Thursday, 5 May 2011

Taliban and al-Qaeda: Friends in arms

Taliban and al-Qaeda: Friends in arms

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

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

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 anybody’s 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 don’t you join us for lunch," indicating in the most polite but unmistakable manner that the interview was over.

Part two
This is the conclusion of a two-part report.
Part 1: Taliban and al-Qaeda: Friends in arms

WANA, South Waziristan - This Pakistan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan is a stronghold for insurgents fighting Western coalition forces stationed in Afghanistan, but unlike other tribal areas it is peaceful, humane and without the Taliban's distinctive "pro-Taliban siege mentality".

The kingpin here is commander Nazir Ahmed (see Part 1), leader of the dominant Wazir tribe, viewed by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces as their "worst enemy". He is behind all the devastating attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan's Paktika province and is the most successful recruiter of

footsoldiers for the Taliban in Zabul and Helmand provinces.

Asia Times Online spent a week in South Waziristan, from the main city Wana to the border town of Angorada, to get an overview of how Pakistan created a divide between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and how al-Qaeda eventually outmaneuvered the state.

Al-Qaeda's first home in the tribal region
After the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was driven out by United States forces in late 2001, al-Qaeda needed to find a new home from where it could regroup as well as bolster the Taliban's efforts to return to power.

Al-Qaeda homed in on South Waziristan, and by mid-2002 senior members had set up a process that by 2006 had helped the Taliban become a force to be reckoned with in Afghanistan.

The main component of al-Qaeda's strategy to acquire control of the area was developing a pro-Taliban siege mentality. It invested in the Ahmedzai Wazir tribes in the border regions of Afghanistan and raised them as an unchallenged force in the region (see the Asia Times Online series Waziristan, July 2004.

Within a few years, with the support of their al-Qaeda and Uzbek mentors, these Taliban youths had become so powerful that Pakistan didn't have the capacity to take them on militarily. So a political solution - divide and rule - was sought.

While the Pakistan army opposed all foreign forces and their backers in the area, Mullah Nazir was given tacit support. The experiment was successful as Nazir led a massacre of 250 al-Qaeda-affiliated anti-Pakistan militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in 2007 and forced hundreds of others to flee from Wana.

In 2009, Nazir's Taliban allowed space for the Pakistan army to carry out operations against the anti-Pakistan army Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban -TTP).

From 2007 to 2011, large swathes of South Waziristan were effectively sublet to the Taliban led by Nazir, whom Islamabad believed would guarantee any future deals for peace and reconciliation with the Taliban and force out al-Qaeda.

State within a state
After passing through at least a dozen army checkpoints to enter South Waziristan, I arrived at Wana bazaar, where there was a feeling of peace, unlike neighboring North Waziristan where any stranger feels danger all around. The checkpoints do not generally allow in non-Wazirs, including Mehsud tribesmen as they are considered supporters of the TTP.

"Nobody can jeopardize the peace of the area. The Taliban have imposed a 5,000 rupee [US$60] fine if anybody even slaps someone else in Wana Bazaar," Sher Mohammad, a shopkeeper, told me when I mentioned the peace in Wana.

However, this peace does not compromise support for the Afghan resistance against the foreign occupation forces in Afghanistan.

Wana is the main transit point for those going to fight in Afghanistan. Punjabi fighters with long hair and tall, white-faced Turk youths can be seen waiting in Wana bazaar for vehicles that will take them to the border regions for launching into Afghanistan. Yet their presence does not seem to affect everyday life as the Taliban have cleverly compartmentalized war fever.

The Taliban are behind all aspects of life in South Waziristan, from sports events to hospitals.

Musa Qala, with the same name as a district in Afghanistan's Helmand province, is a Taliban stronghold in Wana. It recently staged a soccer (football) match between local teams which turned out in short-sleeved shirts and shorts - something that would not have happened in Afghanistan during Taliban rule.

Commander Nazir had announced a 40,000 rupee prize for the winning team, and this event was followed by games across the tribal region. They drew large crowds.

Qamar Abbas runs the only blood bank (Hafiz Blood Bank) in Wana. "Seventy-four patients with thalassemia [a blood disorder] have been reported in South Waziristan, beside one patient with HIV," Abbas said.

"Hafiz Blood Bank provides blood transfusion services. People wonder how we manage that all. The army commander called me one day and asked about my financial resources. I told him that I meet my expenses through charity. Similarly, Ameer Saheb [Nazir] summoned me and asked whether I collected funds from any foreign NGO [non-governmental organization]. I told him my situation, after which he promised to finance my project," Abbas said.

From the busy market place one can see the high minarets of Darul Uloom Waziristan - an Islamic seminary. A first impression emerges of a bastion of militancy, but a visit reinforces the idea that under shrewd management, a formula between the state and the Taliban has been worked out that allows even for a model education system.

"We place special emphasis on women's education," said Dr Taj Muhammad Haqqani, a PhD who wrote his thesis on the customs and traditions of the Wazir tribes and their comparison with Islamic law.

"We have 1,800 girl students of whom 800 are from far-flung villages in South Waziristan. They live in hostels. We provide them with Islamic education as well as mainstream [secular] education. This year, 231 girls appeared for the Matriculation Board of Education examination," said Haqqani.

"Not only am I supportive of women's education, I want each one of my students to open up schools in their villages," said Haqqani, who showed me around his seminary, computer laboratory and a modern library. The doctor, in his late 40s, seems ready to take more progressive steps, but because of social taboos he will not take any radical measures - only small steps to guarantee success.

Haqqani is the son of a former Pakistani parliamentarian and cleric, Maulana Noor Muhammad, who was killed by al-Qaeda in a suicide attack last year as he was considered a supportive force of the status quo, that is, the military establishment.

"My father was a symbol of stability in South Waziristan. In his presence, nobody could easily disturb the peace of the area. Therefore, he was assassinated," Haqqani said with sadness.

Muhammad's killing was a major turning point in South Waziristan and within a matter of a few months the whole "crisis management" arrangement between the Taliban and the Pakistan army was challenged and al-Qaeda is once again gaining strength. It's aim is to break this region's stability and transform moderate Taliban into high-grade radical global jihadis. It has already made much progress.

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