Taliban bitten by a snake in the
grass By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - The Taliban and their al-Qaeda
associates, in what they considered a master
stroke, this year started to target the Western
alliance's supply lines that run through Pakistan
Their focal point was
Khyber Agency, in Pakistan's Federally
Administered Tribal Areas, a key transit point for
as much as 70% of the alliance's supplies needed to
maintain its battle against the Afghan insurgency.
The spectacular blowing up on March 20 of
40 gas tankers at Torkham - the border crossing in
Khyber Agency into Afghanistan's Nangarhar
province - sent shock waves through the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization-led (NATO) coalition.
that it made a deal for some supplies to transit
through Russia, a much more arduous route.
The Torkham success was followed by a
number of smaller attacks, and the Taliban's plan
appeared to be going better than they could have
Then came this week's incident
in which the Taliban seized two members of the
World Food Program (WFP) in Khyber Agency, and it
became obvious the Taliban had been betrayed, and
all for the princely sum of about US$150,000.
Their Khyber dreams are now in tatters.
friends like this ... When the
Taliban's new tactic emerged, the US Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) - which Pakistan's
intelligence community says maintains its biggest
South Asian presence in Pakistan - sprung into
action and staged a coup of its own.
that's getting ahead of the story.
coming under intense pressure in its traditional
strongholds in the North and South Waziristan
tribal areas, al-Qaeda and the Taliban staged a
joint shura (council). This meeting
concluded that they had to be especially careful
of local political parties and tribals who were
all too ready to sell themselves in the US's quest
to find Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman
al-Zawahiri. The council pointed to the example of
Iraq, where the US's policy of courting Sunni
tribes to turn against al-Qaeda has had marked
At this point, the council hit on
the idea of taking the initiative and turning
Taliban and al-Qaeda attention on Khyber Agency
with the aim of bleeding the Western coalition
without having to launch major battles.
This was fine in theory, but there were
practical difficulties: the agency is the most
unlikely place for "Talibanization". The majority
of the population is Brelvi-Sufi Muslim,
traditionally opposed to the Taliban's Deobandi
and al-Qaeda's Salafi ideology. Being an historic
route for armies and traders, the population is
politically liberal and pragmatist, not easily
swayed by idealist and Utopian ideology such as
the Taliban's and al-Qaeda's.
Taliban sent in its own fighting corps gathered
from other tribal areas, and drafted in Ustad
Yasir, a heavyweight Afghan commander, from
Afghanistan. These predominantly Pashtun fighters
consider the Afridi and Shinwari tribes, the
natives of Khyber Agency, as materialist and
non-ideological, but all the same a local host
was essential for their operation.
Taliban hit on one of the few Salafis in the area,
Haji Namdar, as their point man. Namdar is not a
traditional tribal, he's a trader who has worked
in Saudi Arabia. His Salafi ideology and the fact
that he is a practicing Muslim lent him
credibility - and trustworthiness - in the eyes of
Namdar came on board,
offering to provide the Taliban with sanctuary for
their men, arms and supplies along the main road
leading to the border area. He gave these
assurances to Taliban leaders in his own home.
The Americans were fully aware of the
Taliban's designs on Khyber Agency and invested a
lot in the tribes to protect the route. In
response, the Taliban threatened tribal
chieftains, and launched a suicide attack on a
jirga (meeting) convened to discuss
eradicating the Taliban from the area. Over 40
tribals were killed.
US Deputy Secretary
of State John Negroponte also visited Khyber
Agency to meet with chiefs, but out of fear for
the Taliban only six tribal elders showed up. It
appeared the Americans had been outwitted, but
their game was not over.
Anyway, with the
Taliban's arrangement with Namdar, the stage was
set and they steadily stepped up their attacks on
convoys heading for Afghanistan, leading to the
capture of the two WFP members and their vehicle
Things start to go
wrong Unlike in previous Taliban
attacks in the area, local paramilitary forces
chased the Taliban after this incident. The
Taliban retaliated and five soldiers were killed,
but then their ammunition ran out and they
surrendered the two workers and tried to flee, but
they were blocked.
The Taliban called in
reinforcements, but so did the paramilitary
troops, and a stalemate was reached. Eventually,
the Taliban managed to capture a local political
agent (representing the central government) and
they used him as a hostage to allow their escape.
They retreated to their various safe
houses, but to their horror, paramilitary troops
were waiting for them and scores were arrested,
and their arms caches seized. A number of Taliban
did, however, manage to escape once word got out
of what was happening.
The only person
aware of the safe houses was Namdar, their
supposed protector: they had been sold out.
Their worst suspicions were confirmed when
Namdar broke his cover and announced on a local
radio station that Taliban commanders, including
Ustad Yasir, should surrender or face a
"massacre", as happened when local tribes turned
against Uzbek fighters in South Waziristan in
Namdar said that he had the
full weight of the security forces behind him, and
he did not fear any suicide attack.
Al-Qaeda and the Taliban immediately
called an emergency shura in North
Waziristan to review the situation. Al-Qaeda's
investigations revealed that the CIA and Pakistani
intelligence had got to Namdar and paid him
$150,000 in local currency.
result is that Taliban operations in Khyber Agency
have been cut off. This in itself is a major
setback, as the attacks on supply lines had hit a
raw NATO nerve.
In the broader context,
Namdar's betrayal vividly illustrates the dangers
of traitors within the ranks of the Taliban and
al-Qaeda. The fear is that the various peace deals
being signed now between the Islamabad government
and selected tribal leaders could lead to a whole
new batch of betrayals.
therefore, is to go all-out to stop the
government's dialogue process with militants and
Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan
Bureau Chief. He can be reached at[email protected]