There are scores of groups operating under the name “Taliban.” True, there are genuine Taliban but there are also many that are on the payroll of the US, India and other unsavoury players. Even common criminals have take on the name of Taliban and are terrorising ordinary people, especially in Pakistan.
Of late, a certain shuffling is afoot in Taliban ranks across Afghanistan and Pakistan. A US drone strike on November 1 killed Hakeemullah Mehsud, head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, the Pakistani branch of the Taliban). A second strike in Tall, Hangu district, on November 21 killed nine people, including several members of the Haqqani network (one of the main militia groups operating since the Cold War and against which the US has pitted itself in the past few years).
The TTP responded to Mehsud’s killing by elevating Maulana Fazlullah as his replacement — news media reports portray him as a “hardliner” who has sent the Pakistani government into a tailspin of anxiety. There is some truth to these reports — Fazlullah’s reign of terror in the Swat valley has depopulated the region, and sown a gory trail of bloodshed. In September, his group claimed responsibility for the killing of Major General Sanaullah Niazi and a colonel accompanying him when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in Chitral area. Was this a defiant throwing of the gauntlet on the part of the Taliban?
For its part, Pakistan had already released the “former No. 2” in the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar after years of detention. Baradar’s release is seen as a bargaining chip with the Taliban, perhaps as a bid to gain a spokesperson within the organization.
Without doubt, the outbreak of violence between the Taliban on the one hand, and the US and Pakistan on the other is tied to the next phase of the Central Asian “Great Game” — the US’ military “withdrawal” from Afghan-istan: in other words, its abandonment of a full-scale military occupation in favor of a small-scale operation run by select US military officers who “train and supervise” the Afghan army and police. This would then provide security for the gas pipeline snaking its way from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean across Afghanistan and Pakistan and perhaps onward to India. The Pakistani military on its end, continues US-mandated operations against unruly Taliban leaders who have shown themselves to be less than pliable to the US’ will.
When drone strikes are carried out, resulting in more Taliban casualties, there is the obligatory drumroll on the part of media channels such as CNN, ABC, NBC, and other court storytellers. There is a grainy picture of the assassinated target flashed on television, accompanied by the ground photographs of the missile strikes taken from drone footage, all accompanied by the requisite “scientific-technocratic” language of precision strikes and body counts portraying the US as winning the war on terror.
The simplified, “truck driver” language, as President Richard Nixon once termed it, obscures a complicated truth that is far more complex and brutal. In many ways, the “Taliban” is a misnomer. It disguises a vast web of militias and armed groups affiliated with different power players on the ground — the Pakistani military and intelligence services, Indian intelligence services, Saudi covert influences, Hamid Karzai’s network of influence, and last but not least, American and Israeli power penetration. Groups can work with and then fall out of favor with any of these political operators — they can be wiped out, or newly created in a baptism of blood. For instance, Baitullah Mehsud, Hakeemullah’s brother, killed in a 2011 drone strike, was revealed by defectors to be on the US and Israeli payroll to destabilize nuclear armed Pakistan.
Taliban franchises can be created for particular purposes, US and Israeli dollars funneled toward the transformation of illiterate young men into Manchurian warriors. Then, they require US dollars to control and limit the scope of their dance of death. For instance, the Ansar-al-Muhajideen has carried out numerous attacks on Shi‘is in Pakistan. In July 26, 2013, the Ansar conducted a double suicide bombing in Kurram Agency that killed 57 people and wounded 167 more. The rationale? The group said that it would “…plan more similar attacks against the Shi‘i community in Pakistan to seek revenge for the brutalities of Shi‘is against Sunni Muslims in Syria and Iraq.” The Ansar also carry out attacks against the Pakistan army — who then use part of their US military “aid” to wage campaigns against them in order to limit their influence.
With respect to Fazlullah’s ascension, Pakistan is confronting a particularly threatening aspect to its loss of sovereignty vis-à-vis the militias. “Perhaps most alarming for Pakistan is Fazlullah's success in setting up a base of operations in Kunar and Nuristan provinces in eastern Afghanistan where the Kabul government has minimal control,” noted Jon Boone in a November 8 article for the UK newspaper The Guardian. “If he stays in Afghanistan he will remain even further out of the reach of the Pakistani military than Mehsud, who ran the TTP from North Waziristan.” Meanwhile, Taliban groups can react to their loss of control over territories, or to foreign penetration they perceive as threatening. There are, after all, 108,000 military contractors (declared) currently operating in Afghanistan.
So, why the recent spate of violence against the Taliban? In Af-Pak theatre of war, the recent order of business has been to manage the US withdrawal — and as cleanup of house is due, when things are being rearranged and dusted. In the second week of October, Hamid Karzai and US Secretary of State John Kerry concluded two days of negotiations in which they failed to reach a definite settlement on US plans to indefinitely prolong its tenure in Afghanistan. Kerry sought immunity for US troops, meaning that the US soldiers will be immune from legal prosecution for violence against Afghans. Karzai attempted to extract from the US military guarantees to defend Afghanistan from external threats to his power, such as from Pakistan and various Taliban militias.
Karzai, being a wily dealer, also was wary of being publicly responsible for security guarantees to the US Army at the expense of Afghan civilians. Instead, Karzai declared that he would put the issue for decision before the Afghan “Loya Jirga,” an assembly of Afghan “elders” who have carved out regional spheres of influence across Afghanistan. On the surface, Kerry appeared to voice approval for this move, “We need to say that if the issue of jurisdiction cannot be resolved, then unfortunately there cannot be a bilateral security agreement,” Kerry declared. “So we hope that will be resolved and it is up to the Afghan people, as it should be.”
The hot potato being fielded to the “Loya Jirga”, the arm-twisting began. A recent suicide bomb attack took place near the assembly grounds where the Loya Jirga members were meeting, which was foiled from taking place in a more central area where the result would have been certain loss of life. The need of US “protection” being established thanks to one suicide bomber, the Loya Jirga members were obliging enough to approve the US “security pact” that grants the US military extended presence inside Afghanistan.
The terms are extremely generous to the US military — and it also makes clear that on its “security list,” the safety and protection of the Afghan people are not very highly ranked. The pact states that US forces “shall not target Afghan civilians, including in their homes,” — but it does not expressly forbid the troops from breaking and entering. Also, the move for the US to apologize to the Afghan people for its human rights abuses has been ruled out. Kerry’s imperious reaction was a page out of Nero’s book — “President Karzai didn’t ask for an apology, there was no discussion of an apology,” he said. “There will be — there is no, it’s just not even on the table.”
The Afghan Great Game is still continuing — the chess pieces lined up, the knights and rooks engaged in slaughter. And the Muslims continue to dream in their endless slumber.