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    South Asia
     May 5, 2011

Taliban and al-Qaeda: Friends in arms

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

WANA, South Waziristan - In the controversial debate over who is good and who is bad, Pakistan presents the al-Qaeda-linked Nazir Ahmed as a model "good Taliban".

Across the border in Afghanistan it is a somewhat different story: Nazir, leader of the Wazir tribe in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal area, is viewed by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces as their "worst enemy" and behind all devastating attacks on NATO forces in Paktika province and the most successful recruiter of footsoldiers for the Taliban in Zabul and Helmand provinces.

All the same, NATO and the United States, as they attempt a

reconciliation process with the Taliban, still see Nazir as being in the "good" Taliban camp; they could not be more wrong.

Nazir, 36, also known as Mullah Nazir or Maulvi Nazir, spoke to Asia Times Online in his first-ever interview with an independent media organization (he has only previously spoken to al-Sahab of al-Qaeda). What clearly emerged is how al-Qaeda has nurtured a new generation; Nazir now evaluates everything through al-Qaeda's ideology and strategy.

Nazir holds exclusive sway in South Waziristan and even in parts of Paktika province across the border - his word is law. Until last year, he owned property in Kandahar province, the Taliban's heartland in Afghanistan.

Apart from a few instances, Nazir has never opposed the army's presence in South Waziristan. He has also never intervened with the Islamabad-backed administration in the main city of Wana, unless it tried to intervene in Nazir- or Taliban-related issues. During major military operations against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban) in 2009, he remained neutral.

In 2007, he orchestrated the massacre of members of the anti-Pakistan army Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in which at least 250 Uzbeks were murdered and hundreds sent packing from the homes in South Waziristan they had established after fleeing Afghanistan during the fall of the Taliban on 2001.

From South Waziristan, his network stretches across southwestern Afghanistan including Paktika, Zabul, Helmand and up to Kandahar. Similarly, from his base in North Waziristan, Sirajuddin Haqqani runs the largest anti-coalition network in the southeastern Afghan provinces of Paktia, Khost, Ghazni and up to Kabul.

The Central Intelligence Agency's drones have on several occasions targeted Nazir, and he was injured during a strike in 2008. He attributes his escapes so far to the low profile he keeps as he does not appear in public.

Extremely loyal to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and a part of the Afghan Taliban, Nazir began as a conventional Talib guerrilla and a follower of the populist traits of the Taliban movement.

This changed in 2006, when, like many others including Sirajuddin Haqqani, Nazir became inspired by al-Qaeda and realized that fighting a war without modern guerrilla techniques meant draining vital human resources for no return.

That led to the advancement of the skills of Nazir's fighters, and it also came with rewards.

In Afghanistan, if a commander sticks solely to his relations with the Taliban, he will never climb the ladder to prominence and the Taliban can only provide a limited number of local tribal fighters and meager funds. But if a commander allies with al-Qaeda, he is given the opportunity for joint operations with top Arab commanders who arrange finances for those operations.

Similarly, breakaway factions of Pakistani jihadi organizations like the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Laskhar-e-Taiba and the Harkatul Mujahideen also supply an unending stream of fighters to those commanders associated with al-Qaeda.

Nazir's affiliation with al-Qaeda seems to have passed unnoticed by the United States and NATO, which are investing heavily in a reconciliation process with the "good Taliban" and they appear not to understand the drastic changes that have taken place among the top cadre of the Taliban.

"We are in favor of talks with the Americans. However, this is not the time to talk," Nazir said in a measured voice.

"At the moment, the Americans want breathing space. We don't want to allow them any at all." He paused, as if carefully weighing his words.

"At present, there is no reason for dialogue. Dialogue is possible only after the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan," Nazir said with a smile.

"What is the rationale of dialogue after NATO's withdrawal?" Nazir asked rhetorically. "Then, the Taliban and NATO can hold a dialogue on whether the Taliban would attack their interests all over the world or not, and what treaties should be undertaken in that regard."

Taken aback by this statement from a Taliban stalwart who is not perceived as being a global jihadi but simply a guerrilla fighting against occupation forces in Afghanistan, I intervened. "Hitting Western targets abroad might be al-Qaeda's agenda, but it is not the Taliban's, so why should the West negotiate that with the Taliban?"

"Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are one and the same. At an operational level we might have different strategies, but at the policy level we are one and the same," Nazir said, surprising me further.

"But you were considered anti-al-Qaeda. You expelled the [al-Qaeda-linked] Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan from South Waziristan."

Nazir's expression turned serious and he seemed a little tense, but in a fraction of a second he calmed down and replied with firmness.

"This is wrong that I am anti-al-Qaeda. I am part of al-Qaeda. Whatever happened between us and the Uzbeks was the result of our internal differences. I never did that on anybodyís instigation."

Nazir said that after the death of the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Tahir Yuldashev, killed in a drone attack in 2009, Nazir and Uzbek commanders were once again on talking terms and sorted out their differences.

"At the end of the day, all mujahideen are one and the jihad will not end up only in Afghanistan. It will go a long way. The monarchs and dictators of the Arab world are usurpers. The demonstrations against them are considered as pro-democracy, but eventually it will benefit the mujahideen. The situation has rapidly turned favorable for us and therefore the mujahideen from Afghanistan will join forces with the Arabs. Yemen is the first destination selected in this regard where we will send our men," Nazir said.

I turned the conversation back to reconciliation with the Taliban. "There is a lot of talk in the media about the Taliban's representative office in Turkey and talks that the Taliban have agreed on."

"I am a small mujahid [fighter]. I know politics only a little, but I know one thing, that NATO doesn't have any good intentions about the Taliban. This kind of office [in Turkey] is a conspiracy to understand the Taliban's network and their mobility patterns. I am a small mujahid or a commander so to speak, but I can say with authority that no commanders faithful to Mullah Mohammad Omar would fall into this trap - and nor would footsoldiers. The whole movement from top to bottom is united to reject this dialogue process," said Nazir, adding that all world powers played political gimmicks when they saw that a military victory was not possible.

"When the Soviets saw that they could not win militarily in Afghanistan [in the late 1980s], they engaged with northern Afghanistan's warlords, but that did not save them from defeat," said Nazir

My visit to South Waziristan coincided with the Taliban's declaration of the start of their annual spring offensive, so I asked, "Is there any new strategy for the offensive this year?"

"Dialogue," said Nazir, smiling.

"Dialogue with whom?" I asked.

"We have opened up dialogue with the Milli Urdu [Afghan National Army]. This is at different levels. We have an exclusive strategy this year that we will try our level best that Afghans do not kill Afghans unless it is inevitable."

"Does that mean you are speaking to the Afghan Ministry of Defense or the Ministry of Interior?" I asked.

"There is no negotiation with the political leadership. This communication is strictly between the field commanders of both sides. Before I came here to give this interview, I received a message that an important commander of the Milli Urdu wanted to speak to me. We simply urge them to stay away and let us fight against the foreigners and they are agreeing to that. At times they even facilitate us," Nazir said.

I then asked about the former Northern Alliance, the bloc in north Afghanistan that bitterly opposed the Taliban regime, in connection with the international peace efforts.

"They were very enthusiastic, but the Taliban made it clear to them that they would have to make some sacrifices too ... and they backed off." Nazir added that several top-level commanders of the Northern Alliance wanted to discuss a future political setup with the Taliban.

"They included all Panjshir [province in the north] commanders including Martial Fahim. They dished out a formula in which they would recognize any future government headed by Mullah Mohammad Omar and in which they were given the second-largest number of portfolios.

"We accepted their demand, saying we did not have any objections to offering them ministerial positions, but first they would have to resign from their present political offices and join forces with the Taliban against the foreign occupation. They backed off," Nazir said.

"But that was not the only peace offer. We have received under-the-table offers from foreigners as well. Last year, British forces in Helmand province send a message to the Taliban that all major operations were carried out by the Americans, so if we did not target them, the British forces would not target the Taliban," Nazir said.

I was on the point of asking for elaboration when Nazir said, "Why donít you join us for lunch," indicating in the most polite but unmistakable manner that the interview was over.

(Note: This article was written before the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2.)

Part 2: Kicking around in South Waziristan

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and author of forthcoming book Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban, beyond 9/11 to be published by Pluto Press, UK. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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