Page 1 of 2 BOOK REVIEW The real AfPak deal Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 by Syed
Reviewed by Pepe Escobar
Think of Saleem Shahzad as a made in Pakistan Predator drone carrying words,
not bombs, flying all over AfPak. Instead of taking out "terrorists" - and the
odd Pashtun wedding party - what his Hellfire missiles actually do is smash
most assumptions and the concentric walls of disinformation disseminated in the
West about AfPak.
Pluto Press - as an act of compassion - should mail a copy of this book to
self-billed counter-insurgency ace and now Central Intelligence Agency chief
General David Petraeus, not to mention his coterie of sycophant boots not on
the ground as well as
"terrorism experts" of the comfy think-tank variety - so they would actually
have a clue about what's really been happening on the ground.
[Disclosure: Saleem Shahzad was a colleague and a friend. We worked in tandem
immediately after 9/11 - he was in Karachi, I was in Islamabad/Peshawar.
Afterwards, we met on numerous times in Karachi. Oddly enough, we never
traveled to the tribal areas or to Afghanistan together - I always used other
fixers, Punjabi or Pashtun.]
was after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that Saleem - Asia Times Online's
Pakistan bureau chief - staked his ground as the foremost reporter
investigating the labyrinth of the Pakistani tribal areas. By one of those
tragic quirks of history, his book was launched only three weeks after the
targeted assassination of Osama bin Laden in the Abbottabad raid; and roughly a
week before Saleem himself was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. No, he was not
killed by "al-Qaeda"; as the investigation about his murder in Pakistan is
going nowhere (and will stay there), still the insider bet is on a not so rogue
faction of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), with clearance at
the highest levels.
No pain, no gain
Even for those familiar with Pakistan, the tribal areas and Afghanistan,
reading this book can be as unforgiving as a trek in the Hindu Kush -
especially because of the effort of keeping up with a dizzying cast of
characters which Saleem himself, in a nifty twist, bills as "al-Qaeda's version
of One Thousand and One Nights".
So here we have Saleem as a Pakistani Sir Richard Burton, translating to the
world the hardcore adventures of essential players such as the ruthless Uzbek
warlord Tahir Yaldochiv and his private army of 2,500 throat-slitting jihadis;
or Captain Kurram and his elder brother Major Haroon - sterling examples of
middle cadres who resigned from the Pakistani armed forces and found their true
mission, revamping the Taliban's Medieval guerrilla tactics by applying the
lessons of the Vietnam War.
Haroon, for instance, correctly evaluated that the Pakistani Army's support for
the Afghan Taliban has always been purely tactical - part of Islamabad's
official policy of creating "strategic depth" against India; same about the
support for the Lashkar-e-Taiba militia, which is a convenient Pakistani tool
in a proxy war against India.
It was Haroon who recruited most of the best and most ideologically committed
young warriors for the already legendary - in AfPak terms - 313 Brigade of
commander Ilyas Kashmiri.
And it was Haroon who conceptualized the killer strategy of severing the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) supply lines of containers traveling
from the southern port city of Karachi - the lifeline of the occupation, 80%
going to the Khyber Pass and 20% going to Kandahar.
And if Haroon is to be believed, next year is going to be hell on earth. He
told Saleem in Karachi that this is when the Mahdi will finally reappear, "to
command the Muslim forces in the Middle East and defeat the Western forces led
by the Antichrist [Dajjal]".
It's open to debate whether the Dajjal, in this cosmology, is US
President Barack Obama, the Pentagon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu, or all of the above.
Burning of the midnight lamp
The staggering amount of information contained in this book can keep Hindu Kush
addicts awake for years. Among other lapis lazuli (gem) items, one
How al-Qaeda managed to unite two tribes, the Mehsud (the "panthers" of the
19th century Great Game) and the Wazir (the "wolves") to get complete control
of the South Waziristan tribal area - which was originally no more than a sort
of Taliban outpost of Helmand province, under the influence of the Afghan
Taliban; and how al-Qaeda preferred "looser" North Waziristan to establish its
How this was the game plan for the reconstruction of al-Qaeda and the Taliban
How the legendary Jalaluddin Haqqani - always showing his vanity by dying his
hair and beard, always in close contact with the ISI - never ceased to be the
leading Taliban warlord in North Waziristan; and how the ISI told him that
their offensives against him were only for show.
How Haqqani's son Sirajuddin in North Waziristan, and Baitullah Mehsud in South
Waziristan, configured themselves as trusted lieutenants of Taliban leader
Mullah Omar; and how Sirajuddin became the most dangerous Afghan Taliban
commander fighting NATO.
How a top al-Qaeda ideologue, the Egyptian Sheikh Essa al-Misri, "sold" their
strategy to the leaders of the tribal areas.
How the Taliban's major comeback in their 2006 spring offensive - when
Washington assumed they were dead and buried - was also an al-Qaeda success
story, turbocharged by roughly 4,000 foreign fighters, Chechens, Uighurs,
Uzbeks and a sprinkling of Arabs.
How the Islamic State of North Waziristan and the Islamic State of South
Waziristan managed to congregate, in the North, over 10,000 jihadis from
Karachi, Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar, plus 12,000 tribals - of which 3,000 were
Afghans and 2,000 were foreign; and in the South, 13,000 tribals, including a
few hundred Uzbeks and a sprinkling of Arabs. Thus Mullah Omar could start
counting on an army of at least 40,000 warriors.
How Omar's top emissary, Mullah Dadullah - profiting from close contacts with
the Sunni Iraqi resistance - sold to the tribals the concept of suicide bombing
as a legitimate form of jihad.
But most of all, how al-Qaeda "fashioned a parallel entity, the
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban TTP), to reinforce its positions
in the natural fortresses of seven of Pakistan's tribal agencies".
Few may know that the TTP were created in fact as a diversionist tactic - so
al-Qaeda could carry on its caliphate-driven ideology of global jihad, which
was never Mullah Omar's wish (he basically wants foreign armies out of
Afghanistan). The Afghan Taliban though could not condemn the TTP, because they
were helping Afghans fight against the US/NATO forces.
The ultimate tribal franchise
That's in fact the central thesis of the book - that al-Qaeda "cloned" the
Afghan Taliban into the Pakistani Taliban - out of myriad militant groups - so
they could carry on an Islamic revolution inside Pakistan through an al-Qaeda
franchise; as Saleem puts it, "The first-ever popular local and fully tribal
supported al-Qaeda franchise in the world." Some in the Pentagon and Langley
may have gotten a glimpse of the big picture - but as far as AfPak is
concerned, a bit too late.
The term AfPak itself was coined by the late Obama envoy Richard Holbrooke in
March 2008. The problem is he was beaten to the punch, by a long mile, by
al-Qaeda itself, as early as 2002.
Saleem convincingly argues, based on his interviews with key players, that had
al-Qaeda not conceived "a battle plan against two hostile armies [NATO in
Afghanistan and the Pakistani army in Pakistan], its guerrilla operations in
Afghanistan would have died down by the end of 2002 and its retreating forces
would have been rounded up and decimated by early 2003".
That's exactly the same impression I got on the ground in Afghanistan in the
autumn of 2002. And the fact is that by late 2008, all seven of Pakistan's
tribal agencies were under the influence of al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda was betting that Washington would eventually surrender to some kind of
accommodation with the historic Taliban, Afghan-based, in conjunction with the
Pakistani army; in fact the situation would somehow be back to what it was in
the mid-1990s. But this time the Pakistani Taliban would be there to spoil the
party - and remind the Afghans that jihad was not confined to Afghanistan, it
had to go global.