel the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir.

These "neo-Taliban" have changed the face and dynamics of the Afghan insurgency. They are particularly careful not to blindly waste manpower, as in the past. During 2008, the main center of Taliban activity will be eastern Afghanistan.

"Almost 90% of the men have been launched for this spring," a Pakistani Taliban told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. He is known for his professional military skills and strategic planning.

"About 10,000 fresh men have joined hands with us. Of these, half of them have been trained and launched, along with the old lot, while the other half [5,000] are getting training and will be launched in the next phase," the man said.

He continued, "Chopping off NATO's supply lines from Pakistan is the prelude of our operations and, believe me, the NATO deal with Russia for an alternative supply line is useless. To me, this is a fallacy or a political slogan to pressurize the strategically illiterate Pakistani leadership that NATO can do without Pakistan."

The strategic expert pointed out that the transit agreement was signed between Afghanistan and Pakistan because historically NWFP has always been the lifeline for southeastern Afghanistan, and nothing has changed this status. Iran is the second choice, but it is not willing to allow its territory to be used to support NATO.

Maintaining military supplies to Afghanistan this year will be a great challenge for the US, which is why Richard Boucher, the top US official for South Asia, and US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte were in Pakistan's Khyber Agency recently to try to get tribal elders on side. But because of the Taliban's threats, only three elders turned up for secret meetings.

A load of 'nonsense'
Brigadier General Carlos Branco, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, is skeptical of the Taliban's claims, calling them unrealistic and no more than propaganda.

"Every year they claim a spring offensive. What offensive are they talking about? Blowing up cell phone towers in Helmand and Kandahar [provinces] or blowing up power stations in Ghazni? This is not an offensive," Branco told Asia Times Online in a telephone interview from Kabul.

"You know much better than me this [cutting supply lines] is not true. We rely on various means of transportation; besides, we do have a lot of supplementary stocks with us. Therefore, a few attacks will never have any effect. We do have sea problems [Afghanistan is landlocked] but this claim of completely chopping off our supply lines has no base in reality. I completely deny their claim," Branco said.

Commenting on the Taliban's new strategy, Branco dismissed it as old wine in new bottles.

"The Taliban haven't had a new strategy in the past, neither will they have one in the future. They will do what they did in 2007. They avoided any confrontation with NATO or the Afghan National Army and instead they attacked district headquarters and claimed they had captured the whole district. But before the arrival of our troops, they left.

"They did indeed attack some of our forward operation bases, but their attacks were ineffective as they lack the military capability ... it makes me laugh when they try to compare their guerrilla strategy with that of General Giap's," said Branco.

"This is really nonsense. General Giap used coordinated guerrilla attacks and employing conventional tactics with a range of weaponry. The Taliban's tactics are useless. The tried to use those tactics in 2006 and suffered heavy losses. I don't think they will be able to repeat those tactics. They are not able to confront us on open ground, not even at the platoon level," Branco said.

Similarly, a United Nations representative who spoke to Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity said the tide had changed against the Taliban. He said this had been brought about by the National Solidarity Program - a rural development initiative - and with a more visible and effective presence of the army and police, especially in Paktia and Kandahar provinces.

He said governance is improving after some "inspired appointments" and that international organizations like the UN are gaining improved access in almost all areas.

Other observers, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) , see the situation differently. The ICRC said in a press release from Kabul dated April 8:
The president of the ICRC, Jakob Kellenberger, is in Afghanistan for a seven-day visit to get a first-hand look at the situation in the country. "We are extremely concerned about the worsening humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. There is growing insecurity and a clear intensification of the armed conflict, which is no longer limited to the south but has spread to the east and west," said Mr Kellenberger.

"Intensification of the conflict has forced a growing number of people from their homes. While the ICRC has stepped up its humanitarian activities in recent years, dangerous conditions often prevent it from reaching groups such as displaced persons who need protection and assistance. The harsh reality is that in large parts of Afghanistan, little development is taking place. Instead, the conflict is forcing more and more people to flee their homes. Their growing humanitarian needs and those of other vulnerable people must be met as a matter of urgency. The Afghan people deserve to live in a secure environment and have access to decent health care, safe drinking water and adequate food supplies," added Mr Kellenberger.
These are different views from different perspectives. The Taliban, NATO, the United Nations and humanitarian organizations, they each have their own agenda. Ultimately what matters is what happens on the battle field.

A new generation of neo-Taliban has emerged under Sirajuddin Haqqani (son of veteran mujahid Jalaluddin Haqqani) . They are ideologically more radical than their elders, but much more strategically attuned, having proved themselves in Indian-administered Kashmir against Indian forces a few years ago and against the Pakistani military.

Now they have to prove their claim that the summer of 2008 will be a hot one in Afghanistan.

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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