Accessibility links

Breaking News

Afghan Report: September 22, 2006

September 22, 2006, Volume 5, Number 25
Media efforts have intensified by the various elements that oppose the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. The stepped-up public campaign of the so-called neo-Taliban has accompanied increased insurgency and terrorism efforts by those same guerrillas.

But while they have managed to convey their messages with greater frequency, their pronouncements have sometimes been marked by glaring contradictions. While inconsistencies are not new to the neo-Taliban, their recent frequency suggests strains could reemerge between Afghan opponents of the central government and their foreign allies.

At least a dozen people have purported to speak for the "Taliban" since 2003, when a man named Mohammad Mokhtar Mojahed claimed that a 10-member, Taliban "leadership council" had been created. They have sometimes issued contradictory statements -- even leaving aside spokesmen from self-described splinter groups that loosely identify themselves with the ousted Taliban regime.

In late 2004, Mufti Latifullah Hakimi emerged as the primary voice of the Taliban. Unlike previous spokesmen, who contacted media outlets by fax, Hakimi began giving telephone interviews (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," August 15, 2005). Since Hakimi's arrest by Pakistani authorities in October 2005, two men have come forward, declaring themselves spokesmen for the Taliban: Dr. Mohammad Hanif and Qari Mohammad Yusof. They have sometimes been joined by other self-described spokesmen.

Minor Discrepancies

There has also been a marked difference in the use of the Internet by the movement. A website recently emerged that purports to represent the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the name of the country during the rule of the Taliban. It is updated daily -- sometimes more than once a day. While the website continues to follow a neo-Taliban trend of exaggerating the number of losses to Afghan or foreign troops and minimizing its own casualties, it also contains updated information on operations -- including suicide missions -- carried out by the insurgents. The website has included statements made by Mohammad Hanif and Mohammad Yusof, as well as statements allegedly made by the Taliban leadership.

Statements issued by Mohammad Hanif and Mohammad Yusof have differed from the website most markedly in references to insurgents. The two spokesmen usually refer to their organization as the "Taliban," while the website increasingly refers to the organization as the "Islamic Emirate" and the fighters as mujahedin (also mojahedin). Mujahedin is a term that, in the course of Islamic history, has been used by many groups to identify their struggles to defend Islam. But it gained global currency in Afghanistan during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.

The original Taliban, who emerged from the ranks of the mujahedin in the mid-1990s, differentiated themselves as talibs -- meaning "seekers" or "students" -- of Islamic sciences. The choice highlighted their struggle against former mujahedin commanders and leaders who had been in control of Afghanistan since 1992.

Familiar Rift?

The most recent contradiction between statements of the spokesmen of the Taliban and the website of the "Islamic Emirate" followed the suicide attack that killed Paktiya Governor Hakim Taniwal on September 10. Soon after that attack, Mohammad Hanif told a Peshawar-based news agency Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) that the killing was carried out by a Paktiya resident. He added that he had "no further details" beyond the attacker's name. Similarly, on the day of the Taniwal assassination, the "Islamic Emirate" website posted a report that identified the attacker as a heroic mujahed "seeker of knowledge" (talib al-'ilm) of the Islamic Emirate -- using the term "talib" in its traditional linguistic, not political, meaning.

On September 11, another suicide bomber targeted a number of Afghan security officials attending Taniwal's funeral in neighboring Khost Province, killing six people. The website indicated that a "heroic mujahed of the Islamic Emirate" carried out a "martyrdom-seeking" attack against high-level officers at the funeral.

But speaker Mohammad Hanif, speaking to AIP, expressed "strong condemnation," and said his movement had not committed the attack on the funeral.

The stark contrast could be related to conflicting ideologies within the ranks of the neo-Taliban. But it might also indicate a lack of any centralized command and control of the activities or policies of the far-flung movement.

A majority of neo-Taliban militants and sympathizers might well have viewed the assassination of Governor Taniwal as legitimate. He was a close confidant of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, after all. But an attack on the attendees of any funeral service is generally disdain as running counter to Pashtun tribal norms.

