WASHINGTON, May 12, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan recently acknowledged that "the enemy" has changed tactics in the past year. U.S. Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry said in Washington on May 10 that attackers are increasing their reliance on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombings.
He attributed increased bloodshed -- particularly in the three southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, and Oruzgan -- to "very weak institutions of the state" rather than a "stronger enemy." Eikenberry ascribed the heightened violence to more than just Taliban and international terrorists. He also blamed purely criminal acts, tribal feuds, and drug traffickers.
The Afghan government refers more elliptically to "enemies of peace and stability." Self-described Taliban forces tend to claim responsibility for most of the violence, but some such claims have proven false in the past.
For the sake of discussion, the perpetrators of the violence carried out in the name of the Taliban might best be described as "neo-Taliban." Keeping Up Appearances
While the neo-Taliban have acknowledged that there are foreign fighters among their ranks, there is no evidence to suggest concerted cooperation between Al-Qaeda and neo-Taliban -- at least not in southern Afghanistan. The south has not historically welcomed Arab influence or provided Arabs a foothold -- even throughout Afghan resistance to Soviet forces or the subsequent Taliban rule over much of the country.
Purported Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif was quoted by the Rome-based daily "La Repubblica" as saying recently that his movement has no "operational ties" to Al-Qaeda. But he added that the two movements have "tactical alliances based on given circumstances and territorial situations." That "tactical alliance" could be a reference to what Eikenberry described as training and facilitation provided by Al-Qaeda to Afghan insurgents.
Mohammad Hanif described suicide operations as part of the "various techniques in a war of liberation." When volunteers seek to conduct suicide missions, he said, "we support them...[and] view them as martyrs."
The Afghan government has tended to proclaim that suicide operations are not part of Afghan culture -- suggesting they are the work of foreign elements. But an increasing number of those individuals are reportedly Afghans.
Also mirroring suicide operations in Iraq, the neo-Taliban have begun recording the testimonials of suicide bombers -- along with their grisly crimes.
In at least one instance, the videotaped execution of an Afghan accused of spying for the United States was posted on an Arabic jihadist website. It was reminiscent of the work of the Jordanian Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's group in Iraq. But it does not provide evidence of any operational relationship between al-Zarqawi's group and the neo-Taliban in Afghanistan.
In fact, according to spokesman Mohammad Hanif, the Taliban have no "specific strategy" but rather "adopt different tactics according to circumstances."
While links between the neo-Taliban in southern Afghanistan and al-Zarqawi's terrorist outfit in Iraq still appear remote, there is much to indicate direct cooperation between al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda -- which operates in the Afghan-Pakistani borderland.
Postings on a jihadist website recently highlighted the desire within Al-Qaeda to link the Afghan and Iraqi theaters of fighting. A discussion on the website described Iran -- which sits between those two countries -- as an obstacle to connecting the Iraqi and Afghan fighting. Cooperation, Not Coordination
U.S. General Eikenberry echoed the generally held view that there is no conclusive evidence of any mass migration of fighters from Iraq to Afghanistan.
The use and increasing sophistication of suicide bombings, beheadings, and improvised explosive devices -- including their increased sophistication -- might be attributed to training provided by Al-Qaeda elements to the neo-Taliban. It might also be ascribed to what Eikenberry called a major challenge in this technological age -- the sharing of operational tactics and weapons knowledge through the Internet. U.S. sources with knowledge of the explosive devices used in both Afghanistan and Iraq maintain that there is no evidence of shared materials.
The prospect of a coordinated operational alliance between Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq clearly concerns NATO and other countries with troops in Afghanistan.
But that nightmare scenario would seemingly require Iranian cooperation to provide a transit route. Contributors to jihadist websites have pinned their hopes on a further deterioration of relations between the West and Iran. Such a development could prompt Tehran to cooperate in the effort to link antigovernment fighters in Afghanistan with those in Iraq.
In the absence of Iranian assistance, Al-Qaeda and its neo-Taliban allies are seemingly limited to shared tactical knowledge and training with al-Zarqawi's terrorist group in Iraq. For now at least, they would appear unable to synchronize their operational capabilities -- if such a desire exists.