The Taliban movement has widely regrouped itself in Afghanistan, mostly along the Pakistan-Afghanistan
border areas. The social, geographical and political characteristics of the whole of this tribal belt favor
the Taliban fighters, and the Pakistani, US and Afghan authorities just cannot control the Taliban in this
The guerilla war in Afghanistan has really taken shape since October 2002. Earlier, between October 7, 2001, and December 2001, heavy US precision bombing had coerced the Taliban to leave their controlling positions and disperse to places where they could find a shelter. Mullah Omar's decision of retreat from Kabul and Kandahar forced most of his commanders to hide themselves in Pakistani tribal areas. Ordinary Taliban foot soldiers easily melted into the civilian Afghan population. Several replaced their black turbans from Pakhool and joined the new Afghan administration. Many chose to go back to their tribes and resumed a routine life as ordinary citizens. However, the Taliban took only a few months to prove that US claims of destroying their network were wrong.
By October 2002, the Taliban had widely regrouped. Most of their top commanders including Mullah Akthar Usmani, Mullah Dadullah and Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani restored their links and were subsequently able to contact their followers, restoring the 'struggle'. Their messages, circulated through pamphlets and audio tapes, gave a general call for jehad against the occupying foreign forces.
In the succeeding months, the Taliban established a regular relationship with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-I-Islami Afghanistan (HIA), once the largest militant group fighting against the former USSR. Hekmatyar, a former student leader of the Engineering University of Kabul was also nominated an interim Prime Minister in the Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani-led Coalition government in 1993, which was finally booted out by the Taliban. The Taliban had issued a fatwah (religious decree) for the assassination of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the mid-1990s, as they considered him responsible for bloodshed among the Afghans to fulfill his greed for power.
As a matter of record, it is useful to note that, despite the current and congenial ties between the
Taliban and the HIA and the joint struggle they have launched against the US and her allies, the fatwah was
never taken back.
Regular contacts and coordination between the Taliban and the HIA were eventually transformed into an alliance, which was named 'Saiful Muslemeen'. The remnants of the Al Qaeda also became part of this network. According to sources, after the formation of this group, all three constituents have agreed on a single and integrated strategy in which finance and human resources would be shared in future coordinated operations.
At present, the resistance movement has chosen Zabul, Spin Boldak and Hilmand as the areas where they have to re-establish their authority. These districts are situated all along the mountainous terrain, which best serves a guerilla campaign. This terrain leads to safe routes that go across areas demarcated by the Durand Line, which separates Pakistan from Afghanistan, and exists only on the map. Practically, there is no clear demarcation of the border, and there are dozens of villages located on the Line, part in Afghanistan and part in Pakistan.
The people on both sides of the notional Durand Line belong to the same tribes (the Noor Zai and the
Achakzai) and have traditionally moved freely on both sides of the divide for centuries. These are the
circumstances that make it possible for the Taliban to attack their targets on Afghan soil, using the
mountainous terrain to strategic advantage, and then melting into the villages in the Pak-Afghan border areas.
The Pakistani tribal areas, consequently, provide natural strategic depth to the Taliban fighters.
The people who live all around the Chaman area on the Pakistani side of the divide are extremely religious, and numerous madrassas (Islamic seminaries, numbering approximately 200) are the ideological centers of the Taliban movement. The location of these seminaries is, again, problematic, since they exist along the line where a clear demarcation of Pakistani and Afghan territory is impossible.
With these key factors complementing their modus operandi, the Taliban have established their writ in Zabul, Hilmand and Spin Boldak. The US Forces in Afghanistan are unwilling to take casualties, and consequently only provide limited aerial support to the Afghan Army in their operations in the area. On occasion, some US soldiers have been sent in to reinforce the Afghan militia's line of defense, but these soldiers rarely participate in the action and generally limit their role to guiding the operations. This has tended to demoralize the Afghan administration and Forces, and they now increasingly accept the presence of the Taliban in these three districts.
Although the Taliban is yet to appoint its own administration in these areas, they have established a kind
of de facto rule and a strong presence in the mountainous terrain around the area. The local
administration is aware that, if they act against the will of the Taliban, the consequences would be extreme.
In Khost, Paktia, Paktika and Gazni, the Taliban seek to inflict terror on the US Forces. They do not control any significant areas in these provinces, but gather in the Northern and Southern Waziristan area of Pakistan as well as in the Kurram Agency to execute strikes across the border and then retreat to the relative safety of Pakistani territory. Once again, they hide out in the mountains in areas where the nebulous Durand Line separates Pakistan from Afghanistan.
There is a long-standing tradition, within this specific area, of the local Waziri tribes who live on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, to move across the divide for trade. They move as a Lashkar (group) and always carry guns and ammunition with them. For centuries, they have never been prevented from free movement in the area, and no one has ever asked them for travel documents. The result is that neither the Afghan security guards nor the Pakistanis can make out the difference between these tribal groups and the movement of the Taliban.
US Forces have tried to chase the Taliban operating in this area on several occasions. In rare cases, US Forces successfully track them crossing into Pakistani areas. By and large, however, they generally hide in the mountainous terrains and, when the dust settles, cross over into the Pakistani tribal belt as a tribal Lashkar to live a routine life for a few weeks, while they plan another mission in Afghanistan.
The Taliban, HIA and Al-Qaeda have, so far, been using the Kunar Valley as their strategic reserve where they have protected their manpower, but where they do not engage in any violent activities. The local administration is dominated by Jehadi commanders who are loyal to the HIA and the Taliban, and these groups choose not to bother them with their guerilla attacks.
A similar, though not identical, situation prevails in Jalalabad, where the HIA has reportedly established
camps, and a kind of truce exists between the local administration and the guerillas. They cooperate with each
other and there is an agreement that, if the resistance takes shape in eastern Afghanistan, the present
administration would surrender to the emerging Force in accordance with the Afghan custom, and would not
engage the emerging Force in a fight.
Within this context, the recent Pakistan Army operation in Bannu near North Waziristan was conducted because the US intelligence apparatus had secured information about the presence of an important Al-Qaeda operative of Iraqi origin (Abdul Hadi Al-Iraqi), along with several other Arab Afghans and Pakistani militants. However, the intense reaction of the tribals caused the troops to halt abruptly, and they were sent back to their old positions.
According to sources, the Al Qaeda operatives never dwell in Wana or Miran Shah, the headquarters of South and North Waziristan, respectively, but always stay in the no man's land near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, with supporters in Pakistan sending them medical and food supplies, as well as requirements of daily life.
In effect, in this area, their presence is yet to be significantly challenged.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Correspondent, Asia Times. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal