Development News from Afghanistan

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Opium clouds before an Afghan storm

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By Philip Smucker
Asia Times Online
May 11, 2007

LASHKAR GAH, Helmand province – Both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Taliban have promised the world major military offensives in southern Afghanistan. The NATO-led alliance is sending thousands of soldiers into the fray to preempt the Taliban Ghazwatul Badr uprising that has been announced with a centurion call for thousands of fighters and suicide bombers to ready their ammunition belts.

Yet although Afghanistan is well into its balmy spring, the battlefield in southern Afghanistan has entered a twilight zone of cloak-and-dagger assassinations with only limited clashes.

The poppy harvest is only now ending, and growing doubts about Afghanistan’s future have infested the parched valleys and high mountains passes. The Taliban have not gone on a blazing warpath, and that makes everyone a little more nervous.

In the latest political development, the upper chamber of the Afghan Parliament (Meshrano Jirga, or House of Elders) voted this week to begin dialogue with Taliban fighters to persuade them to accept the Afghan government.

A draft law says a distinction should be made among Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. It also seeks an end to military operations by foreign forces unless they come under attack or have first consulted the Afghan National Army.

The bill still has to be passed by the Wolesi Jirga (People’s Assembly), the lower house of Parliament, and signed by President Hamid Karzai before becoming law. Similar approaches to the Taliban have failed in the past. The move follows a law providing an amnesty from war crimes committed over nearly three decades of civil war.

Meanwhile, as the time-bomb ticks toward more fighting, the rag-tag Afghan insurgency is fast morphing into a 21st-century guerrilla movement.

Born out of the ashes of civil war and the US Central Intelligence Agency’s unrefined efforts to stimulate a jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the Taliban are significantly changed from their days in power across Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.

More than anything, the once-xenophobic, home-grown movement is now a part of a global jihad. Operatives inside and outside the country mix and match battlefield tactics and information strategy to fit the moment.

Announcing the Taliban’s “full contacts” with the larger struggle in Iraq last year, one of the Taliban’s senior field commanders, Mullah Dadullah, stated, “We are united against the infidel – we are in the same trench.” Dadullah later announced that he had sent some of his own foot soldiers to fight in Iraq.

Leading analysts of global terrorism believe that the Afghan “exchanges” are value-added capabilities in the realm of both “hearts and minds” and fighting skills.

The transformation of the Taliban provides a study in how a local insurgency has re-emerged as a force for al-Qaeda’s global interests. Western diplomats and Afghan experts monitoring the Taliban contend that it is increasingly difficult to differentiate between the international and the local aspects of the insurgency.

“The Taliban [movement] is now a part of an internationalized jihad,” said Waheed Mujda, an Afghan writer who served as a deputy minister in the Taliban’s government between 1997 and 2001 and later wrote a tell-all book about the movement.

“The largest contributing factor to this internationalization has been the US attack on Iraq and a growing sense that Muslims across the Islamic world are fighting the same aggressor, the US and its allies. The Taliban’s war has now moved outside the boundaries of Afghanistan and is part of a global struggle.”

Videos from training camps inside Afghanistan and also in Pakistan suggest that al-Qaeda’s trusted Arabs have resumed their venerated roles as military trainers for the Taliban. But apart from numerous cameo appearances in joint al-Qaeda-Taliban training videos, these senior al-Qaeda figures remain almost invisible on the battlefield, according to Afghan security and intelligence officials.

Afghan and other Islamic militants travel clandestinely among Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq and also “wave” to one another over the Internet. In one recent video, Abu Laith al-Libbi, a senior Libyan trainer for the Taliban in Afghanistan, sends a message of encouragement to Iraqi insurgents from a training base in Kunar province. His work in Afghanistan and his close affiliation with al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq suggest strong cross-pollination between anti-American insurgencies in the two countries.

Taliban tactics, which as late as last spring involved wild frontal attacks with hundreds of fighters on US and allied positions, have further morphed to fit al-Qaeda’s vision of a successful jihad: spelling a notable and new preference for suicide bombing, improvised explosive devices, and assassinations of key figures, with a stress on “NATO collaborators”.

The Taliban’s re-emergence as a formidable foe in the sphere of public opinion and on the battlefield in Afghanistan has paralleled al-Qaeda’s own equally stunning revival in Pakistan. The symbiosis has been years in the making. A nascent al-Qaeda capitalized on the Taliban’s own success in the late 1990s when the religious zealots seized control of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden’s organization used the Taliban’s own power base to launch his vision of a global jihad, which included dozens of training camps that served jihadis from around the world.

