The Neo Taliban of Afghanistan has demonstrated a dual capability—- as a terrorist organization specializing in suicide terrorism and as a conventional guerilla force capable of conventional set-piece battles involving attack-stand-and fight tactics.
2. Its capability as a terrorist organization has remained unimpaired for the last two years. So far this year, it has already committed 73 acts of suicide terrorism as compared to 137 during the whole of last year.
3. Its acts of suicide terrorism are almost as numerous as those witnessed in Iraq, but not as deadly due to the poor training of the suicide bombers.
4. It demonstrated its capability for set-piece conventional battles involving the engagement of large forces during the fighting season of 2006-07. The Taliban units engaged in many of those battles in Afghan territory were trained, motivated and led by Mulla Dadullah.
5.The death of Mulla Dadullah in Afghan territory in an incident in May,2007, impaired its conventional capability. It faced difficulty in finding a suitable replacement for him. This had an impact on the ground situation during the summer of 2007. The much-threatened (by the Taliban) and much-dreaded (by the NATO forces) summer offensive did not materialize.
6. As the NATO commanders were hoping that the tide has started turning against the Taliban, it is showing signs of a second resurgence of its conventional prowess. One has already seen two instances of this. The first was its audacious attack on the Kandahar prison on June 13,2008, during which it took the NATO and Afghan National Army (ANA) forces totally by surprise and rescued about 400 imprisoned Taliban cadres and took them away in motor vehicles without being intercepted by the Canadian forces deployed for the security of this area.
7. The second instance was on July 13,2008, when an estimated 200 jihadi fighters , who had taken shelter, without being detected, in a village called Wanat in the Kunnar province in Eastern Afghanistan managed to attack and over-run an outpost jointly manned by US and ANA forces, after killing nine US soldiers. The US has since vacated this indefensible area, which has reportedly been occupied by the jihadi fighters.
8.What should be worrying is not the occupation of this area by the jihadis, but their ability to keep their movement, assembling in the village and preparations for the attack a secret and the tenacity with which they reportedly fought despite the US outpost calling for air strikes to disperse them.
9.The identity of the fighters and their commander is not yet certain. The Taliban, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Gulbuddin Heckmatyar’s Hizbe Islami and Al Qaeda are known to be active in this area—–with greater activity by the Hizbe Islami than others. There have also been reports from tribal sources in Pakistan that the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), which has been operating in tandem with Maulana Fazlullah’s Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) in the Swat Valley of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), has now moved some of its trained cadres to the Kunnar province to fight along with the Hizbe Islami. However, the JEM is essentially a terrorist organization with very little conventional capability.
10.The kind of conventional capability, which was exhibited during the 2006-07 fighting season and is being exhibited now, could come only from either serving or retired Pashtun soldiers of the Pakistani and Afghan armies and those trained by them.
11. In a report carried by it on July 18,2008, the “Financial Times” of London has quoted Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying that the July 13’s “well co-ordinated” attack by hundreds of insurgents against a US military outpost near the border with Pakistan demonstrated that the enemy in Afghanistan had “grown bolder, more sophisticated, and more diverse”.
12. He added: “We’re seeing a greater number of insurgents and foreign fighters flowing across the border with Pakistan, unmolested and unhindered. We simply must all do a better job of policing the border region and eliminating the safe havens, which serve today as launching pads for attacks on coalition forces.”
13. An agency report carried by the “News” of Pakistan on July 17,2008, has quoted Admiral Mullen as further saying as follows: “The group that launched the attack trained in safe havens in Pakistan. We see this threat accelerating, almost becoming a syndicate of different groups who heretofore had not worked closely together.”
14. Till recently, Al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), another Uzbek group, were content with keeping their role confined to training the jihadis of the Taliban, the various Pakistani organizations and volunteers from outside. They were not participating in actual battles due to their small number, which they wanted to conserve for operations outside this region. There have been reports that their number has now been bolstered by the arrival of not only experienced fighters from Iraq, but also fresh recruits from the Central Asian Republics, Chechnya and Turks and members of the Uighur diaspora from Turkey.
15. The Pentagon is reported to have ordered an enquiry into the July 13 fiasco in order to establish the identity of the jihadi forces which attacked the outpost, how the outpost was taken by surprise and how the intelligence agencies failed to detect the movement and assembling of the jihadis near the outpost. It has been reported that the jihadis managed to plan and carry out the attack within two days of the outpost being set up.
16. The US forces should re-examine their present policy of setting up thinly-manned outposts in apparently indefensible areas. They only hand over a seemingly spectacular victory on a platter to the jihadis. They should reverse this tactics and inveigle the jihadis into setting up their presence in such areas and then attack and kill them with superior force. The objective in such isolated areas should be not territorial control, but inflicting heavy attrition on the jihadis.
17.The jihadi battles presently going on in Pakistan’s tribal belt and in Afghanistan have serious security implications for India. Mehsuds, Wazirs and Afridis were the tribals used by the Pakistan Army in 1947-48 to capture what is now called the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK). The Pakistan Army again used them before and during the war of 1965. Zia-ul-Haq used them for suppressing a Shia revolt in Gilgit in 1988.
18. President Bush often says with some validity that if the US troops withdraw from Iraq without defeating Al Qaeda, the Arab terrorists now operating in Iraq could move over to Europe and the US and step up terrorism.
19. If the US and other NATO forces fail to prevail over the jihadis in the Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal belt, these tribals, fresh from their victories in that region, would move over to Kashmir to resume their jihad against India. What we are now seeing in Kashmir is the beginning of the end of one phase of the jihad involving jihadis of the 1980s vintage. We might see the beginning of a new phase involving better-trained and better-motivated jihadis of the latest stock.
(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and ,presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.E-mail: email@example.com )