AFGHANISTAN: Taliban reassert control in southeast provinces

Issue 

BY ROHAN PEARCE

A little over two years ago, on October 7, 2001, US President George Bush announced that the Pentagon had begun air strikes against Afghanistan in preparation for a US invasion. The bombing campaign marked the official start of the Bush regime's global "war on terror".

The air strikes themselves had been preceded by a media propaganda blitz, which didn't only focus on the purported culpability of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, but the reactionary and repressive nature of the Taliban regime which then ruled Afghanistan. The war on Afghanistan was to be not only an assault on "the terrorists", but a war of "liberation".

On November 13, 2001, Kabul fell to Washington's Afghan proxies, the warlords of the Northern Alliance (NA). The remaining significant areas of the country controlled by the Taliban fell to the NA soon after.

In this year's State of the Union address, delivered on January 23, Bush reflected on this first "success" in the "war on terror": "In Afghanistan, we helped liberate an oppressed people. And we will continue helping them secure their country, rebuild their society, and educate all their children — boys and girls."

But for the 2 million Afghan refugees, who have returned to their country after US assurances of a "liberated Afghanistan" the reality diverges sharply from the rosy picture presented by the White House. A letter from a returned refugee, posted on <http://nauruwire.org> on October 1, stated: "I have not been able to find any peace[ful] place for living since I have arrived in Kabul... Hundreds of returnees have left Afghanistan again. Afghanistan is still burning. It is hell."

Mohammad Mussa Nazari, a Hazara asylum seeker from Afghanistan who was repatriated after being refused refugee status by the Australian government, was murdered in mid-August — apparently by members of the Taliban.

According to Alison Parker, the refugee policy expert of the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) group: "Western governments today claim that because the Taliban was defeated it is safe for many Afghans to return. But the reality is quite different. Many refugees who have returned from Pakistan and Iran are being attacked, robbed and sexually assaulted... Persecution is persecution, whether at the hands of the Taliban or at the hands of local warlords now in control."

Today Afghanistan is divided between the areas under the control of NA warlords and those under the control of the supposedly defeated Taliban, while President Hamed Karzai's Afghan Transitional Administration (ATA) has little authority outside Kabul. The May 1 declaration of US war secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the "bulk of the country is now secure" looks increasingly ludicrous.

The October 7 Christian Science Monitor reported that, in one week, tank battles near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif had killed 60 people. The conflict didn't involve the Taliban or the UN's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) — it was between the forces of Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad, both NA warlords. In response, the Karzai government deployed 300 Kabul police officers to the city. Dostum and Mohammad are believed to possess forces numbering tens of thousands of fighters.

The UN Security Council adopted resolution 1510 on October 13, which determined that Afghanistan "still constituted a threat to international peace and security" and authorised the expansion of operations by the ISAF beyond Kabul, acknowledging the renewed Taliban onslaught in the south-east of the country and the growing conflict between forces led by warlords supposedly owing allegiance to the Karzai government (including the personal militia forces of ATA ministers).

The Taliban's resurgence is being staged from the south-east of Afghanistan, extending from the border regions of Pakistan. Most of the inhabitants of this area are Pashtuns — the ethnic grouping which provided the Taliban regime with its social base. Five of the districts in Afghanistan's south-east are believed to be again under Taliban rule.

'It's crazy here. It's not only the Taliban and al Qaeda, everyone is against us", a US sergeant stationed at a base in Urgun, 180km south of Kabul, told an Agence France Presse reporter on September 21.

Over the last three months around 20 Afghan fighters under US command have been killed by Taliban forces in the area. Forces loyal to the Karzai government retreated to Urgun after the Taliban took over the town of Barmal in Paktika province. Announcing the Taliban's victory on August 17, Muhammad Ali Jalali, the provincial governor, alleged that the Taliban fighters had come from Pakistan.

In Zabul province, the authority of the provisional governor doesn't extend beyond the provincial capital of Qalat, a mere 340km south-west of Kabul, due to the preponderance of Taliban fighters in the area. On October 1, Maulvi Naseer Ahmed, purportedly a Taliban spokesperson, appeared on Pakistan's Geo television channel to claim that Taliban fighters had captured five districts in Pakita and Zabul. Pakistan's Jang newspaper reported that the districts were Mizan, Arghur, Wai Chopan, Barmal and Janikhel.

Taliban operations have also extended to areas of central Afghanistan. ABC Radio reported on October 15 that fighting had broken out in the central province of Uruzgan after a Taliban-orchestrated ambush of Afghan government troops. A report released on October 3 by the US Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) think-tank claims: "The resurgent Taliban has regrouped and reorganized, launching ever-more-coordinated and brazen attacks.

"Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban movement, who has eluded an intensive US manhunt for his arrest, has established a 10-man leadership council and has appointed commanders to oversee military operations in each Afghan province. The group has established mobile training camps and bases in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, has launched a propaganda campaign to garner new recruits and provoke antigovernment feeling, and has solidified its alliance with Hizb-i-Islami, the fundamentalist, anti-Western party led by former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar."

With its armed forces stretched by continuing resistance to the occupation of Iraq, Washington has been seeking to cut a deal with the "moderate" elements of the Taliban. For Washington, cutting a deal with the Taliban, or sections of the Taliban leadership, makes sense.

The Karzai government only has 6000 troops under its command. The UN-authorised ISAF — mainly consisting of German and Canadian troops — has 5500 troops. The US has 11,500 troops in Afghanistan. But most militarily analysts believe that Washington would need at least 60,000 well-trained troops under its command to politically "stabilise" Afghanistan. Unable to commit such a large number of troops to Afghanistan — from its own military forces or those of its NATO allies — cutting a deal, and a cease-fire, with the Taliban is Washington's lowest cost option.

However, the downside for Washington of such a deal would be the likely political strengthening not only of the Taliban ihn Afghanistan, but of its Islamic allies in Pakistan — opponents of Pakistan's pro-US dictator, General Pervaiz Musharraf, an ally of the White House during the war on Afghanistan.

The October 3 FPIF report notes: "Popular support for the Taliban in [Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province] and within the security services has complicated the Musharraf government's efforts to comply with US and Afghan demands to deny the Taliban sanctuary and to crack down on cross-border insurgency activity."

If Washington designated sections of the Taliban as a "legitimate" political force in Afghanistan, this could seriously undermine Musharraf's position in Pakistan.

Reuters reported on October 8 that the chief justice of Afghanistan's Supreme Court, Mawlavi Fazi Hadi Shinwari, had told the news service that Mawlavi Jalaluddin Shinwari, former Afghan deputy justice minister under the Taliban's rule, had already joined the ATA government after negotiations were held in Kabul.

In the first week of October, the US is believed to have released Mullah Abdul Wakeel Muttawakil from imprisonment at the Bagram military base. Muttawakil was the Taliban's foreign minister before he surrendered to US forces in February 2002. He also served as a personal assistant to Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar.

A senior Afghan foreign ministry official told Reuters that Muttawakil had played "a very important role" in negotiations held in the Tor Kotal area of Kandahar between the US and the Taliban. It is rumoured that the talks involved Mullah Abdul Razzak, interior minister during the Taliban's rule.

In June, the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online internet publication reported that representatives of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate and the Taliban met with US officials at the Pakistan Air Force base Samungli, near Quetta. The talks apparently broke down after Taliban negotiators rejected US demands that Mullah Omar — a close confident of Osama bin Laden — be replaced as the Taliban's top leader before any US-Taliban deal could be negotiated.

From Green Left Weekly, October 22, 2003.
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