From the number of reports of activity recorded by the pro-Western press and the statements put out on the Emirate of Afghanistan’s own Shafaq Information Center bulletins, the New Year has been an active time for the insurgency. But overall the portents are not good for the Taliban. The country has seen an overall decline in Taliban attacks, ever since they failed to disrupt last October’s presidential elections, and the underlying trend continues towards defeat for the insurgent remnants.
The pressure is building up. NATO on February 10 announced its support for an expansion of its force in western Afghanistan, to complement the 8,500 troops deployed in Kabul and the northern regions. It has also agreed to merge its own peacekeeping forces with the U.S. operation, to aid in stabilizing the country for next June’s parliamentary elections. Afghanistan’s own security forces are also starting to play an important role, with the tally of operational soldiers nearing 18,000, and the number will rise when the plan to open a recruitment center in each province takes effect. The UN reports the popularity of the army as a career choice, with a backlog of 20,000 applicants despite a take-up of 3,000 per month (www.irin.com). Added to this are the over 50,000 Afghan National Police officers already on the beat.
Weaponry sources for the insurgents are also drying up with the increasingly frequent discoveries of arms caches around the country. More than 600 such caches have been recovered in the eastern section since early 2003 and the heavy weapon disarmament program is now entering its final phase as it enters the Panjshir Valley. It is estimated that over 32,000 militiamen (out of a total thought to reach 50,000) have handed in their weapons and more than 90 percent of all heavy weapons in the country have been collected.
Further pressure comes from discussions on a possible amnesty for low-level Taliban fighters. All but an estimated 100 to 150 Taliban who are known to have associated with terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda or to have committed atrocities are considered eligible. To demonstrate its bona fides, in mid-January Kabul released hundreds of Taliban detainees in exchange for guarantees from local tribes that their men would not engage in militant activities.
The response to this has been difficult to gauge. Although U.S. commanders and Afghan officials insist that there is widespread disillusionment among the Taliban ranks, strong evidence that influential Taliban or local commanders are willing to take up the offer of amnesty is lacking. Reports vary as to the success of the initiative. Comments broadcast by the BBC Pashto service on talks conducted between the governor of southern Khost province, that over 1,000 Taliban were intending to halt hostilities with the Kabul regime, and that the Taliban Deputy Borders minister and the Head of Ulema council in Khost had agreed to such talks, were dismissed by a statement put out on January 21 by the Arabic language Shafaq Information Center news Communiqué no 14. It dismissed the report as “Crusader propaganda designed to tarnish the image of the Emirate and create an atmosphere of doubt in the minds of compatriots and Muslims.” Moreover, it said, the Deputy Borders Minister who made the claim to the BBC “has no connection with these talks. The Head of Ulema council in Khost is also resident outside.” It did, however, tacitly acknowledge the phenomenon by issuing threats against ‘apostates.’ (Denial posted on the “Usama Islamic forum” on the account www.almjlah.net). The claim was again made on February 14, this time stating that 13 senior Taliban members in Khost had accepted the amnesty, and was again denied.
However, a subsequent report from the Washington Post spoke of four senior Taliban commanders in Pakistan having agreed to recognize the legitimacy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government. These were: the former Taliban envoy to the United Nations; the former deputy minister of higher education and commander in Paktika province; the former deputy minister of refugees and returnees; and the former charge d’affaires at the Afghan Embassies in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The claim was later denied by Mulla Obaidulla, the former Taliban defense minister, in a report run by the Pakistani Daily Jang, on the grounds that it would contradict the ‘jihad’ and that “Nobody is representing the Taliban at any level in talks with the Karzai regime” (www.jang.com.pk). But in any case, the four in question were known to be moderates and had been attempting for some time to play a role in supporting the peace process, and it is, therefore, not clear what influence their action will have over the Taliban rank-and-file.
While Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar remains on the wanted list, backroom negotiations with top HIA leaders, according to the Asia Times, “appear to have reached a concluding phase” in which the party will be allowed to keep its influence in Kabul and Pashtun-dominated areas in Afghanistan. The Asia Times report indicates that a leading HIA figure has already moved to Kabul and that Hekmatyar’s son has been mediating between his father and the US army to facilitate the dissident warlord a portfolio in Afghan government, so far without success (www.atimes.com).
Hamid Karzai is coming under pressure from the U.S. military and the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, to reach out to the hundreds of refugee Taliban and HIA militants in Pakistan in the hope of defusing the atmosphere of isolation and removing them from radicalizing influences. However, if reports from Pakistan are correct, the level of demoralization is already high, with reports of high-level defections, or of forced repatriations to Afghanistan, impacting severely on morale. “It looks difficult”, stated an HIA official in Peshawar to the Asia Times, “for the old leadership like Hekmatyar and Mullah Omar to reunite the scattered movement once again.”
The next few weeks should prove just how far Kabul’s claims of imminent insurgent defection are working as an efficient propaganda tool, or whether they are simply wishful thinking.