Part 3: Through the eyes of the Taliban
GHULAM KHAN, Afghanistan-Pakistan Border – The unprecedented 11 years of resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan gave birth to many legendary figures. However, in the chaotic days of the civil strife in the post-Soviet era in the early 1990s, several of these legends grew old, or changed their paths, and as a result lost their charm.
There was one exception, one man who refused to break his links with his famed mujahideen days, and who has kept his legend alive. He is a qualified cleric, and, although not a Talib (student) he has willingly joined the Taliban cause. Following the retreat of the Taliban from Afghanistan in late 2001, the United States has offered him top positions. But he chooses the difficult life of a guerrilla: meet Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, the only real hope for the Taliban resistance movement to be successful against US-led forces in Afghanistan.
Lengthy conversations – both off and on the record – with big Taliban names give the feeling that the movement is on the rise. This is confirmed by the US’s willingness to embrace at least elements of the Taliban as crucial to finding a lasting political settlement for Afghanistan. Up until very recently, this initiative has met with scant success. Now there appears to be a divide among the Taliban on the question, indicating that out of the remnants of the Taliban movement, there are broadly two kinds of Taliban.
The Taliban, the students, drawn from madrassas (seminaries, mostly in Pakistan) who gave up their studies to fight the warlordism that emerged in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. With their uncompromising fundamentalist religious beliefs and promises of ending the anarchy, they came to power in 1996. They were mostly between the age of 23 to 40 years, and fiercely loyal to their leader, Mullah Omar. They are still his diehards.
Non-students who did not resist the Taliban movement and accepted its command. They were later given different positions during the Taliban regime. Most of them had doubts about the leadership of a man who had not completed his studies (Mullah Omar), and when the Taliban regime collapsed they chose to move quietly to the Pakistani tribal areas. Now they are skeptical that the shattered network of the Taliban, with limited resources, will be able to take on a superpower, and they are looking for a truce between the Hamid Karzai administration in Kabul and the Taliban. These people are instrumental in helping bridge the gap between the Taliban and the US.
Of all the Afghan commanders who led the resistance movement against the Soviets, Haqqani still remains a hero. Although it is now nearly two decades ago, Afghan parents still tell their children about heroes from that era: how Toran (Colonel) Ismail Khan betrayed the Afghan communist army and joined hands with his brothers in the Afghan resistance, and how Haqqani refused to stay in Peshawar in Pakistan, preferring the mountains, from where he kidnapped Soviet soldiers, ambushed their convoys and finally captured the first Afghan city from the Afghan communist regime – Khost in 1991.
Haqqani stood out from other mujahideen as he was never blamed for warlordism, and he appeared to be truly dedicated to the cause of peace in Afghanistan. When the Taliban first emerged he was the most powerful person of his area, and the Taliban could not defeat him. But he unconditionally surrendered and supported the Taliban as an ordinary worker. As a result, in the initial phase, he was the only non-Taliban to be made a minister. When the Taliban retreated from Kabul in late 2001, he was minister for borders.
As it become obvious that the Karzai administration lacked sufficient credibility throughout the country to stamp its authority and bring peace, the idea grew to solicit moderate Taliban. Haqqani was a prime target on several occasions, the most recent of which was being offered the premiership under Karzai. He has steadfastly refused all approaches.
In the face of these rebuffs, his brother Ibrahim was arrested, and later one of his sons, Ishaq, was also apprehended from North Waziristan and is still in a Pakistani jail. Using Ibrahim and Ishaq as bargaining chips, both the US Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) have sent messages to Haqqani, asking for a truce. But to date he has not changed his position.
Now he is the main engine in the Taliban movement. Recently, US forces crossed into Pakistan territory in North Waziristan in search of Haqqani, but he could not be found. It should be noted that the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Service Public Relations has denied such a mission, although Asia Times Online sources are adamant it took place.
A son’s story
Jalaluddin Haqqani is a thin man of small stature, and so is his soft-spoken son Siraj, who met this correspondent in an unidentified place on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to discuss the undercurrents of the present Taliban resistance movement.
Asia Times Online: In North Waziristan, I visited the Manbaul Ulom seminary and property of your father. It has been closed down, and the houses are deserted. How do you feel?
Siraj: It is a matter of pride, not the shame. The seminary was not closed for any bad thing, but for the sake of jihad.
ATol: In Iraq, the resistance movement has inflicted high casualties on US troops. This kind of resistance is not seen in Afghanistan. Why?
Siraj: More than 100,000 foreign troops are stationed in Iraq and they are in every nook and corner. This is not the case in Afghanistan. The troops are few in number, and are hidden in their bases. Therefore, the casualty figure is low.
ATol: Does this mean that your whole movement is directionless, and does not know where to get the enemy?
Siraj: This is not the case. With the passage of time there have been several developments. Foremost is the support [for the Taliban] among Afghans who are part of the Afghan government. The US forces in Afghanistan realize this fact, and therefore, apart from occasional commando raids, do not patrol in Afghanistan. They realize that they do not enjoy the support of the Afghan nation, and it is only with their dollars that they buy a few mercenaries, who, too, in reality, are with the resistance movement. The manifestation of this fact is a report published by the United Nations which clearly outlines that 70 districts in Afghanistan are under the control of the Taliban.
ATol: I heard that Jalaluddin Haqqani was offered a truce by the the US via the ISI, in return for which he would become prime minister.
Siraj: Such offers were also recently made through his friends. But he asked some questions: “After so much killing of Afghans, through ‘daisy cutter bombs’ and the like, shall I sit in the government under US command? If I do this, will I be the same one who fought the Russians, and saw thousands of my friends giving sacrifices in the way of jihad?” Haqqani refused the offer.
However, some friends are still insistent on starting negotiations directly with the US, but my father cannot do so without the consent of the ameerul momeneen [chief of the faithfuls – Mullah Omar].
At present, the Taliban are powerful, but there is a problem in that we have lost our central command. We have many successful commanders, but as the central command does not exist to give day-to-day decisions and policies, we have not been able to proceed very well so far with our strategies. Also, in the absence of such a central command, it is difficult to discuss all these proposals coming to us with the commanders.
ATol: The Taliban is known to have a plan for a spring offensive, a part of which will involve capturing major cities to show their strength. But they would only take the cities for a few hours, and then retreat (because of US aerial supremacy).
Siraj: The Taliban have the ability to capture all Afghan cities at once, but we do not want to make civilians the scapegoats against US aerial bombardment. We are working on some strategies, and in a matter of two months you will see some drastic developments.
[The number of Taliban engaged in guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan is believed to be in the thousands, but under 10,000. However, for operations such as taking a town, their numbers will be significantly increased by the local population, who, once the fighting is over, melt back into the population.]
Tomorrow, Part 4: Warlords, the US and the resistance