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Interests and Allegiances in the Insurgency

Commentary by Massoud Quiam
Massoud Qiam
Saturday 8 November 2008

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by: Massood Qiam

editorial assistance by Marc Seltzer

Worsening attacks against Afghan government officials, coalition forces, humanitarian-aid workers, and the civilian population do not simply reflect a regrouping of existing Taliban forces. The insurgency has significantly broadened because of public reaction in Afghanistan to the Karzai government and its NATO-led coalition backing. Opposition to Karzai is growing along tribal dividing lines with the elevation of Karzai’s Durrani sect resulting in rebellion by rival Ghalzai tribesman. Moreover, continuing civilian casualties from coalition combat operations are stoking Afghan anger and lending support to those blaming instability and injustice on foreign forces. The future is perilous as the Taliban also remains a force with a new crop of commanders who are more extremist and bent on violence to achieve their goals. While the government and NATO-led coalition have substantial organized military and law enforcement resources at their disposal, the insurgency has nonetheless intensified.

A key to understanding why and how the Taliban are making a comeback is evident in the tribal structure of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most Afghans are Pashtun speakers; the major tribal subgroups are Ghalzai and Durrani. While the Ghalzais are the larger group in Afghanistan, the Durrani tribe has held power for most of the past 250 years. The Ghalzai tribe enjoyed political dominance and rule only during the brief period from 1978 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Hamid Karzai and family are part of the Popalzai subgroup within the Durrani tribe. Thus, with the installation of the Karzai government, the Durrani were returned to power.

However, the Karazi government, while firmly in control in Kabul, struggled less successfully for nationwide authority. As the Karzai government attempted to solidify control, it shifted power to the Durranis including many relatives of Karzai, and weakened the position of the Ghalzai sect. This consolidation of national power extended the government́̒s influence in the South, Southwest, and East of Afghanistan during the early years of the new administration. However, longer term, it has also turned disenfranchised tribal groups away from the government and toward the insurgency. Looking at a tribal map of the turbulent areas of Afghanistan since 2003 confirms that the Ghalzai have fought a rebellion against the new Popalzai/Durrani government.

This is significant because the Ghalzais are the majority in Afghanistan, and number in the millions in Pakistan as well. The Ghalzais represent a far wider constituency than the Taliban or Al Qaeda circles of influence. The Ghalzai populations participation in the insurgency and collaboration with the Taliban has been fuelled by government and coalition policy and action. For example, sending elders of the Ghalzai tribe to Guantanamo prison camp was viewed as suppressing the Ghalzai tribe in the name of fighting terrorism. Additionally, the assassination of Taliban leaders (often Ghalzai tribal elders) by coalition forces has also had some unintended consequences. Followers in the larger Ghalzai community have been angered, and the inexperienced replacement commanders are extremists who do not shy away from any kind of violence to support their cause. They are also far less likely to tolerate cooperation between local Afghans and government or coalition forces.

Another disturbing occurrence, the killing of innocent civilians in the course of coalition raids or aerial bombings, shocks local populations. The Karzai government has raised protests against the civilian deaths in the course of attacks on Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, but has not stopped coalition forces from taking military actions that place civilians at risk. Widely publicised tragic deaths give stimulus to Taliban recruiting and Al Qaeda fundraising. Blame is cast on the Karzai government and coalition forces.

Dominance of the Durrani tribe within positions of power in Afghanistan has also met with claims of corruption and abuse. Provincial governors who are Durrani have allegedly suppressed local police and judges. The 35 billion dollar (US) narcotics trade has change hands from Ghalzais to Durranis. The big merchants of opium that were Ghalzai are spending their lives in U.S. prisons. Only a scant amount the opium traffic benefits tribes that support the Taliban, yet the Afghan government is not as determined to eradicate poppy production now that it is a source of income for their tribal branch, and a common interest in opium commerce has brought the Taliban and criminal elements of the government together.

All of these concerns have been fundamental to the Taliban’s appeal. These issues have resulted in significant support for the Taliban from non-Durrani members of the Afghan population. Mr. Karzai̒s situation has become so bad that he has invited Taliban, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, to the negotiating table, but has been rejected. The next presidential election does not bode well for Karzai or for the Popalzai/Durrani tribe. The other tribal groups within Afghanistan are talking about toppling Karzai and sending the Durrani into exile. Thus, Karzai is under great pressure to do anything required in order to win the election and stay in power.

From the Taliban perspective, uniting Afghans of various tribes and regions in a mission to achieve a strict Islamic state is familiar territory. Emerging in Kandahar in 1994, the Taliban originally grew out of a crisis of broken political structure and civil war after the collapse of the Soviet-installed communist regime. The group was composed of a young generation of Jihadis who believed that their leaders had become corrupt. The Taliban offered a return to a strict Muslim society and an end to warring factions, government corruption and lawlessness. While various Mujahedin warlords had proclaimed Jihad and liberation during the civil wars, thousands of civilians died in mass killings and oppression.

