THE ISSUE IN...

January 15 2007

THE ISSUE IN...

January 15 2007

TALKING TO THE TALIBAN

Our reporter is told insurgents are prepared for a ceasefire. It’s a ploy.

BY ADNAN R. KHAN • Taliban fighters are prepared for a negotiated ceasefire, elders from the volatile Panjwai district in Kandahar province have told Maclean’s. Even as the latest NATO offensive, Operation Baaz Tsuka, or Falcon’s Summit, pushes farther into Afghanistan’s inhospitable villages—in a region that has become the standard-bearer for the Taliban insurgency—most Taliban commanders have agreed to a request by their local shura, or council, to end the fighting. The apparent fig leaf comes at a time when Canadian troops, along with their NATO allies, are struggling to entice the local population away from supporting Taliban insurgents after a bloody summer of confrontations in Panjwai. “Our houses have been destroyed,” says Muhammad Salim, a 50-year-old member of the council from Panjwai town who attended a Dec. 20 meeting with Kandahar’s governor and NATO commanders, including Brig.-Gen. Tim Grant, Canada’s ranking officer in Afghanistan. “Our children are dying. This must come to an end. We need time and peace to rebuild.”

Panjwai remains one of the most heavily contested regions in Afghanistan, a rural hive of tribal villages 25 km west of Kandahar city. The communities have historically been strong supporters of the Taliban; this is where the movement was born and where, NATO forces hope, it will also die. But does the recent ceasefire offer really indicate a willingness

among the Taliban to negotiate, or is it a temporary initiative by tired local villagers and fighters—one that also underscores divisions that exist among those fighting the Afghan insurgency?

Finding out about the current state of the Taliban means, in part, leaving Kandahar province and heading east, through Spin Buldak, a ramshackle border town edging Pakistan’s Balochistan province, across the Chaman border crossing and on into Quetta, Pakistan’s ethnically mixed southern frontier city. Here, in what is an urban powder keg of sectarian groups, and where the Pakistani army is already busy fighting a war against separatist Baloch tribesmen, is where Taliban commanders gather for rest and relaxation, and to plan the war they are waging some 200 km to the northwest. In military jargon, Quetta is Taliban Command Central.

Meetings happen here regularly. “Commanders come to Quetta after three months in the fighting areas,” says Obeid Urahman, a mid-level commander from Panjwai. “We meet and talk about the war and discuss what to do next.” In a system similar to the tour of duty structure used by Western armies, the Taliban leadership works on a rotation system: when a commander comes to Quetta, another one from Quetta goes to the front lines, armed with new orders and updated tactics. The system works seamlessly, says Urahman, with agents from the Pakistani secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence, providing easy transit across the border, and the chaos of Quetta providing cover.

In recent weeks, the flow of commanders has increased. Most are exiting Afghanistan

as the winter months make fighting more and more difficult. Supplies are running out as roads become impassable and littered with overturned trucks that have succumbed to the winter. “This is a major problem we are having right now,” says Abdul Salam, one of the district commanders for Panjwai who recently arrived in Quetta from the front lines. “We’ve lost our flow of weapons because of winter. We only have our old Kalashnikovs, some RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and a few small guns left.”

Strategically, then, now would be an ideal time for the Taliban to negotiate a ceasefire with the infinitely better-armed NATO forces. But Salam disagrees. “I did not approve this ceasefire offer,” he says. “It is something the local people and the fighters in Panjwai are doing. There will be no ceasefire until the Taliban rules Afghanistan. Nothing less.”

That begs the obvious question: how unified is the Taliban? Historically, the movement has had its share of dissension. During its rule in the 1990s, for example, some of the leadership was in favour of sending girls to school, while other more militant factions were not. “We had even begun to introduce computer studies at our religious schools,” says Urahman. “The Taliban was changing. It was modernizing.” But the introduction of al-Qaeda into the region caused rifts to develop in the leadership. Some leaders, mesmerized by the apocalyptic “clash of civilizations” rhetoric espoused by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, became more militant. The onset of the war against the invading NATO forces at the end of2001 empowered these radical elements, Urah-

man adds. “These men fight for the greater jihad, the global jihad against the infidels.” Others, like himself, fight for Afghanistan.

Both Salam and Urahman agree that withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan could lead to another civil war—this one pitting Taliban against Taliban. According to Salam, the hardline Taliban will prevail. “The previous Taliban government was weak in its application of Islamic law,” he says. “That weakness is what caused it to fall so easily to the foreign armies. But this time we will rule more strictly.” Urahman, on the other hand, says the future would not be so clear-cut. “There are so many factions now,” he notes, “each one receiving support from some outside group like the Pakistani ISI or Russia or Iran. Without money from these parties, we would not be able to pay our fighters, we couldn’t travel or buy arms or even clothing. The problem now is that when the fighting is over, these outside powers will expect something in return.”

THE TALIBAN SEEMS SPLINTERED INTO GROUPS, EACH WITH ITS OWN IDEA ON HOW TO CONTINUE

For him, the future of the Taliban rests in its ability to reunite under a nationalist banner rather than succumb

to the fantasy of a global Islamic revolution. That, he says, is what some of the more moderate elements in the Taliban are discussing. “But it is not our priority right now,” he says. “Right now we are at war with invaders. We all agree that the foreigners must leave Afghanistan. What I fear is what will come when they do leave.”

