By Syed Saleem Shahzad on 13th Jul, 2008.
KARACHI - The resilient Taliban have proved unshakable across Afghanistan over the past few months, making the chances of a coalition military victory against the popular tide of the insurgency in the majority Pashtun belt increasingly slim.
The alternative, though, of negotiating with radical Taliban leaders is not acceptable to the Western political leadership.
This stalemate suits Pakistan perfectly as it gives Islamabad the opportunity to once again step in to take a leading role in shaping the course of events in its neighboring country.
Pakistan's General Headquarters in Rawalpindi are thrilled with the Taliban's sweeping military successes which have reduced President Hamid Karzai's American-backed government to a figurehead decorating the presidential palace of Kabul; he and his functionaries dare not even cross the street to take evening tea at the Serena Hotel.
June (28 US combat deaths) was the deadliest month for coalition troops since they invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 and fatalities have increased steadily since 2004, when 58 soldiers were killed that year. The total more than doubled to 130 killed in 2005, 191 in 2006 and 232 in 2007. One hundred and twenty-seven have died so far this year.
Pakistan's planners now see their objective as isolating radicals within the Taliban and cultivating tribal, rustic, even simplistic, "Taliban boys" - just as they did in the mid-1990s in the leadup to the Taliban taking control of the country in 1996. It is envisaged that this new "acceptable" tribal-inspired Taliban leadership will displace Taliban and al-Qaeda radicalism.
This process has already begun in Pakistan's tribal areas.
A leading Pakistani Taliban leader, Haji Nazeer from South Waziristan, who runs the largest Pakistani Taliban network against coalition troops in Afghanistan, recently convened a large meeting at which it was resolved to once again drive out radical Uzbeks from South Waziristan. This happened once before, early last year.
In particular, Nazeer will take action against the Uzbeks' main backer, Pakistani Taliban hardliner Baitullah Mehsud, if he tries to intervene. Nazeer openly shows his loyalty towards the Pakistani security forces and has reached out to other powerful Pakistani Taliban leaders, including Moulvi Faqir from Bajaur Agency, Shah Khalid from Mohmand Agency and Haji Namdar in Khyber Agency. Nazeer also announced the appointment of the powerful commander of North Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, as the head of the Pakistani Taliban for all Pakistan.
The bulk of the Pakistani Taliban has always been pro-Pakistan and opposed to radical forces like Baitullah Mehsud and his foreign allies, but this is the first time they have set up a formal organization and appointed an amir (chief) as a direct challenge to the radicals.
At the core of their beliefs is a stress on traditional tribal values and following the tribal agenda of supporting the Afghan resistance against Western troops, rather than any global agenda such as attacks on Europe or the United States.
Soon after the announcement of the amir, two prominent Afghan Taliban commanders from eastern Afghanistan gave their support to the new Pakistani Taliban network. They are Moulvi Abdul Kabeer, a former Taliban governor in the province of Nangarhar before the US invasion in 2001, and commander Sadr-uddin. To date, the most important Afghan commander in the eastern region, Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, has remained neutral, perhaps because of his close ties with Pakistan and also with the radical camp.
Earlier, the Hezb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another pro-Pakistan commander in Afghanistan, claimed several successful operations in the northeastern Kapisa and Wardak provinces - just a few score kilometers from Kabul. This is another significant development as it gives a boost to that segment of the insurgency which is more local than global.
This is the new picture emerging in eastern Afghanistan. If these groups, with Pakistan's support, can join hands with the Kandahari clans of the Taliban from the southwest, which already form a non-radical tribal resistance, it would give Islamabad the opportunity to make a proposal to Washington.
That is, the process of jirgas (tribal councils) should be restarted, this time only with the sons-of the-soil Taliban, to get them to lay down their arms and negotiate a new political role before the Afghan presidential elections next year.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief.
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