A shadowy new battlefield

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

Events of the past two years suggest that the plans of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to scale down its troop numbers in Afghanistan this year is not the beginning of the end of combat operations. Rather, it’s a switch to a new plan that aims to facilitate the broader participation of regoinal allies such as Russia, India and the Central Asian Republics for the defeat of the Islamic militancy.

Already, there has been collaboration in Afghanistan between NATO and Russia’s anti-drug operatives, while Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s 2008 proposal that Western capitals set up a “6+3” initiative group to tackle problems in Afghanistan has been well received. This would include Central Asian countries, the United States and NATO. Uzbekistan is becoming increasingly involved in reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. All of this affirms a roadmap of anti-terror operations involving more allies in Afghanistan following the draw-down of NATO forces starting this year.

The Taliban command council in Helmand province in Afghanistan became aware of this shift to involve regional players and responded by sending some of its top-ranking commanders to northern Afghanistan, where in late 2001 the Taliban had been routed by Northern Alliance militias backed by US forces during the invasion that led to the fall of the Taliban in Kabul. Their destinations included Kunduz, Baghlan and Mazar-i-Sharif.

Al-Qaeda’s international wing, Jundallah, has also prepared a strategy for northern Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics to nip in the bud the deeper involvement of regional players.

The militant response thus involves the international strategy of al-Qaeda and indigenous Taliban plans, which stand alone at the moment but at some stage they are expected to fuse. Such a fusion would be similar to what occurred in the tribal areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan, where three different anti-American forces – pro-Islamic tribalism, the Taliban and al-Qaeda – initially pulled in different directions before eventually fusing into the neo-Taliban.

This was a new generation of local tribesman and other Pakistani and Afghans who absorbed al-Qaeda’s ideology and decided to fight simultaneously on the regional as well as on the international front.

The Taliban decided to concentrate their northern forces in Baghlan province because of its sizeable Pashtun population, apart from Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. The Pashtun were send to Baghlan by former King Zahir Shah (on the throne from 1933 to 1973) to build a constituency – which has now been taken over by the Taliban.

Al-Qaeda chose Baghlan because of its strategic location near the Central Asian Republics in which al-Qaeda supports local Islamic opposition groups, especially Uzbekistan and Chechnya.

Shadowy battlefield
The road heading north out of Kabul passes through many dark and narrow mountain tunnels before the landscape broadens into dusty plains. The sky was a brilliant blue, and after about 200 kilometers a large spy balloon loomed overhead. It marked our destination – the village of Qarah Daqa, near the military base of Baghlan manned by Hungarian troops.

The Pentagon uses dozens of balloons to meet the growing military demand for video surveillance of insurgents. Army Times has cited Ashton Carter, the Pentagon’s top weapons-buyer, as saying balloons fitted with high-powered cameras were needed because unmanned planes such as the Predator could not be built fast enough. Spy balloons were the latest example of how unmanned weapons were revolutionizing warfare, said Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

As we approached the base our driver had to slow down as at least 80 NATO oil supply tankers were backed up at a security checkpoint. The tankers had set out from the Uzbekistan border early in the morning and arrived near Qarah Daqa, near Baghlan province’s capital of Pol-e-Khumri, at 2 pm.

The convoys can only travel in daylight as the nights are too dangerous. They are protected by private security guards, but when they arrive at Qarah Daqa, where they spend the night, local Afghan police also provide protection against militant attacks, besides spy balloons.

Qarah Daqa is an Uzbek-language name, but the local population – not more than 1,000 people – is now all Pashtun. It lies seven kilometers from Pol-e-Khumri and is made up of identical mud and stone houses. Its watermelons and muskmelons are renowned throughout Afghanistan for their unique and sweet taste. Cattle farming and fruit farm cultivation are the only source of revenue of these villagers.

The villagers were aware of my arrival and had gathered in a hujra – a sort of community club where people sit for an evening chat and other gatherings.

As with most other villages in Baghlan, the residents of Qarah Daqa fled to Pakistan during the 10-year Soviet occupation that began in 1979, although they nevertheless played an active role in the national resistance against communist forces. Most villagers were members of the Jamiat-e-Islami Afghanistan and fought under the command of legendary Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Haji Habibur Rahman greeting me. He’s a malik (tribal chief) and sported a white turban; his aristocratic demeanor made him stand out from all the other people in the room.

“For the last year the Taliban have regrouped very strongly in villages across Baghlan province,” Rahman said.

“What made them come back after eight years?” I asked.

“A bad system of justice halted routine life. Court cases went pending for years. That was the main reason why the Taliban were welcomed,” Rahman said.

