As the US-led war against international terrorism completes five years on October 6, 2006, with no end yet in sight, it is uncomfortably apparent that Operation Enduring Freedom has turned into Operation Enduring Taliban in Afghanistan.
2. After having re-established its presence, despite the repeated attacks of the NATO forces led by the UK, in the Pashtun majority areas of Southern and Eastern Afghanistan adjoining Pakistan's Pashtun majority areas, the Neo Taliban is inexorably creeping its way up northwards to Kabul. The sporadic acts of suicide terrorism in Kabul and the anti-US and anti-Hamid Karzai demonstrations witnessed earlier this year in Kabul following a traffic accident show that since the beginning of this year the internal security situation in Afghanistan except in the Tajik and Uzbeck areas has been steadily deteriorating. Neither the induction of the NATO forces nor the raising of a multi-ethnic Afghan Army nor Police has been able to stop the inexorable rise of the Neo Taliban.
3. The figures of the large number of fatal casualties ( about 2,500), which the NATO forces have claimed to have inflicted on the Neo Taliban during the last two months or so have been questioned by the Neo Taliban. It admits that about 2,500 persons have been killed by the NATO forces, but asserts that only about 20 per cent of them are its cadres. According to it, the remaining fatalities were of innocent civilians killed due to the indiscriminate use of air strikes and the heavy artillery by the NATO forces.
4. The NATO forces, while denying the Neo Taliban figures of civilian casualties, do admit that civilian casualties have taken place, but in much smaller number. They attribute this to the Neo Taliban's practice of taking shelter in the midst of civilian population when chased by the NATO forces.
5. The Neo Taliban is qualitatively different from the pre--October 7, 2001 Taliban. The Taliban of the past was a ragtag militia of students recruited from the Deobandi madrasas of Pakistan. It was a force with considerable religious fervour, but with very little professional fighting capability. It dispersed and vanished into the villages on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at the first sign of confrontation with the US-led forces. Even the religious fervour of its cadres was not strong enough to induce them to take to suicide terrorism.
6. The Neo Taliban is an increasingly professional fighting force of well-trained, well-equipped, well-motivated and well-led cadres with a capability for conventional as well as unconventional operations against the NATO forces and the Afghan Security forces. Its conventional capability, remarkably acquired over a short period of three years, is demonstrated by its knowledge of military craft and tactics and its ability to use them effectively against the NATO forces.
7. It is also demonstrated by its ability to operate in section, platoon and company strengths and to stand up and fight instead of vanishing at the first sign of contact with the NATO forces. Its unconventional capability is reflected in its increasing resort to acts of suicide terrorism. According to one estimate, there have been nearly 90 acts of suicide terrorism this year. There was more Arab than Pashtun involvement in suicide terrorism last year. There has been more Pashtun than Arab involvement this year.
8. The suicide attacks have killed more Afghans than members of the NATO forces. One would have normally thought that Afghan anger over the indiscriminate killing of the Afghans by these Neo Taliban suicide strikes would have turned public opinion against it and come in the way of its recruitment to its conventional as well as unconventional fighting units. It has not.
9. Whereas religious fervour was the main driving force of the Taliban, a mix of religious and nationalist fervour is the driving force of the Neo Taliban. The Neo Taliban and its cadres view their conflict with the NATO forces not only as a jihad against the infidels, the crusaders and their Afghan surrogates, but also as a war of national liberation against foreign occupiers of Muslim territory. The religious fervour fuels the acts of suicide terrorism and the nationalist fervour fuels the conventional battles. The fight is viewed as a jihad to liberate the Muslim soul as well as territory.
10. Urban terrorism and rural insurgency are the two faces of the Neo Taliban's tactics. The increasing resort to rural insurgency by the Neo Taliban provides an opportunity to the NATO forces to make use of air and artillery strikes to inflict hopefully debilitating casualties on it. The inability of the NATO forces to prevent civilian casualties is playing into the hands of the Neo Taliban. Civilians angered by the NATO tactics are in the forefront of the new recruits for it.
11. There are questions to which correct answers could be found only in the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan Army and in the headquarters of its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). How many of the Pashtuns in the Neo Taliban are Pakistani nationals and how many are Afghans? How many of the Afghan Pashtuns have been recruited in the Afghan villages and how many in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistani territory? One knows their source of funding (the ISI and narcotics), but where from are they getting their modern arms and ammunition?
12. And the most important of all: where are they being trained and by whom? One can acquire unconventional suicide terrorism capabilities by watching the TV and browsing the Internet and in the training camps of Al Qaeda and its associates, but one cannot acquire conventional set-piece battle capabilities from the TV and the Internet. They could be acquired only in training camps manned by experienced conventional instructors. Neither the Al Qaeda nor the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan nor the Pakistani jihadi organisations can impart such a capability to the Neo Taliban in their training camps in the Waziristan area of Pakistan, adjoining the Afghan border.
13. Everyone, who has his eyes and ears open --- President Hamid Karzai and his officials, Western and Pakistani media, non-governmental analysts----could see that the roots of the Neo Taliban are in Pakistan---in the Pashtun majority districts of Balochistan, the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Until the roots are eliminated, the Neo Taliban cannot be defeated.
14. The US intelligence agencies, security forces and political leadership are aware of this. The other NATO countries are equally aware of this. Dealing with the roots means writing off Gen. Pervez Musharraf. They do not as yet have the courage to write him off. With Musharraf, things are bad. Without him, they could be worse. So they think. Between the bad and the worse, they prefer to put up with the bad now, hoping they could prevent the worse. They are unlikely to.
15. The US' bleeding preoccupation in Iraq has made Musharraf a more confident man---just as it has made President Ahmadinejad of Iran a more confident person. Both have concluded---each independently of the other--- that Iraq has set the limits to the US power. What the US did to Saddam Hussain in 2003, it cannot do to them. Their conclusion is reflected in Ahmadinejad's increasing defiance of the US on the nuclear issue and in Musharraf's increasing insensitivity to the US concerns over his inaction against the Neo Taliban.
16. The US finds itself with no cards against Ahmadinejad. He is popular at home and has no enemies. It still has cards against Musharraf if it decides to act against him. Musharraf has enemies within----in the political parties, in the circle of retired military officers and in the general population. By helping them as the next year's elections in Pakistan approach, it can undermine him and pave the way for the return of the political parties opposed to him. The Government of the political parties may be less competent, but will be more sincere in its co-operation in the war against terrorism.
17. Of late, Musharraf has been projecting the Neo Taliban as more a resistance movement than a terrorist organisation and saying that it can be tackled only politically and not militarily. He wants the Neo Taliban to have its share of power in Kabul, if not the whole of power. His ill-concealed efforts to have the Taliban, in its new version, re-ensconced in power in Kabul have to be countered if one has to prevent Afghanistan from sliding back to the pre 9/11 days. That could be done only through a regime change in Islamabad---politically through the elections and not militarily. The US has to start working for it now.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com)