Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban:
Beyond bin Laden and 9/11
by Syed Saleem Shahzad
Pluto Books, 2011
Several months ago I received an e-mail from Saleem Shahzad, replying to a request for an essay for a book on Pakistan that I am co-editing. Saleem was interested in the project, but could not commit to it. He was chasing some important stories, he said, and besides, he was busy writing his own book. I had read him in Asia Times and enjoyed his remarkable access to sources inside the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and his acute and honest analysis of their role in Pakistani society and in the ‘war on terror’. It was with great sadness that I heard the news that Saleem had been killed on 31 May at the age of 40. Not long after, Pluto published his book. It reads like a summary of Saleem’s reportage and provides us with a window into his superb journalistic skills and ethics. Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban shows us what journalists can do if they decide not to ‘embed’ themselves with the powers-that-be.
In early August, news came in that the Taliban had shot down a US helicopter in Wardak, with about 30 members of the Navy SEAL Team 6 killed along with a half-dozen Afghan National Army personnel. This was the US armed forces outfit that had been responsible for the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on 2 May. Given that bin Laden’s death came at a time of considerable economic distress for the people of the United States, one would have thought that it was the perfect opportunity for the US to walk away from the conflict. Not so – promises of a drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan come alongside a military surge on the ground. The attacks within Kabul on 13 September has now dampened any talk of an end to the conflict or withdrawal of the US military. President Hamid Karzai grows increasingly frustrated with his Western friends, as the mujahideen of the Quetta Shura advance from their Pakistani redoubts into the southeastern districts of Afghanistan. Talks about talks have gone nowhere. The war that straddles the Durand Line seems unstoppable.
When then-US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld came to Kabul in April 2003 to announce ‘the end of major combat operations’ in Afghanistan, he should have taken the trouble to fly across the border to Pakistan to meet Saleem Shahzad for verification of whether this was actually the case. It is true that the ‘daisy cutter’ bombs from the air and the dollars liberally distributed on the ground had led to the death or capture of around half the Taliban forces by early 2002. But those that remained alive fled to Pakistan and to their homes, waiting for word from their amir ul-mu’mineen (supreme leader), Mullah Mohammed Omar, now said to be lodged in Quetta.
What Saleem tracked was the process by which both the Taliban and al-Qaeda refined their strategy in the badlands of northern Pakistan. It is of course the case that there is no single Taliban, that there is now the Taliban of Afghanistan (led largely by the Quetta Shura) and the Taliban of Pakistan. Saleem acknowledges this but does not accept the complete divide. The two branches of the Taliban are able to operate with a common strategy, foisted upon them by their reliance on each other through operations of the Afghan, Pakistan and NATO armed forces. The Taliban members on both sides of the border are less interested in al-Qaeda’s civilisational war between the ‘Crusaders’ and ‘Islam.’ What the Taliban members seem more given over to is a straightforward war of national liberation, with Islamic characteristics – with some differences in Afghanistan, where the enemy is NATO, and Pakistan, where the enemy is the US-influenced Islamabad government.
Al-Qaeda had much greater global ambitions, which allowed its leadership to see the Afghan theatre from a regional and global perspective. It was al-Qaeda’s wider lens that allowed it to figure out a strategy to distract the United States, to use its allies in the Pakistan state and society, and to draw upon the remarkable geography of the Hindukush corridor to link up with the Arab lands via Iran. This broad push enabled al-Qaeda to put the brakes on the Taliban’s urgent agenda, and to build a base in northern Pakistan in anticipation of a suitable time to strike in Afghanistan and, incidentally, in Pakistan. The story of this strategic patience forms the heart of Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
To set up the new base, al-Qaeda helped the Taliban to first displace the traditional tribal authority structure in northern Pakistan and then to replace the entrenched elders by the younger mujahideen, helped along by the pir bhais, what they call their sympathisers in the military. Al-Qaeda’s influence amongst these younger mujahideen was not only military (their hardened Uzbek and Arab fighters joined up) but also ideological – they mention the position of takfeer, which is to say that the Muslim rulers of Pakistan and Afghanistan are apostates and could be overthrown. The harsh treatment of the mujahideen at the hands of the Pakistani military and the tribal police, the khasadars, deepened the mujahideen’s antipathy to what they saw as a nominally Muslim state.