A rift arose under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan between many traditional Taliban and elements who identified themselves with Arab Islamists -- namely Al-Qaeda. Allies of the Arab elements eventually gained the upper hand.

But the same ideological split could be resurfacing, if indications are correct of increasing contacts between some neo-Taliban and self-proclaimed "jihadists" operating in Iraq.

The "Islamic Emirate" website refers to the insurgents as "mujahedin" -- the same term being applied to insurgents and terrorists in Iraq. That -- and the existence of an Arabic version of the same website -- could indicate a link between the people behind the website and more radical global Islamists who are not sensitive to Pashtun traditions. (Amin Tarzi)

Pakistan's leader raises the specter of another violent Pashtun mobilization against foreign intruders, this time spearheaded by the Taliban.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf on September 12 warned that, if not checked effectively, the recent resurgence of the Taliban could spill over into a Pashtun "national war" against outside forces.

Speaking in Brussels, Musharraf said the Taliban now present a greater threat to the world than Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and suggested that the West may have missed a shift in the "center of gravity" of terrorism, from Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda to the Taliban.

The Taliban, who are ethnically Pashtun, form the backbone of the insurgency that is currently engaging NATO's forces in pitched battles in the south of Afghanistan.

Musharraf said today that although bin Laden remains "important," the Taliban is now the "real danger."

Addressing the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament in Brussels, Musharraf said that "the real danger...lies in the emergence and further strengthening of the Taliban, because they have the seeds of converting and drawing the population to them and converting this into a national war by the Pashtuns against maybe all foreign forces."

The Pashtuns straddle the largely porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is thought to have found refuge on the Pakistani side of the border, where Pashtun tribes have proven largely impervious to central government's attempts to assert control.

Musharraf argued that although the "vast majority" of Pashtuns are moderate Muslims, the Taliban resurgence carries with it a real threat that they may become radicalized. The Taliban, he said, must be "fought with force," echoing NATO's own calls to member nations to contribute more troops to Afghanistan.

Taliban 'Center of Gravity' In Afghanistan

Musharraf rejected charges that Pakistan might be fomenting the mobilization of the Taliban on its side of the border.

"We don't want Talibanization in Pakistan," he said, and said nobody should cast "aspersions that maybe the government or our intelligence organizations are abetting in such activity."

Stressing the need "to check 'Talibanization,' this obscurantist concept, from spreading," he said that "the battle, if it is to be won, has to address the center of gravity of the force -- and the center of gravity lies in Mullah Omar and his command echelon, which happens to be in southern Afghanistan."

According to Musharraf, Mullah Omar has not visited Pakistan since 1995.

For Pakistan's part, Musharraf said the Taliban goes against the country's largely moderate "national ethos." He said the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis -- as well as his government -- reject its fundamentalist ideology.

Musharraf said his recent visit to Afghanistan had dispelled many doubts on the part of his hosts. But he admitted that although Pakistan's intentions could not be doubted, its ability to eliminate the threat may be a different matter.

The Pakistani president said a recent peace deal with Pashtun elders in Waziristan represents one step in a strategy designed to win over the local community by giving them autonomy on civilian matters.

He said the agreement rests on the assumption that the Pashtuns in Pakistan will not permit the Taliban or Al-Qaeda to be active on their territory or to cross into Afghanistan. (Ahto Lobjakas)

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has said in Brussels that the "center of gravity" of terrorism is in southern Afghanistan (see above).

Musharraf's warning in Brussels this week was stark. He said the Taliban could draw Afghanistan's ethnic Pashtun population into a "national war by the Pashtuns" against all foreign forces.

"The center of gravity of terrorism has shifted from Al-Qaeda to Taliban," he said. "This is a new element which has emerged -- a more dangerous element because it has roots in the people. Al-Qaeda did not have roots in the people, but [the] Taliban are more organized. They have roots in the people."