He continued, “The Taliban were never unpopular in our area. They left under duress because they were defeated by the American forces. They were popular in 2001, and they are still popular.

“Moulvi Younus is the in-charge of Pol-e-Khumri district. He is a local tribesman. The Taliban appointed him as the [shadow] governor of Baghlan. He runs the province through a shura-e-rahbary [leadership council]. It has representatives in all provinces. We have their cell phone numbers, and if we want to resolve a dispute, we take the cases to them and they solve it then and there,” Rahman said.

Mohammad Islam, a youth, chipped in: “The Taliban [after 2001] left for southern Afghan districts, northern Afghanistan was not their focus. In the meantime, two different developments occurred.
“First and foremost was the unpopularity of the foreign occupation in Afghanistan. Islamic scholars in the province unanimously declared it a battle between Islam and infidels. At the same time, youths felt that the government didn’t carry out any development work in the province.

“The Taliban saw this and their command council in Helmand sent commanders who within a few months organized the youths. First Qari Jabbar was appointed as governor, but he was killed and now Moulvi Younus is governor.”

Pashtuns have been the ruling class in northern Afghanistan since the time of King Shah, despite being the ethnic minority. During Taliban rule (1996-2001) this position was consolidated, but after the defeat of the Taliban they not only came under the domination of the majority Tajik and Uzbek population, but were suspected of being Taliban sympathizers and punished.

This has all changed. The Pashtun villagers of Baghlan cite examples over the past year of Uzbek fighters coming from Pakistan’s tribal areas and being killed in Kunduz and Baghlan, but they do not see this as a major trend as all armed opposition in the area under the Taliban is local, and even insurgents of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan have been driven out.

A sign of the Taliban’s control is that from 6 pm to 6 am, all cellular companies switch off their transmission towers as the Taliban have warned them that during the night the government uses cell phone signals to trace the Taliban and their sanctuaries. If the towers are not silenced, they will be blown up.

The Afghan government, as well as Central Asian countries, especially Uzbekistan, are extremely worried about the situation in northern Afghanistan – and seemingly with considerable justification.

Part 1: A shadowy new battlefield

BAGHLAN, Pol-e-Khurmi – The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for a long time stuck to the belief that armed opposition groups in the long-running Afghan insurgency comprised only Pashtuns. Its non-combatant forces were thus stationed in northern Afghanistan, on the premise that the ethnic Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek majorities dominated the region and it could not possibly be a Taliban bastion.

This ignored sporadic incidents of violence, then the mobilization in 2010 of a strong Taliban movement, with the establishment of command and control centers, dispelled all myths that the Taliban were only a southern-based outfit.

This coincided with the United States and Britain being largely left alone in the Afghan war. All major allies gave deadlines for their withdrawal from the country, with the likes of the French and Germans categorically telling NATO that they would not participate in combat operations.

The administration of US President Barack Obama devised a war strategy for southern Afghanistan and the provinces around Kabul, similarly based on the understanding that the Taliban-led insurgency was a phenomenon only in Pashtun-majority areas. The entire battle surge and the deployment of additional forces was concentrated on southern Afghanistan.

The emergence of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan has left the occupiers with no option but to rely on indigenous strength.

On the political front, Munshi Abdul Majeed, a highly respected figure with a religious background and a former loyalist of veteran mujahid Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was in 2010 appointed governor of Baghlan province, about 200 kilometers north of the capital Kabul. His brief was to establish a line of communication with the Taliban and local tribes with the aim of brokering a ceasefire until NATO could come up with a new strategy to isolate ultra-radical militants.

On the security front, General Abdul Rahman Rahimi, a top security official with intense training by the Americans, was the district police chief of Kabul; he was the logical choice, when problems began in Baghlan, to take over as provincial commander of the police force to chop off the militancy.

A battle plan
The main police compound in Pol-e-Khumri, the provincial capital of Baghlan, is extremely well-guarded. Visitors have to pass through various checkpoints and security barriers and entry is not possible until clearance is received by wireless from the control room.

After spending at least 20 minutes crossing three security barriers, I expected to be met by a police commandant, but Rahimi himself was waiting for me in a courtyard, sitting on a chair.

“We met in Kabul earlier right?,” Rahimi said after giving me a warm traditional hug and kiss.

Rahimi is also responsible for issuing passports, so he was surrounded by applicants. He read a passport, alled out a name, asked a few questions and listened to the answers, then signed the passport if he was satisfied. This he did with some interesting comments that brought smiles to everybody standing in the queue.

