Obama forges “Af-Pak” strategy as Taliban insurgency spreads

In side-by-side front page stories, under the single headline “New Afghan Strategies for the US and Its Foes,” the New York Times March 27 tells us “Obama to Add Even More Soldiers to Fight Militants,” while “Taliban’s Two Branches Agree to Put Focus on an Offensive“—that is the Afghan and Pakistani wings of the movement. While not explicitly invoking the phrase “Af-Pak” now being widely used in military-intelligence circles, the stories make clear that strategists view the two countries as merging into a single theater of war.

The new Afghanistan strategy, which Barack Obama formally announced this week, will dispatch 4,000 more troops to train Afghan security forces on top of the 17,000 extra combat troops he already ordered to Afghanistan shortly after taking office. For now, Obama has apparently decided not to send additional combat forces, although military commanders recently requested a total of 30,000 more US troops.

Meanwhile, the Times’ Carlotta Gall, filing her report from Islamabad, apparently actually interviewed Taliban fighters, although (as is usual for the Times) details are sketchy on whom she actually talked to, where the conversations took place, how translation was handled, etc. Links and emphasis added:

In interviews, several Taliban fighters based in the border region said preparations for the anticipated influx of American troops were already being made. A number of new, younger commanders have been preparing to step up a campaign of roadside bombings and suicide attacks to greet the Americans, the fighters said.

The refortified alliance was forged after the reclusive Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, sent emissaries to persuade Pakistani Taliban leaders to join forces and turn their attention to Afghanistan, Pakistani officials and Taliban members said…

The Pakistani Taliban is dominated by three powerful commanders — Baitullah Mehsud, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulavi Nazir — based in North and South Waziristan, the hub of insurgent activity in Pakistan’s tribal border regions, who have often clashed among themselves.

Mullah Omar dispatched a six-member team to Waziristan in late December and early January, several Taliban fighters said in interviews in Dera Ismail Khan, a town in North-West Frontier Province that is not far from South Waziristan. The Afghan Taliban delegation urged the Pakistani Taliban leaders to settle their internal differences, scale down their activities in Pakistan and help counter the planned increase of American forces in Afghanistan, the fighters said…

Several Pakistani officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to talk to news organizations, confirmed the meetings. But they said that the overture might have been inspired by Sirajuddin Haqqani, an Afghan Taliban leader who swears allegiance to Mullah Omar but is largely independent in his operations.

Mr. Haqqani, and his father Jalaluddin Haqqani, the most powerful figures in Waziristan, are closely linked to Al Qaeda and to Pakistani intelligence, American officials say. From their base in North Waziristan, they have directed groups of fighters into eastern Afghanistan and increasingly in complex attacks on the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The Taliban fighters said the Afghan Taliban delegation was led by Mullah Abdullah Zakir, a commander from Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, whose real name is reported to be Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul.

A front-line commander during the Taliban government, Mullah Zakir was captured in 2001 in northern Afghanistan and was detained at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, until his release in 2007, Afghan Taliban members contacted by telephone said.

The Pakistani fighters described Mullah Zakir as an impressive speaker and a trainer, and one said he was particularly energetic in working to unite the different Taliban groups. Beyond bolstering Taliban forces in Afghanistan, both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leaders had other reasons to unite, Pakistani officials said.

One motivation may have been to shift the focus of hostilities to Afghanistan in hopes of improving their own security in Waziristan, where more than 30 drone strikes in recent months have been directed at both Mr. Mehsud and Mr. Nazir. Two senior commanders of the Haqqani network have been killed.

The Pakistani Taliban leaders also rely on Mr. Haqqani and their affiliation with the Afghan mujahedeen for legitimacy, as well as the money and influence it brings.

In their written statement, decorated with crossed swords, the three Pakistani Taliban leaders reaffirmed their allegiance to Mullah Omar, as well as the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.

The mujahedeen should unite as the “enemies” have united behind the leadership of President Obama, it said. “The mujahedeen should put aside their own differences for the sake of God, God’s happiness, for the strength of religion, and to bring dishonor on the infidels.” The Taliban fighters interviewed said that the top commanders removed a number of older commanders and appointed younger commanders who were good fighters to prepare for operations in Afghanistan in the coming weeks.

In confident spirits, the Taliban fighters predicted that 2009 was going to be a “very bloody” year.

Mullah Zakir would seem to represent another case of a released Gitmo detainee returning to insurgent activity, providing propaganda for apologists of indefinite detention. But, as we’ve pointed out before, Gitmo itself is potent propaganda for the jihadists, and those detained there will only emerge hardened in their hatred for America. Another example of why the secular left forces in the Greater Middle East refer to jihadism and US imperialism as the “two poles of terrorism.” Or, as we say, why the terrorists love the GWOT.

See our last posts on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the politics of the GWOT.

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