Though Afghanistan today faces many threats, the greatest is that from Islamist extremists inside the country as well as those sheltering in the neighboring provinces of Pakistan. The most recent period has seen adversaries of the Karzai government and the US regroup their main forces. There are indications that both the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have combined forces with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party and have been rapidly building up their military capabilities. Hekmatyar and the Talibs have joined forces, a development that until recently was believed to have slim chances of ever materializing. Now this process is only gaining momentum.
What is more, some reports suggest that previously isolated and scattered Taliban armed groups have accepted Hekmatyar as their commander, and the number of such units is growing. Apparently, this process is taking place with the full knowledge and consent of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and, probably, Osama bin Laden himself. Missile attacks on installations of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul demonstrate the guerillas’ growing military prowess, and the way these attacks were carried out strongly suggests that they were staged by people controlled by Hekmatyar who have extensive war experience.
Tactics and Capabilities
Though likely to diminish in the coming winter months when fighting traditionally slows in Afghanistan, next spring — the most favorable season for conducting military operations — the militants will likely resume their warfare and launch a new phase of armed confrontation. Yet not only are Taliban leaders active militarily, but they are also involved in propaganda campaigns among the population by having leaflets and other printed matter circulated. Their confidence is also revealed by their open granting of interviews. One example was an interview that Mullah Dadullah, a senior Taliban military commander, gave last spring in Pakistan to Rahimullah Yusufzai, a local reporter known to have maintained long-standing relations with the Taliban. In the interview, Dadullah urged Afghans not to cooperate with the Karzai government and to fight until “all the crusaders and Jews are annihilated.” “The fact that he dared to grant an interview speaking in his own voice is noteworthy,” the reporter observed, adding that “in recent months, the Taliban undertook a serious consolidation, and… they feel that they are capable of delivering a major blow.”
Since then, Taliban militants have indeed displayed a new assertiveness; they have even set up their own roadblocks. It was Talibs manning one such roadblock in the Shah Wali Kot district near Kandahar who stopped International Committee of the Red Cross irrigation engineer Ricardo Munguia, a citizen of El Salvador, and his Afghan co-workers. Acting on Mullah Dadullah’s orders after Munguia’s captors had used a satellite phone to request instructions as to his fate, the militants shot the engineer. (The murder was tragically ironic since the Talib leading the operation had once had his life saved by ICRC.) A few days later in Uruzgan province, Talibs gunned down Haji Gilani, Hamid Karzai’s close ally, who in November 2001 gave the future President shelter after Karzai secretly entered Afghanistan hoping to launch an anti-Taliban revolt.
Afghan Taliban and their foreign allies — mainly Arabs and Pakistanis — are developing a cohesive command structure in an effort to control the militia’s armed units and coordinate its operations. For example, remnants of Uzbek and Tajik militants have reportedly been brought under the command of Tahir Yuldash, a former deputy of Juma Namangani, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan who was killed in October 2001 in the course of the US bombing campaign. Shortly before the American attack, Mullah Omar had appointed Namangani commander-in-chief of Taliban forces in Afghanistan’s northern provinces.
The Taliban have succeeded in setting up a clandestine military-administrative structure in the southeastern parts of the country populated largely by Pashtuns. Though this structure lacks a single center or an administration, the names of some senior Taliban field commanders are known. Reports suggest that these individuals possess sufficient resources and forces to establish military rule in several provinces. A number of provinces populated predominantly by Pashtuns have been divided into areas of responsibility and assigned to Taliban military leaders.
For example, all Taliban armed units in Pashtun areas are controlled by Mullah Baradar from the village of Deh Rawud. Taliban leader Mullah Omar himself is responsible for assigning such responsibilities. Baradar’s deputies are Akhtar Muhammad Osmani, an ex-governor of Uruzgan province; Mullah Dadullah, who took part in military operations against the Northern Alliance in Kunduz in October 2001; and Abdurrazak, a former Minister of the Interior in the Taliban government.
Ghazni, Paktia, and Paktika provinces are the responsibility of Saifurrahman, who was in charge of Taliban units fighting against US-led forces during Operation Anaconda in spring 2002. The above-mentioned Abdurrazak and Osmani are responsible for Kandahar, Uruzgan, Helmend, and Zabol provinces. The eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, and Laghman are controlled by Maulvi Abdul Kadir, the Taliban’s number three man. The central provinces of Parwan, Kapisa, Wardak, and Kabul are the responsibility of Anwar Dangar. These commanders and their military-administrative structures can hardly be viewed as an alternative authority. However, their clout among the local population should not be underestimated: the Taliban’s escalating resistance does draw on a certain degree of popular support, especially among conservative elements within the population.
In early April 2003, for example, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, the Taliban circulated a declaration from Mullah Omar, signed by 600 clerics, which coincided with the start of a dramatic escalation in Taliban armed attacks. Even though it appears unlikely that these developments were directly related to the war in Iraq, the text of the declaration revealed a certain relationship: “No matter where Muslim land comes under attack by infidels, it is everyone’s duty to rise against the aggressor. We were accused of harboring a terrorist, Osama bin Laden. But what is Iraq’s fault? After all, that country is not harboring bin Laden.”
The Taliban have continued to maintain the pace of their attacks throughout this past spring and summer. They have particularly targeted Afghans supporting president Hamid Karzai and those attempting to rebuild the country. It remains to be seen whether the US-led military operations directed against Taliban positions inside Afghanistan, which took place in late August and early September, will have an impact on the militia’s ability to destabilize the country. One indication that these efforts were at least partially successful is revealed by the fact that the Taliban have had to reorganize some of their military command structure due to battlefield losses. But there likely will not be a definitive answer until next spring ushers in the beginning of a new fighting season.