Even in military terms, the Taliban appears to have splintered into disparate groups, each with its own ideas about how to continue the battle. Some are opting for strategic withdrawals, while others want to fight on regardless of the consequences. The ceasefire overtures in Panjwai highlight how factionalized the Taliban has become, and in some ways how desperate. With senior commanders all moving out of the area for the winter, local commanders and fighters have taken charge. It was these locals, who elders say make up 90 per cent of the fighters in the district, who were approached by the shura. “These are our children,” says Muhammad Salim. “That is what we told the governor. We have asked our children to put their weapons down. But even then, we can’t control them for long. If the foreign armies don’t leave, they will start fighting again.”

But among the local commanders, Salim adds, there is some disagreement over how to proceed. For many, a ceasefire would only be temporary, a strategic cessation of hostilities to buy them time to rest, rearm, and restrategize. Their biggest concern is the NATO forces’ attack helicopters. “We have no way to take them down,” says one fighter who agreed to talk to Maclean’s on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not like during the Russian jihad when we had Stinger missiles. Now we only have Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades, which are useless against helicopters.”

That weakness, compounded by tanks and armoured vehicles the likes of which the Taliban has never encountered, have forced commanders to rely more and more on improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks, both of which have spiked significantly over the past year. But for a growing number of fighters and commanders, sporadic bombings will not be enough to defeat NATO. Hence, for some, the talk of a ceasefire. “We need time to find a way to take down those helicopters,” says the fighter.

For other commanders, though, any negotiated ceasefire, even a strategic one, would be a useless exercise that only sends a message of weakness to their enemy. “It will never end,” says one local commander from Pashmul, the village in Panjwai where Canadian troops fought pitched battles over this past summer. “We have 200 suicide bombers training to carry out attacks. We have enough bombs to continue our activities throughout the winter.” The Pashmul fighters have rebuked their elders, arguing that an army that has destroyed their village does not deserve peace. Still, despite the bravado, their commander is cautious. “Direct confrontation is difficult during the winter,” he says. “The fields are bare so there is no greenery to hide behind, and the fighters can’t pretend to be farmers since there is no farming being done right now. The food supply is also low.” In place of all-out fighting, the commander says his fighters will continue to lay roadside bombs and send suicide bombers to attack NATO and Afghan army forces.

Those tactics have clearly affected NATO soldiers. A series of shootings of civilians in vehicles has done more damage to the Canadian image in Kandahar than any other perceived evil the foreign army brings into the region. NATO press releases regularly cite the “erratic” behaviour of the vehicles or their failure to heed warning signals as the reason behind the shootings. Others see the soldiers as being obviously jittery.

Canadian Brig.-Gen. Grant admits the accidental shootings are a concern. “We’re constantly assessing our tactics, techniques and procedures to ensure these types of tragedies don’t happen,” he says. But faced with the constant threat of bomb-laden cars, asking soldiers to keep their fingers off their triggers is difficult. And at a time when Taliban fighters have all but vanished into their roles of innocent villagers, determining who is an attacker and who is a civilian has become increasingly difficult.

So this is what the Canadians will face through the winter—a quiet environment that can suddenly and without warning turn deadly. In this context, any ceasefire offer by the Taliban appears disingenuous indeed. “I was present at the shura,” says Grant, referring to the Dec. 20 meeting with the Panjwai elders. “The message we gave them was that if they want to go back to their villages, they have to be prepared to provide their own security.” The Afghan Ministry of Interior is, in fact, working to recruit locals for what would function as auxiliary police forces. In any case, Grant adds, NATO and the Afghan army will not end their operations simply because the Taliban wants a rest over the winter. Nonetheless, Operation Baaz Tsuka does take into consideration the current on-theground realities. Unlike Operation Medusa

in September, which was more of a combat mission, this latest operation focuses on taking advantage of the Taliban’s weakness over the winter to push ahead with much needed humanitarian and rebuilding efforts. “This provides us a window of opportunity,” says Grant. He would like to see local elders recruit their own people to form an auxiliary police force. Afghans could then take over security duties at the village level, he says, freeing up NATO forces for other objectives.

According to the elders, though, most men in Panjwai fight with the Taliban. Any local police force would need to recruit these same fighters, a prospect Grant admits is inevitable, but also acceptable. All it would take are the right incentives. “Most of the fighters,” he says, “are like soccer hooligans. They’re fighting for money and not ideology.” Having villagers work as paid security for the Afghan government would deplete the pool of local fighters available to the Taliban.

NATO, meanwhile, would be able to focus on rebuilding efforts, and targeting the Taliban’s more militant ideologues rather than the front-line fighters, commanders like the one in Pashmul and Abdul Salam in Quetta, whose aims are nothing less than the complete dominance of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pinpoint strikes aimed at the leadership have become the primary tactic adopted by NATO. “By select targeting of the leadership,” Grant explains, “we limit the extent of collateral damage. These are the individuals who are the greatest threat to stability in Afghanistan. By targeting them, we do damage to the Taliban and at the same time minimize the loss of civilian life.” The success of the tactic remains to be seen. With much of the leadership now slipping into Pakistan, it will be difficult for NATO to do any lasting damage to the Taliban command structure. “The border is a concern to us,” Grant says, adding, in a veiled message to Pakistani authorities, “Any sovereign state should ensure that its border is secure.”

The bottom line, of course, is that there will not be a ceasefire deal. The offer, as genuinely rooted as it is in the suffering of villagers in Panjwai, is clearly a ploy to gain time for Taliban fighters at a time when their resources are depleted. But the fact remains that the Taliban can still pull back and rest over the winter, resorting to opportunistic bomb and suicide attacks rather than direct confrontation. Still, its confidence and cohesion seem to be on the wane. “This is the most difficult fight we’ve ever faced,” says Salam from his hideout in Quetta. “More difficult than the Russian jihad and the civil war because we don’t have the right weapons.” Can NATO take advantage of this weakness? Spring may bring the answer to that question. M