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The Taliban's strategy
By Suba Chandran
The success or failure of the Taliban would depend on how fast a broad-based Government is established in Afghanistan.
WITH THE majority of the areas lost to the Northern Alliance, the Taliban today is concentrated only in southern Afghanistan, mainly around Kandahar. The U.S. is continuing its aerial bombardment along with the deployment of a small number of its troops somewhere near Kandahar. The international community is attempting to establish a broad-based multi-ethnic Government with King Zahir Shah as the head for a temporary period, which would ultimately result in drafting a new constitution that would pave the way for the establishment of a new Government. General Pervez Musharraf has already announced his willingness to accept any such Government that includes the Northern Alliance.
What would be the strategy of the Taliban to deal with these developments? With only Kandahar to defend, will it resist the Northern Alliance and the U.S.-led troops? Or will it retreat into the mountains and begin a guerilla war?
The first strategy of the Taliban seems to be to keep itself intact. The Taliban broadly consists of four sections - the core led by Mullah Omar and those who were with him from the beginning. This core include 20-25 members, who formed the Supreme Council including Mullah Hasan, acting head of the Council, and Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, Taliban Foreign Minister. The second section consists of the actual fighters, roughly 30,000, the bulk recruited from the Afghan refugee community, who also were the products of the various madrassas in Pakistan. The third group consists of the foreign fighters, estimated to be around 10,000, mainly Arabs, led by Osama bin Laden and Pakistanis, who belonged to various jehadi organisations such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. The fourth group includes former warlords and tribal leaders, (who were either part of the Rabbani Government or those who were fighting it) who have joined the Taliban along with their supporters. In most cases, the Taliban has disarmed them.
The U.S. and the Northern Alliance tried to split the Taliban using military, monetary and diplomatic means. The primary objective of the aerial bombing has been to break the Taliban fighters psychologically. Though the bombings have succeeded in militarily weakening the Taliban positions, it is doubtful, whether they have affected the Taliban fighters morale. Abdul Haq, a famous Pashtun Mujahideen, went inside Afghanistan, apparently with a lot of money to engineer a split in the ranks of the Pashtuns supporting the Taliban. However, the mission failed.The Taliban's second strategy would be to keep the international efforts to form a broad-based Government in Afghanistan at bay. The execution of Abdul Haq was a clear warning against attempts to split the Taliban and also against any initiative to establish a coalition by King Zahir Shah. Abdul Haq was part of the Eastern Shura and was closely associated with Pir Syed Ahmad Gilani, head of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan (NIFA). There have been serious efforts to win over the Pashtun leaders of the Eastern Shura, which have not succeeded till today. Gilani organised a two-day meeting in Peshawar on October 24-25 and formed an Assembly for Peace and National Unity of Afghanistan (APNUA) to gather support for King Zahir Shah both inside and outside Afghanistan.
There seems to be an unfounded enthusiasm regarding the participation of would-be Taliban defectors in a broad-based Government. The so-called Government is sure to be led by King Zahir Shah comprising Afghans, who have been in exile and those who would represent the Northern Alliance. It is essential to understand the Taliban hatred towards this formation. The Taliban is totally against the former King. Besides, when the former communist government led by Najibullah collapsed, the two factions of the communist movement of Afghanistan - the Khalq and the Parcham - joined different Mujahideen groups. Whereas the members of the moderate Parcham faction (supporting gradual reforms and comprising both Pashtun and non-Pashtun elements) dissolved into the Rabbani Government, the members of the extremist Khalq (who are mainly Pashtuns) joined Hekmatyar and later the Taliban. This group would never share power with any coalition which includes the Northern Alliance. Besides, the multi-ethnic formation is sure to have members from the Shia Hazaras, most hated by the Wahhabi Sunni Taliban.The third strategy of the Taliban would be to wage a guerilla war. One part of this strategy would be to defend Kandahar, which the Taliban considers a spiritual base. Whereas the ethnic composition of Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif and culture of Kabul were hostile to the Taliban presence, Kandahar, in fact, is Taliban territory. It was mainly due to the lack of local support and the effective aerial bombing by the U.S. that the Taliban decided not to fight. However, the local support and an ineffective bombing campaign in southern Afghanistan would tilt the fight in favour of the Taliban.
The local Pashtun population in and around Kandahar, seems to be supporting the Taliban and it is from here that the Taliban would start its war. Besides, the caves and irrigation tunnels of the region are most suitable for waging a guerilla war. The caves in the mountains are mostly natural ones, running for miles. The Taliban has expanded these caves further and ensured adequate water supply. The irrigation tunnels, existing for more than 2,000 years, run upto 20-30 metres underground. It is believed that the Taliban had already transferred its fighting machinery and food materials to these caves and tunnels. The Northern Alliance never had any influence in these areas, hence the intelligence input from it would be ineffective. Though the Pakistani leadership seems to be supporting the U.S. efforts, the ISI, which has an effective knowledge of these areas, can really share vital information regarding the Taliban. With inadequate intelligence and ineffective bombings, it would be difficult to make any major advances in the Taliban-controlled areas.
The fourth strategy would be to gain more support, in terms of moral, material and human forces, from Pakistan, especially from its Pashtun tribal belt. Inside Pakistan, the fundamentalist parties led by the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat-i-Ulema-Islam are leading a fight against the Government to change its current Afghan policy. These parties, forming a Pakistan-Afghanistan Defence Council, have been organising protests all over Pakistan, besides collecting funds and materials for the Taliban under the garb of supporting Afghans. The Karakoram Highway was effectively blocked by the extremists in protest against the Government's decision to assist the U.S. According to a report, they took control of the Chillas airstrip, local petrol pumps and oil supply lines. It is also reported that Mullah Omar had written to the various madrasses saying that he would prefer to fight the ``infidel West'' rather than become rich by accepting any bargain to hand over Osama bin Laden. This call for jehad seemed to have worked, with some of the jehadi organisations deciding to send more volunteers to fight the West and the Northern Alliance.
The fifth strategy is to gain local support and in Pakistan by focussing on the civilian casualties of the U.S. air raids. The Taliban arranged for some foreign journalists to travel to Jalalabad and made them visit the graves of the dead.
Given these factors, the success and failure of the Taliban would depend on how fast a broad-based Government is established in Afghanistan and how much support it receives from Pakistan. Until now the Taliban has successfully resisted any major split in its ranks and a breakup is unlikely in the future.
(The writer is Research Officer, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi).
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