The Taliban have made some unexpected strides on the public relations front. Analysts put this down to the militant religious movement’s ability to capitalize on the failures of the Karzai regime.

“The Taliban’s comeback is one of the greatest examples I can think of [of] a ruling regime snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” said Saad Mohseni, an Australian-Afghan journalist and the owner of Afghanistan’s largest private media conglomerate. “The Taliban [are] engaged in more of a rescue mission than anything else. They are admired for providing security.”

But other analysts believe the Taliban should be given far more credit for their own real successes in the sphere of Afghan public opinion. A movement that once mangled its own media operations is now regularly featured in the independent Afghan media for its press statements and military gains – so much so that officials from the government of US-backed Karzai now threaten to muzzle the free press in their own country for being – in part – too sympathetic toward “the enemy”.

The Taliban’s military chief and local media star, Dadullah, who personally oversees the same kinds of showmanship beheadings of foreigners and locals made infamous by al-Qaeda in Iraq’s dead leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, puts on a tough, defiant face that is admired by some and despised by others.

Taliban leaders frame their actions and arguments against what they say is a far more brutal US-led “global war on terror”. The Taliban, mimicking al-Qaeda’s own websites and video-production wing, Al-Sahab, now produce daily news pieces covering events in Afghanistan and the Muslim world and slick videotapes that depict the lives of young militants in religious schools and in al-Qaeda-led training camps inside Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan.

Despite the Taliban’s growing “globalization”, the Afghan-centric nature of the fight in the trenches remains very much the same. Afghan security officials working in the Taliban’s operational heartland say they rarely catch foreign militants dead or alive in the insurgency’s ranks. That is because the actual foot soldiers fighting in Afghanistan are almost all still Afghans or Pakistani Pashtuns (ethnic brethren divided by the British Raj-imposed Durand Line).

Even suicide bombers, once a rarity and carefully selected from outside the region, are increasingly originating in South Asia, say senior Afghan intelligence officials.

NATO planners, particularly the British in Helmand, are aware of the Taliban’s machinations. Dealing with them is another trick entirely. Helmand province is now a nexus for both Taliban and NATO operations. A drive past poppy fields on freshly paved roads is a race to dodge NATO-Taliban firefights as well as avoid kidnappings that have left journalists and drivers beheaded in recent weeks.

Unarmed Taliban fighters can be seen in the fields assisting villagers as they scrape oozing opium paste from the buds of poppy flowers. The estimated US$3 billion opium and heroin trade is heavily taxed, say residents. Government eradicators, who appear to have surrendered to the inevitability of this year’s predicted bumper crop, demanded stiff fees for not destroying the crop several weeks ago. In addition, Afghan landowners with poppy fields just outside the ancient city of Lashkar Gah say they are paying a zakat, or religious tax, to Taliban insurgents, which is used to support the movement and buy arms.

So in addition to massive support from al-Qaeda’s strengthened base across the border in Pakistan, including financial ties inside leading Sunni states bordering the Persian Gulf, al-Qaeda is financially sound on the ground in Afghanistan.

Cracking the nexus of drugs and terror amounts to fighting two wars at once. “The Taliban’s Tier 2 members, mostly farmers and villagers, [are] usually doing it for the money,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Charlie Mayo, the NATO spokesman in Helmand province. “We don’t really want to fight Tier 2 – if we don’t have to. If we are able to push the Tier 1 out, we can provide breathing space for economic development without Taliban intimidation.”

But distinguishing the hardened ideologues from mere poppy farmers with Kalashnikovs is easier said than done. Helmand’s provincial police chief, Nabi Jan Mulla Kheal, said he now favors the US government’s own efforts to persuade NATO allies to allow Taliban-controlled poppy fields to be eradicated by chemicals sprayed from the air. But other Afghan officials as well as locals in the capital, Lashkar Gah, say aerial spraying would only drive more poor Afghans into the waiting arms of the Taliban.

Philip Smucker is a commentator and journalist based in South Asia and the Middle East. He is the author of Al-Qaeda’s Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror’s Trail (2004).

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Written by afghandevnews

May 12, 2007 at 3:26 am

Posted in Drugs

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