Musharraf also denied widespread assertions that Taliban leaders like Mullah Mohammad Omar are directing the Afghan insurgency from safe havens within Pakistan.

"Mullah Omar has [not] visited Pakistan since 1995 when he came into [power in Afghanistan]," Musharraf said. "Why would he be in Pakistan? He is certainly in southern Afghanistan. And the people of Afghanistan know that."

Afghanistan Says Pakistan to Blame

The Afghan government has angrily rejected Musharraf's remarks. The Afghan Foreign Ministry issued a formal statement charging that the Taliban was created as a "political and military movement by Pakistan's intelligence services" and is still being supported by "certain circles" within Pakistan.

Independent experts in South Asia dismiss Musharraf's remarks as political posturing ahead of a scheduled visit to Washington later this month.

"What Musharraf is really trying to do is to throw dust in the eyes of everyone," says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the book "Taliban."

"I think it is very well-established that the Taliban are based in Pakistan," he continues. "They are not based in Afghanistan, as he said. [Musharraf's] reemphasis, I think, on the Taliban is all in preparation for [his upcoming] trip to Washington -- and a joint meeting with President Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- in which, clearly, the Americans are going to come down fairly hard on the support that the Taliban are getting [from elements within] Pakistan and the need for Musharraf to do something about it."

The Afghan government says the White House talks between the three presidents are scheduled for September 27.

Result of Outside 'Pressure'

Pakistan is a key ally of the United States in its war on terrorism. But Rashid notes that Islamabad has come under increased pressure from NATO countries to crack down on Taliban commanders and militants who seek sanctuary in Pakistan and launch attacks across the border.

"He is now aware and the Pakistanis are aware," Rashid says. "They have been informed that both NATO and the U.S. forces in Afghanistan have determined that the Taliban leadership is sitting in Quetta, [Pakistan], and is operating the war from Quetta. I think there is now an enormous amount pressure on Musharraf to do something about that."

Samina Ahmed, the director of the International Crisis Group's Afghanistan-Pakistan program, agrees that Musharraf's remarks in Brussels are a response to increased pressure on Islamabad about militants in Pakistan's border regions.

"It's quite obviously because of international concerns -- not just about the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, but also deep concerns about the cross-border nature of that insurgency," she says. "There is more pressure on Pakistan. The United Nations secretary-general's special representative in Afghanistan [Tom Koenigs] said recently to the [UN] Security Council that there is absolutely no doubt about it -- that there is a cross-border element to the insurgency."

Different Words, Same Tune

Ahmed concludes that Musharraf's warnings in Brussels reflect a reversal of Islamabad's earlier position on Afghan Taliban. But she says the overall tone of Musharraf's position remains the same.

"It's pretty much the same tone -- that the problem doesn't lie in Pakistan, so the solutions lie in Afghanistan and not in Pakistan. In other words, [Musharraf is saying] that the international community needs to address terrorism and its roots -- and those [roots] lie across the border," Ahmed says.

"It's possibly a variation on a theme. But the difference this time would be that Musharraf is singling out the Taliban as the problem," she adds. "Because the Pakistani government's original line some time back was that the Taliban were not a problem and they should be integrated into the political structures of Afghanistan."

Waziristan Deal Causes Concern

U.S. and NATO military commanders in Afghanistan have expressed concerns about a recent security deal Musharraf struck with Pakistani Taliban militants in the semiautonomous tribal region of North Waziristan. They worry that the deal could lead to more cross-border attacks rather than a reduction of border incursions.

RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas notes that Musharraf did not meet with NATO defense chiefs who were gathering in Brussels to discuss the situation in Afghanistan at the time of his visit, and that there "appears to be an obvious problem here in Pakistani-NATO relations," which could be the government's deal in North Waziristan

NATO spokesman James Appathurai has said that regardless of current political relations between the alliance and Islamabad, NATO continues to maintain strong operational contacts on a daily basis with Pakistani military officials.

(By Ron Synovitz. Contributors to this story include Radio Free Afghanistan's Ayesha Khan in Prague and RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas in Brussels.)