Saleem knew many of the second-level leaders of the mujahideen, and it is from them that he learned the broad outline of their strategy. (The portraits of these leaders, such as Muhammed Ilyas Kashmiri and Bin Yameen, are in themselves worth the price of the book.) What the ground-level leadership of the mujahideen wanted was to create a base for themselves in northern Pakistan and in southern Afghanistan, in the Pashtu-speaking regions. They did not rely upon one town or one district, but moved their base if things heated up on either side of the border. The Pakistani Taliban used these mobile bases to make forays into the centre of the country, including into the cities. The general tendency for the Afghan Taliban was to move their base from Waziristan in Pakistan northwards to the districts of Bajaur and Mohmand. Once this was accomplished, the corridor into Nangarhar and Kunar would be established. These developments along the Hindukush set the stage for the Afghan Taliban offensive in 2006.
That advance took the NATO forces by surprise. But as one reads Saleem’s book, it seems inevitable that after trying to cut off the supply lines into Afghanistan, the Taliban – which has begun to fashion itself as the mujahideen, with the glamour of the anti-Soviet years intact – would make a move toward both Jalalabad and Kandahar.
One reason Saleem is able to grasp the strategy of the two Talibans and al-Qaeda at this local level is that he does not focus on the thinking of bin Laden and his circle, nor does he derive their theory from a psychological portrait of them. He notes that bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were ‘in the background’ or even ‘invisible’; as such, the death of bin Laden would not matter to the developments laid out in this book. Instead, he traces the strategy of the mujahideen and its al-Qaeda advisors, and demonstrates how al-Qaeda-influenced thinkers and militants made the most use of the contradictions of northern Pakistan to establish al rayah, the al-Qaeda black flag, in their mountain fortresses.
It was this same kind of fluidity that enabled these advisors to switch the jihadis’ battleground from Kashmir to Mumbai (26/11), not so much to further the azadi movement in the valley as to distract the attention of the Pakistani military away from the north toward the Indian border. (Arif Jamal’s Shadow War shows us how the Pakistani army tried to refuel the jihadi commitment to struggle in Kashmir, but found few takers. Their earlier jihadi cadre was no longer willing to be used as cannon fodder for Islamabad). The main purpose was to consolidate a natural fortress in the Hindukush from which to launch its campaign on both sides of the Durand Line. Such has been the case from 2006 to the present.
Al-Qaeda was able to move its agenda through the two wings of the Taliban only to a certain extent. When it became clear that the Taliban was not simply going to do al-Qaeda’s bidding, the latter formed its own military wing, the Lashkar al Zil, its shadow army, to facilitate its agenda. Just as NATO guided and drove the Afghan National Army, the Lashkar pushed and prodded the two Talibans.
By 2008, al-Qaeda’s ideology ‘was too deeply entrenched in the minds of the mountain men,’ Saleem writes. ‘Their strategy so clearly marked on every mountain, rock, and stone in the tribal areas, that the militant leaders felt little worry facing the world’s best armies.’ Note the use of the last word in that quote in the plural: Saleem had in mind the NATO forces on one side of the Durand Line and the Pakistani forces on the other.
One of the crucial points that Saleem makes is that the Taliban of the Quetta Shura and of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (the TNSM, an Islamist group banned in Pakistan in 2002) had an agenda and a strategy that ‘did not extend beyond localized boundaries.’ In Swat, the problem, as the local historian Sultan-e-Rome argues, is that the Pakistani legal system was seen as corrupt, and it was the lure of the Islamic courts that powered the TNSM. Matthew Hoh, the senior US administrator in Zabul province, offered a similar assessment from the other side of the Durand Line in his resignation letter of 2009: ‘I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.’
These local and regional contradictions provided an historic opportunity for al-Qaeda, whose ‘agenda stretches beyond borders’. The group’s second-level intellectuals and militants provided a framework for the local conflicts and made them intelligible on a broader canvas. It is this work that Saleem recounts, at least this work on the Pakistani side of the border – no similar study of the Afghan side is yet available, although the work of researcher and writer Antonio Giustozzi is very instructive.
Saleem had no interest in putting together a final chapter containing advice to the mandarins of power. He simply gives us what he sees, and how he sees it. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said recently that the defeat of al-Qaeda is ‘within reach’, repeating the hubris of Rumsfeld from 2003. Such arrogance comes up against reality in the Taliban’s stronghold along the Hindukush, an area well known to Saleem, who is far less optimistic about easy solutions. Unlike Rumsfeld and Panetta, Saleem loves the people of the spinal cord of mountains that runs from Iran to China – he feels for them and shares their despair and hopes. A politics that comes from such humanity might actually find a pathway out of the long season of conflict that has torn apart the Hindukush. It is what Saleem points toward. I hope we have the capacity to listen.
~ Vijay Prashad is a contributing editor to this magazine.
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