|Afghan officials insist Pakistan-based fighters must be tackled before the war can end [EPA]
As US military strategists consider whether to send additional troops to Afghanistan, there is little doubt among many Afghans and government officials that the Taliban has resurged with increasing strength and expanded its influence across the country.
General Stanley McChrystal, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, recently identified three key groups “in order of threat to the [US and Nato] mission [to stabilise the country]” and provided details of their command structures and objectives.
Those three key groups are, said McChrystal, the Taliban, the Haqqani group (HQN)and Hizbi Islami fighters, led by a former Afghan commander.
The Taliban’s command structure, McChrystal said, is led by Mullah Sheikh Omar who many believe is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, 200km south of Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan.
Kandahar ‘most dangerous city’
US commanders have warned that the Taliban’s use of an external logistical and financial support base in Quetta directly threatens Kandahar’s security and has fuelled much of the fighting in recent weeks.
Afghan and US commanders consider Kandahar to be the most dangerous city in Afghanistan.
|McChrystal said the war in Afghanistan will ‘not remain winnable indefinitely’ [AFP]|
In a leaked report on the US military’s conduct of the Afghanistan campaign, McChrystal admitted that the Taliban has been “working to control Kandahar and its approaches for several years and there are indications that their influence over the city and neighbouring districts is significant and growing”.
In August, Al Jazeera traveled to this strategic province, and covered the presidential and provincial council elections and their aftermath.
While it was clear that the government’s forces were in control of the city, the Taliban’s influence was nonetheless ever present.
A heavy Taliban presence in the surrounding districts of Arghandab and Panjwaii allowed its fighters and sympathisers to slip in and out of Kandahar and distribute leaflets at night warning Afghans not to vote.
During the day, Taliban fighters would intermittently fire rockets into the city.
Last year, before violence increased throughout many Afghan provinces, Amrullah Saleh, the head of the Afghan intelligence agency, said he believed that the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, could play a vital role in ending the Afghan war.
“To arrest the Taliban leadership in Quetta, you don’t need a military operation … just soft-knock their house and arrest them,” Saleh told Al Jazeera.
“They [the ISI] have allowed this massive anti-Afghan propaganda on their soil that doesn’t need a military operation against the Taliban.”
“What we face in Afghanistan is a triangle of terror that comprises the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the ISI of Pakistan”
Daoud Muradian, Afghan foreign ministry adviser
A year later, McChrystal seems to agree. In his report, the general said the insurgency is predominantly Afghan but it is clearly supported from Pakistan where its senior leaders are based, “are linked with al-Qaeda … and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI”.
That is why Afghan officials believe sending more troops to Afghanistan without a comprehensive strategy may ultimately fail in securing the country. They say any future military strategy should involve pressuring Pakistan to sever ties with the Taliban and stem the flow of Arab donations to the group.
Afghan officials acknowledge that their state is weak, but say the main factor behind the Taliban’s resurgence is the support the group’s leadership receives from Pakistan’s intelligence services.
“What we face in Afghanistan is a triangle of terror that comprises the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the ISI of Pakistan,” Daoud Muradian, a senior adviser to the Afghan foreign ministry, told Al Jazeera.
Muradian said: “They [the ISI] use them [the Taliban] against us and leverage against India and blackmail the international community. We face in Afghanistan state sponsored terrorism and that is the ISI of Pakistan.”
‘ISI fighting terrorism’
But Rehman Malik, the Pakistani interior minister, has said that Mullah Omar is in Kandahar and not in Pakistan.
He also denied reports that the ISI were supporting the Taliban, instead highlighting that Pakistan’s intelligence agency has spared no effort to combat “terrorism”.
|Pakistan’s interior minister insisted Taliban commander Mullah Omar is in Afghanistan|
But the leaked McChrystal report also stressed that other armed groups have resorted to violence, further threatening the stability of the country.
McChrystal reportedly believes that the Haqqani network maintains a power base in the Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan across the border from the Afghan province of Khost.
“The HQN draws money and manpower principally from Pakistan, Gulf Arab networks, and from its close association with al-Qaeda and other Pakistan-based insurgent groups,” he said.
The Haqqani network, based in the south east of the country near the Pakistan border, is believed to be behind the more sophisticated attacks.
“They operate outside the traditional strongholds of Mullah Omar’s Taliban in the south of Afghanistan,” Wahid Muzhda, a political analyst and former member of the foreign ministry under the Taliban, told Al Jazeera.
The McChrystal report also referenced Hizbi Islami group, which is headed by Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, a prominent commander during the war against the Soviets.
Hikmatyar maintains strongholds in the north and the provinces surrounding the capital, Kabul, and is also active in the eastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces.
This network “aims to negotiate a major role in a future Taliban government. He does not currently have geographical objectives as is the case with the other groups,” though he “seeks control of mineral wealth and smuggling routes in the east”, the report said.
Both Hizbi Islami and the Taliban claimed responsibility for the April 27, 2008 attack on a military parade in Kabul from which Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, escaped unharmed.
Three people, including an MP, were killed in the attack which represented a major breach in security.
“All these groups are present in Afghanistan. They coordinate with each other. They are allies,” Muzhda said. “They may have some independence from each other but at the end they share common goals.”
The Obama administration has recognised that it cannot secure Afghanistan without undertaking an initiative in Pakistan; US military commanders say the two theatres of operations are effectively part of the same war.