The head of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime on September 12 called for "robust military action" by NATO forces to destroy the opium industry in southern Afghanistan. Antonio Maria Costa's recommendation, if heeded, would represent a major shift in the antidrug strategy supported earlier this year by the international community at the London Conference on Afghanistan.

The UN's latest report on Afghan poppy cultivation concludes that the country's opium eradication program is failing (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," September 12, 2006).

Despite millions of dollars spent to wean Afghan farmers off of the illegal opium poppy crop, the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime says poppy cultivation across Afghanistan increased 59 percent during the last year.

More Planting in Southern Provinces

The huge majority of that increase is a result of large opium crops planted this year in volatile southern provinces where U.S., NATO, and Afghan government troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban.

UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa is now linking the Afghan drug trade to the resurgence of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

"We need to increase the security in that part of the country," Costa says. "I am pleading for greater resources to be made available to NATO so that NATO can, indeed, fight the double attacks -- the attacks by the [drug] traffickers and, generally speaking, by the drug economy on the one hand and the [Taliban] insurgency on the other [hand]."

Costa says changes need to be made to Kabul's antinarcotics strategy. That strategy calls for the Afghan government to lead all antinarcotics operations and for NATO to get involved in eradication efforts only when their help is requested by Kabul.

The plan received international backing earlier this year at the London Conference on Afghanistan. But Costa says Afghanistan's record opium cultivation this year shows that it is not enough to offer development aid to Afghan farmers who grow crops other than opium poppies. He says NATO needs to take an active role in destroying the illegal opium poppy fields that they come across.

Eradication and Security Linked

"I plead for NATO to move on in its own responsibility," he said. "It is clear that a mandate is not there [for NATO forces to destroy opium crops without such a request from Kabul]. But unless there is recognition that there is a risk coming -- a military risk coming -- from the opium cultivation in the south, I am afraid it would be very difficult to solve the security issue."

The British commander of the NATO-ISAF mission, Lieutenant General David Richards, spoke to RFE/RL last month about Afghanistan's current counternarcotics strategy.

He said that under the internationally backed plan, NATO is obliged to support antidrug missions when asked to do so by the government in Kabul.

But Richards says opium is "not NATO's principal concern." He says the role of his troops -- if any -- in opium drug eradication would be to support Afghan government efforts.

"NATO-ISAF is not targeting farmers," Richards said. "We understand exactly that there must be other ways for them to make a living before we stop them -- if we ever got involved with it -- growing their poppy, because they have to feed their families in some way."

Still, the NATO-led ISAF commander acknowledges that Afghan drug lords and their ties with Taliban militants pose a security threat to Afghanistan.

"We also know that, at the end of the day, narcotics has got to be eradicated from this country or there will never be the peace and stability in the long term," he said. "So [counternarcotics efforts are] there. But it is not our immediate agenda. And we have other things that we'd like to do to help people out of their predicament."

Kabul Disagrees with Costa

Meanwhile, officials from Kabul say they do not agree with Costa's call for foreign troops to start destroying opium crops. Standing alongside the UNODC chief at a press conference in Brussels today, Afghan Counternarcotics Minister Habibullah Qaderi interrupted Costa at one point to express Kabul's opposition to the idea.

"We would still prefer that [opium-crop eradication] is done by the Afghan forces supported by NATO," he said. "That's what I believe would be best."

Indeed, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government faced an angry backlash from farmers in southern Afghanistan last year amid rumors that western military aircraft were being used to spray poison chemicals on poppy fields.

The U.S.-led coalition and ISAF deny that their aircraft have been used for spraying opium fields. But the incident convinced U.S. and NATO military officials that the use of foreign troops to destroy opium crops would anger Afghan farmers -- making many more likely to support guerrilla fighters in the future.

The complete report by the UNODC on Afghan opium cultivation during the last year is due to be published at the end of October.

(By Ron Synovitz. RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas contributed to this report from Brussels.)