In the capital, Kabul, alone, an estimated 60,000 people lost their lives during this period. Since the Afghan people were weary of the crimes committed by the Jihad leaders and their followers, the Taliban quickly won public support. In fact, the Taliban were received as saviours. Anecdotes spread about their purity and sacredness. It was said that angels from heaven assisted the Taliban in their fight against the strayed Jihadi groups.

Mass killings, lootings and other oppression at the hands of the Mujahedin ended under Taliban rule. Islamic laws were strictly applied and the public sent their sons to join Taliban forces against its enemies. Security and peace were tightly maintained in regions under Taliban control. The Taliban was successful at uniting different tribal groups behind their leadership and went on to conquer 95% of Afghan territory. Remarkably, this was only a decade ago.

The Taliban changed with the arrival of Osama Bin Laden in 1998. Bin Laden was knowledgeable about the Islamic groups in Afghanistan from his participation in the Afghan wars against Russian occupation during the 1970s. While Bin Laden ostensibly hid in Afghanistan after the 1998 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, his presence transformed the nature of the Taliban. The Taliban became a strong ally of Al Qaeda and took on more of an international political approach. From 1998 until 2001 the Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban was blended with the extremism of the international terrorists and the income sources of the group multiplied. In fact, the group became, willy-nilly, part of the Al Qaeda’s strategic
framework against the West.

Entertaining the idea of forming a multinational Islamic army, Al Qaeda saw the Taliban and the Afghan situation as the realization of their ideas. Training camps flourished. As Al Qaeda expressed support for the Muslims in Chechnya, Palestine and Kashmir and railed against foreign troops in the Middle East, the Taliban proclaimed the rights of Muslims worldwide. The number of non-Afghans from international terrorist groups increased among the Afghan fighters seeking to conquer the last 5% of Northern Afghanistan. Afghanistan became a hub of terrorist groups from Chechnya, Central Asia, Pakistan and the Middle East. Ultimately, Afghan training camps took recruits from throughout the Middle East and beyond and provided insurgency training.

After the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C., the attention of the world was focused on the international ramifications of the extremist operations in Afghanistan. The United States invaded Afghanistan before the end of 2001, and the Taliban government quickly collapsed. Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders fled to the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S.-led coalition was close on their trail. Had the U.S. continued an all-out pursuit, it might have captured or killed both Taliban and Al Qaeda officials making a serious challenge to their ability to recover. However, the Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders might have disappeared successfully into sympathetic local communities regardless of the efforts to find them.

In the beginning, Pakistan was the sole regional power supporting the Taliban and was crucial to its financing. Pakistan sought to create a week traditional system in Afghanistan to reinforce Pakistan’s strategic position against rival India. Pakistan also had an interest in plans for an oil pipeline through Afghanistan from Turkmenistan. Support came from the Pakistan Army, the ISI (Pakistani intelligence service), and Pakistan’s terrorist circles. Once the Taliban were able to obtain funds through a variety of sources such as Al Qaeda, they became more independent from Pakistani influence. However, the tribal and strategic connections remained.

A central tenant of the Bush administration’s war on terror included demanding that Pakistan and other nations that habored or supported terrorists join the fight. The U.S. committed substantial foreign aid to the government of Pakistan and officially, at least, Pakistan is a partner in the war on terrorism. Undoubtedly, Pakistan has increased actions taken against Taliban and extremists. Unofficially, there is still reportedly support at the level of the intelligence service and generally throughout the border villages inhabited by or traversed by nomadic Ghalzais. Locals are not aligned with Karzai’s Durrani tribe. Instead, as in Afghanistan, tribal loyalties sometimes lean towards the Taliban.

The Karzai government has repeatedly accused Pakistan of supporting attacks inside Afghanistan. The border is porous and funding and supply through Pakistan and international channels can easily be connected with the Taliban fighters. The main hub of the Taliban is now the Pakistani border areas. If the government and NATO want to destroy the main operations of the Taliban, they will have to start there and go beyond borders. Is it not a world war against the terrorists?

Massood Qiam

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Massood Qiam began as a journalist and worked his way to Director of News and Current Affairs for Afghanistan’s Moby Media, owners of the private broadcasting stations Arman-FM, Tolo-TV, and Lemar-TV, which are among the most popular in Afghanistan. After receiving repeated threats because of his hard-hitting and popular investigative news reports, he fled Afghanistan. He writes for Kabul from his current residence in the EU.

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Forum posts

  • I think it was a great article. I enjoyed reading it! but it was more about the regional affairs of the war in Afghanistan. The international actors who have been involved in Afghanistan affairs for many years were not mentioned in the article. Why this war don’t have an end? Is it only terrorism? Is not also puppy trade? Isn’t also Afghanistan’s momentum to be like this for ever? Does the world want to see a stable Afghanistan, if yes, why they don’t act seriously? Why the massive NATO/ISAF can not root out the terrorist from Af/Pak borders? Is it too difficult? Why they kill innocent civilians?

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