“Fouzanullah,” he called.

“Fouzanullah? What kind of name is this?” (Fouzan means success and ullah represents the word Allah meaning God). Rahimi spoke in Dari with a Pashtun accent as he originally came from Logar province.

He stared at the speechless applicant, then signed the passport. “This is not the correct name my son,” he remarked with softness.

That was the last passport of the day, and Rahimi then took me to a large boardroom decorated with huge portraits of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, killed by al-Qaeda in 2001, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“The Taliban coming to Baghlan is no coincidence. They chose Baghlan as the center of their activities in northern Afghanistan because of its particular characteristics,” Rahimi said.

“Baghlan is a strategic province. Its valleys and mountains provide a huge advantage to the Taliban to establish sanctuaries. However, Baghlan is not a destination but a transit point for the Taliban. Baghlan’s mountain passes and valleys provide routes to Shir Khan Bandar [a town near the Tajikistan border] and Hairatan [another border town with Uzbekistan].”

Rahimi did not deny the presence of Taliban groups in Baghlan, adding that militant activities had a broader perspective than a local insurgency.

“If you closely read the situation, you will find that the militancy does not have a local dynamic, although a big chunk of the militants are local. In the last year for the first time we have found a large number of Uzbek and Chechen fighters. None of them was arrested alive. DNA tests confirmed that they were Uzbek and Chechens,” Rahimi said.

“Our intelligence wing confirmed that this is al-Qaeda’s operation and al-Qaeda has established its Jundallah wing in the district of Borka in Baghlan. [See The legacy of Nek Mohammed Asia Times Online, July 20, 2004.] The target is mobilizing the armed opposition in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Chechnya,” Rahimi said. He added that the worrisome part was that al-Qaeda had tapped into the local Afghan Uzbek population. This has alarmed Uzbek, Tajik and Russian authorities, who have increased border patrols.

Rahimi insists that the insurgency is under control and that all Taliban claims of attacking NATO convoys are a lie.

“They target ordinary oil tankers and say that they have targeted NATO supply convoys. The Taliban are liars,” Rahimi scornfully said.

Yet, as I sat in a guesthouse in Pol-e-Khumri, sharp at 6 pm, under the Taliban’s instructions, all cell-phone transmission towers were switched off until 6 am the next day. The Taliban have warned that the government uses cell-phone signals at night to trace the Taliban and their sanctuaries. If the towers are not silenced, they will be blown up.

On the political front
The governor’s house was full of visitors, but a reporter of a state-run Afghan TV channel, assigned to cover the governor’s activities, arranged my meeting with Majeed as a priority.

Like Rahimi, Majeed was appointed in the spring of 2010, when the Taliban emerged with full force in Baghlan. He is from Baghlan and is a former loyalist of Hekmatyar; he severed these ties in 1990 when Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence brokered a deal between the communist General Shahnawaz Tanai and Hekmatyar to stage a coup, which failed, against Mohammad Najibullah’s regime.

Majeed, an Islamist to the core, could not tolerate Hekmatyar’s alliance with the communists and left the party.

He, like most former Gulbuddin loyalists, is a close aide of President Karzai. The idea of making Majeed governor of Baghlan was to use his Islamist credentials and establish a line of communication with the Taliban and the local Pashtun tribes so that al-Qaeda and foreign fighters would be alienated.

“Let’s not use the term Taliban for insurgents. We may call them opposition forces,” Majeed said at the beginning of the interview.

“I don’t call them terrorists either. They are local people who are not aware of good and bad. They are less educated. I am completely in favor of talking to them so they will give up their opposition to the government, but unfortunately several external factors are using them,” Majeed said, pointing to Iran as the main culprit.

“I don’t know personally, but this is the opinion of some very well informed people here in Afghanistan that although Iran may not have any sympathy with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, it is interested in engaging the Americans in the conflict, and that’s why it is supporting the opposition forces here,” Majeed said.

“Another factor is al-Qaeda, which like the whole Muslim world also wants trouble in our region, especially for Russia and for Uzbekistan. There have recently been complaints to the Afghan Foreign Office by the Russians as well as by Uzbekistan that the growing activities of militants in northern Afghanistan were becoming a serious threat for their security,” Majeed said.

I finished my interview and walked along a river – although the winter is dry, the snow-covered mountains would make movement for the militants difficult. They are better off in the southern regions – the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan – where they can preserve their strength until this summer. The governor of Baghlan and the security chief saw this lull as a success. It is not.

NEXT: The al-Qaeda factor

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

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd.

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