As winter sets in across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the intensity of the ground operations by the Neo Taliban as well as the NATO and Afghan government forces against each other is likely to come down. Skirmishes and hit and run attacks by conventional formations will continue, but the likelihood of fighting involving large formations will be less. However, there will be no let-up in suicide attacks by Neo Taliban suicide bombers.
Apart from the nearly 130 suicide bombings so far this year-- as high as in 2006--the most significant developments in respect of martyrdom operations were the repeated demonstration by the Neo Taliban of its ability to carry out suicide attacks in Kabul itself and the better training of its suicide bombers--who were mostly Pashtuns recruited in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and among the tribals of Pakistan's Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In 2006 and in the earlier months of 2007, the suicide bombers, out of nervousness, were blowing themselves up before reaching the vicinity of their targets, thereby causing more civilian fatalities than fatalities among Afghan government forces and government servants. Better training post-June,2007 is reflected in their ability to hold action till they reached the vicinity of the intended targets and then only blow themselves up. As a result, they are registering more successful martyrdom operations than during the pre-June,2007, period.
Claims of NATO spokesmen of active ground involvement of Al Qaeda in Afghan territory are not independently corroborated. Al Qaeda--mainly through its Uzbeck components--has been actively involved in training the Neo Taliban's suicide bombers and other volunteers in camps in North Waziristan in Pakistan's FATA, but it has been avoiding participation in the ground actions in Afghan territory. Throughout 2006 and 2007, Al Qaeda's role in Afghan as well as Pakistani territory has been as a motivator and a trainer and not as an actual participant in the operations. In the current operations of the Pakistan Army against the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) led by Maulana Fazlullah in the Swat Valley of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), most of those captured or killed by the Pakistan Army were Pashtuns--Pakistani and Afghan-- and a couple of Uzbeks, who had been living in the area since the 1980s. No capture or killing of an Arab or an Uzbek of post-9/11 arrival in the area has been reported.
While the Neo Taliban has thus kept up its increased suicide bombings, the much threatened massive spring offensive of 2007-- about which the late Mulla Dadulla, killed by the Americans on the basis of precise HUMINT in May,2007, used to speak so often before his death-- did not materialise. In 2006, the Neo Taliban showed a remarkable capability for conventional warfare--- standing up and fighting against the NATO and Afghan forces in large formations of even about 400. These conventional skills were not much in evidence during 2007. Reliable police sources say that this was due to the fact that while the Neo Taliban has been getting a regular flow of volunteers for suicide missions, its ability to recruit men for conventional fighting in large numbers has been affected after the death of Mulla Dadullah, who was a great motivator.
There has been much hype by NATO and Afghan Army spokesmen about their projected success in wresting control of the town of Musa Qala in the Helmand area from the Neo Taliban following a raid jointly organised by American, British and Afghan government forces between December 7 and 10,2007. As the Taliban did in 2001 and 2002, the Neo Taliban has been following an operational policy of not fighting defensive battles to maintain its control over territory as such defensive battles result in large casualties for it as well as the local civilians. Since 2006, its conventional operations have been more offensive than defensive. Whenever it assessed that it will not be able to hold on to territory under its control, it has not hesitated to withdraw and disperse. That is what it did at Musa Qala. The real significance of the Musa Qala battle was not any defeat of the Neo Taliban, but its remarkable success in withdrawing and dispersing in order without trace. There were hardly any significant captures of Neo Taliban fighters by the NATO forces. Some of their tall claims about having captured important Neo Taliban commanders have proved wrong.
AS-Sahab, the PSYWAR wing of Al Qaeda, which was previously focussing on carrying on PSYWAR mainly for Al Qaeda, is now producing PSYWAR packages for the Neo Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) too. It is evolving into the PSYWAR wing of the International Islamic Front (IIF) of bin Laden as a whole.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.