Commentary: al-Qaida, Taliban coming back

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor in Chief  |  Aug. 22, 2003 at 9:50 AM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 22 (UPI) -- For months official assurances said the war for regime change in Iraq would not diminish military and civilian efforts for democratic change in Afghanistan. President Bush, on June 24, praised Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for his indispensable contribution to the war on terror. Pakistani and American forces, we were told, were working hand in glove along the Pakistan-Afghan border chasing down the remnants of al-Qaida terrorists and Taliban leftovers.

There is something drastically wrong with this picture. It is beginning to sound like all the happy predictions about the millions of Iraqis who would line the streets of Baghdad to cheer U.S. army liberators, much the way their G.I. grandfathers were mobbed by grateful Europeans emerging from the Nazi nightmare. Afghanistan, like Iraq, is replete with fatally flawed assumptions.

The Afghan reality gets lost in the 24/7 cascade of grim news from Iraq, and by California's political carnival that has persuaded Middle Eastern leaders that their people are not quite ready for primetime democracy. America's enemies in Afghanistan, like those in Iraq, are responding to Bush's taunt to "bring 'em on." Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, safely ensconced on the Pakistani side of the 1,520-mile unmarked border of jagged mountains are enjoying what appear to be privileged sanctuaries. In Chaman, the Pakistani border town on the road between Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, and Kandahar, Taliban's former religious capital, Taliban fighters stroll, clearly unconcerned about any possible trouble with Pakistani security troops. Local journalists working for national newspapers have the satellite phone numbers of key Taliban contacts, including the head of intelligence. Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is issuing directives that are copied to the Chaman- and Quetta-based correspondents.

Taliban "freedom fighters" are growing increasingly bold in their armed forays from Pakistan into Afghanistan. A group of 200 armed Taliban guerrillas hit-and-run attacked a district police station, killed eight Afghan police officers, blew up the station and then faded back into the mountain maze and the protection of friendly tribal leaders. Between Aug. 13 and 21, more than 100 were killed, including one U.S. Special Forces soldier, the 68th American trooper killed since the start of military operations against the Taliban. U.S. helicopter gunships are called in almost daily against groups of several hundred guerrillas.

Operation Enduring Freedom, launched by the United States on Oct. 7, 2001, routed the Taliban military almost as fast as Saddam Hussein's vaunted legions. Since then, Taliban fighters have slowly regrouped, rearmed and are now on the comeback trail. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister, and anti-Soviet guerrilla leader, has organized supply lines from Pakistan for Taliban fighters in their mountain hideouts. Hekmatyar, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban head, and Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida supreme, according to the usually well-informed Pakistan Observer newspaper met in early July to launch a targeted jihad against U.S. and other peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan. Pakistani denials of collusion at any level with the Taliban are expressions of hope rather than statements of fact.

This summer Operation Warrior Sweep was launched against reconstituted Taliban camps in the east and southeast of Afghanistan. B-52 bombers and Harrier fighter-bombers were in action again, dropping precision-guided munitions and laser-guided bombs on Taliban positions that had fired rockets at U.S. forces. The operation yielded one former ranking Taliban official, Mullah Obaidullah, brother of the former Taliban defense minister. Besides the Koran, the mullah was also in possession of some 1,200 blasting caps and 50 automatic weapons.

Posters signed "Taliban Mujahedin" have appeared in border towns and village mosques warning the population not to collaborate with U.S. and Afghan forces under penalty of death. One poster listed 25 names of "informers" who will be "killed at the appropriate moment." The Taliban has also been reimposing its writ by assassinating clerics who refuse to proselytize on its behalf and who support the central government under President Hamid Karzai. Four members of the Ulema Shura, or Clerics' Council, have been killed in recent weeks, including one who was gunned down by a passenger on a passing motorbike, a maneuver portrayed in al-Qaida training videos captured in Kabul.

Pakistan says it has deployed 70,000 troops along the border to cover the main mountain passes with interlocking fields of fire. But the Taliban still manages to cross back and forth on little-known trails. They are so deft at melting away that U.S. Special Forces recently opened fire at Pakistani troops who were waiting to intercept the guerrillas, killing two Pakistanis. Red banner headlines in Pakistani newspapers stoked a fresh wave of anti-American editorials.

Taliban's religious fanatics have once again carved a role for themselves in the south and east of the country. Villagers complain to international news agency reporters about arbitrary arrest and physical abuse by U.S. troops in areas where they have clashed with Taliban fighters. But they also admit that Taliban units are just as harsh with villagers.

"The Taliban come to our dwellings (adobe abodes, for the most part), beat us and tell us that the jihad against Americans is a religious obligation and we should join them in their fight, and must not spy on Taliban fighters."

A former provincial governor under Taliban rule told one reporter by satellite phone from an undisclosed location, "No one is safe in Afghanistan now, the Taliban are fulfilling our religious obligations by waging war against the Americans and their stooges."

Two of Pakistan's four provinces -- Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province -- are adjacent to Afghanistan and are governed by a coalition of six hard-line politico-religious parties whose sympathies are clearly pro-Taliban. Known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, its close links with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency are an open secret.

Gen. Frank "Buster" Hagenbeck, the U.S. troop commander in Afghanistan, appeared to have it right when he said that Taliban and its allies have regrouped in Pakistan and are recruiting fighters from madrasas (Koranic schools) in Quetta in a campaign funded by drug trafficking. The record Afghan poppy crop (for opium production and heroin refinement) is generating almost $1 billion in local profits. Warlords, drug lords, ranking Taliban officials, and ISI are all in on the action. More than enough to cause major harm to U.S. plans for Afghanistan's nascent democracy.

The time is fast approaching when the 30-nation, 5,000-strong security force confined to greater Kabul, now under NATO command, will have to be augmented and assigned to the provinces to assist some 10,000 U.S. troops in thwarting the Taliban's comeback.

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