Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Tales from the Frontier: Al Qaeda versus Taliban

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Mar 07

Mullah Dadullah Akhund, the top Taliban operational commander in Afghanistan, will be delighted about last week, despite failing to bring to heel Operation Achilles, the current NATO offensive in Helmand province, and despite losing almost 100 fighters in just a couple of days. After all, Dadullah’s younger brother, Mansoor Ahmed, came home on Monday from an Afghan government jail in Kabul, released along with four other top Taliban prisoners in exchange for Daniele Mastrogiacomo, an Italian journalist who had been kidnapped two weeks earlier. The Italian government is believed to have left Afghan president Hamid Karzai with no choice but to release the prisoners, threatening to pull Italy’s 1900 soldiers out of Afghanistan if Mastrogiacomo was killed. Pleased with the outcome, the Taliban has promised to kidnap more foreign journalists.

Dadullah’s penchant for bloodily slaughtering prisoners on propaganda videotapes hides a load of sibling solicitude love so deep that he promised to “relax for a while” and let his brother run the Taliban in his place. But more than his brother’s return, Dadullah’s jubilation was about a huge diplomatic coup that he pulled off last week: resolving an ideological schism in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), between local tribal Taliban fighters and foreign Al Qaeda militants, mainly Uzbeks, who settled there after being driven out of Afghanistan in 2001. Dadullah’s diplomacy has cleared the decks for the launch of the Taliban’s Afghanistan offensive this year.

The Taliban and Al Qaeda fundamentally disagreed over whom to fight. The Taliban, practical Pashtuns bred in the tradition of carrying jehad into Afghanistan from safe havens in the NWFP, argued that their fight was against Western infidels in Afghanistan, not against the Pakistani army which signed a peace deal with tribal Maliks (chiefs) last year and withdrew into cantonments. But the Uzbeks and Arabs of Al Qaeda were in no way inclined to let sleeping dogs lie. Their jehad was directed at “crusader’s ally” General Musharraf’s government as much as Hamid Karzai’s and the NATO forces in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s aim was nothing short of establishing the Islamic Emirate of Pakistan.

Dadullah resolved the disagreement in good Pashtun style, negotiating with a gun held to the opponent’s head. Last Tuesday, Taliban fighters in South Waziristan attacked Uzbek commander Tahir Yaldashev’s forces; in two days of battle, over 100 Uzbeks were killed and hundreds more surrounded by Taliban fighters. Having flashed a glint of steel, Dadullah despatched negotiators who persuaded the rattled Uzbeks to “maintain peace” in the NWFP. The Taliban and Al Qaeda will no longer dissipate strength fighting Pakistani soldiers in Waziristan; instead, they will cross the Durand Line to fight NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Islamabad is jubilant. It claims the Pashtuns are cleaning out their own house, expelling the foreign militants. Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao declared that this validates the wisdom of last year’s cease-fire with tribal Maliks. What he glosses over is that the tribal commanders who routed Al Qaeda in Waziristan last week, chieftains like Sadiq Noor and Abdul Khaliq, are known Taliban men. Among Dadullah’s negotiators who mediated the Taliban-Al Qaeda agreement are Baitullah Mehsud (perpetrator of several recent suicide attacks inside Pakistan, including the killing of 42 Pakistan Army soldiers in Dargai in November 2006) and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of legendary Taliban commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani. In effect, Islamabad has handed over the NWFP to the Taliban.

Dadullah’s diplomacy has trumped that of America: he has created a secure haven to press operations against NATO. In contrast, US diplomacy has run aground on the self-imposed condition that pushing Musharraf (Our Man in Islamabad) beyond a point will destabilise his regime. Now, however, Washington may have tossed aside the kid gloves. Dick Cheney’s plain-speaking lunch in Islamabad with General Musharraf on 26th February was the first harbinger of US frustration. That alone wouldn’t give Musharraf sleepless nights; he’s heard all that before. What is enormously worrisome for him, embattled as he already is by protests against the sacking of Pakistan’s Chief Justice, are new US statements suggesting that he honour his commitment to hang up his uniform this year.

The general will correctly reason that this is not a sudden upsurge of American nostalgia for Pakistan’s long-dead democracy. He will understand that George W. Bush, desperate for success in Afghanistan to offset the failure in Iraq, is deadly serious about Pakistan cracking down on the Taliban in the NWFP.

That leaves Musharraf in a pickle. On the one hand he could order the Pakistan Army to resume operations in NWFP. That would stir enormous resentment, not just within the Islamist parties, but also among his commanders and troops who really underpin Musharraf’s continuation in power. By ignoring their views, Musharraf would end up ousted, dead, or as Pakistan’s Hamid Karzai, propped up and protected by US support, and increasingly out of touch with his own country.

On the other hand, the general could defy Uncle Sam. If he does that, Washington will intensify dialogue with Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, and look among the senior ranks of Pakistan’s military for more unquestioning support. But will another leader provide the US with better results in the NWFP? Whoever replaces Musharraf will face the same choices.

Who said being a dictator was easy? Or a superpower?

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