On the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, RFE/RL spoke to the man who became the international face of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Salem Za'if, who at the time of the attacks was the Taliban's envoy to Pakistan. Mullah Za'if says he doesn't regret that the Taliban did not hand over Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden to the United States five years ago.

You probably remember his face: glasses, dark eyes, and a long thick black beard. He wore a black turban and was often accompanied by a one-eyed translator.

Five years ago he was one of the people that appeared on international television networks on an almost daily basis. Mullah Abdul Salem Za'if was the face of the then mysterious Taliban regime.

Leading Taliban Spokesman

He was their mouthpiece, the man who repeatedly rejected U.S. demands to extradite Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

He ended up being one of the only senior Taliban members who spent more than three years in the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay.

Yet he does not regret that the Taliban did not hand over the Saudi-born millionaire -- who is believed to be the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- over to Washington.

"No [I have no regrets]; we were defending [the dignity] of Islam and the rights of Afghanistan," he said. "We condemned the attacks in the United States. We said that there should be an investigation to find the culprits. But handing over Osama without proof to the United States was not a rational thing to do. Islam is the religion of rationality and justice."

The Taliban had, among other things, banned television in Afghanistan. But Mullah Za'if, who was residing in Islamabad in 2001 and had seen the images of destruction and death of the 9/11 attacks on television. He said it was sad to see but still not enough to convince the Taliban to give up the man they considered their guest.

Creating Enmity

So Za'if continued making defiant statements and lambasting the United States while at the same time trying to avert a war he knew was coming.

"I talked with the U.S., I was in touch with the United Nations, Islamic countries, and diplomats from other countries," he said. "I wanted to resolve the issue through understanding and talks, not through war. I believe and still believe that war creates enmity among nations and it never solves anything."

The United States and its allies attacked Afghanistan in October 2001. While bombs were falling on his country Za'if remained in Islamabad and kept giving regular press briefings in which he accused U.S.-led forces of killing Afghan civilians.

The sustained air strikes along with a ground offensive by the Northern Alliance led to the fall of the Taliban.

About two months later, Pakistan arrested Za'if and deported him to Afghanistan where he was taken into custody by U.S. forces.

Life in Cuba

The 38-year-old Za'if is still bitter about the way Pakistan treated him and says the move was "illegal." It landed him in several U.S. detention centers, including Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he was for three years and five months.

He says he was questioned about the whereabouts of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and also bin Laden, a man he says he has never met.

Za'if recently published a book about his time in Guantanamo titled "A Picture Of Guantanamo." He claims in the book that detainees were mistreated and humiliated.

"Human rights and religious principles were never respected in [Guantanamo Bay]," he said. "I have written about this in some 156 pages and I have described the situation there and how I and other prisoners were treated. But I would like to point out two things; there was no law and the rights of [detainees] were not being observed."

Za'if was released from Guantanamo after he accepted certain conditions.

Conditionally Released

"The conditions were that I should remain in Afghanistan and I should not participate in attacks against the United States, its allies, and the Afghan government," he said. "I should also not join the Taliban."

Mullah Za'if says he doesn't want to join those Taliban who are waging a war against coalition and Afghan forces. He says, however, that he will always remain a talib, which means a "student of truth and knowledge."

Za'if says he is watching with great concern the increasing violence in his homeland.

"You have to wonder why there are suicide attacks," Za'if said. "Why does someone kill himself and others? They searched people's houses, they searched women, and they sent people to Guantanamo. The prisons in Kandahar...[and] Bagram have been filled with people. Mistakes have been made but nothing is being done to correct them."

He doesn't want to go back to his hometown and former Taliban stronghold Kandahar, where he says there is no security.

"I am in Kabul now, I live my life with my children," he said. "I am in my house, I help with preparing food. The government had told me that for one year you should stay in Kabul and be under control. The one year ended [a few years ago] and until now I have not decided what I will do in the future."

The former Taliban envoy says all he wants now is a normal life with his nine children. (Golnaz Esfandiari)