The Obama administration’s troop surge fails to address the real threat in Afghanistan: the insurgents’ efforts to develop a regional strategy in South Asia. Washington’s focus—members of al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the traditional Afghan Taliban—misses the mark. Nir Rosen does, too, when he asks whether “a few hundred angry, unsophisticated Muslim extremists really pose such grave dangers to a vigilant superpower, now alert to potential threats.”
The November 2008 Mumbai attacks and the recent FBI arrests in Chicago for conspiracy to launch attacks in New Delhi suggest that containing the threat from Afghanistan is extremely complicated, and solutions must go beyond troop surges in Afghanistan, training Afghan police and soldiers, or even political dialogue with Taliban commanders inside the country. Intelligence agencies are now realizing that both the Mumbai events and the Delhi plans—plotted directly by al Qaeda affiliated groups, which I call the Neo-Taliban—were directly linked to Afghanistan, but also incorporated wider aims. The goal was to expand the theater of war to India so that Washington would lose track of its objectives and get caught in a quagmire.
An escalation of hostilities between Pakistan and India—open war—would cut off the NATO supply route to land-locked Afghanistan through the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi. NATO’s only alternate route—through Central Asian republics into northern Afghanistan—is economically unsustainable in a long war.
The chief planner of both conspiracies was Ilyas Kashmiri, a former Kashmiri separatist who survived an air strike from an unmanned CIA Predator in Pakistan’s North Waziristan in September 2009. According to U.S. intelligence, Kashmiri heads al Qaeda’s global military operation. We spoke in an exclusive interview on October 9, 2009: “Saleem!” he said,
I will draw your attention to the basics of the present war theater and use that to explain the whole strategy of the upcoming battles. Those who planned this battle actually aimed to bring the world’s biggest Satan [the United States] and its allies into this trap and swamp [Afghanistan]. Afghanistan is a unique place in the world where the hunter has all sorts of traps to choose from.
He added: “al Qaeda’s regional war strategy, in which they have hit Indian targets, is actually to chop off American strength.”
Al Qaeda’s connection to the Taliban has changed. Although the Afghan Taliban’s strength withered after the U.S. invasion—thousands were killed in aerial bombardment, hundreds were arrested, and the majority melted in with their tribes—a few hundred escaped to the Pakistani tribal areas. They could never have regrouped to fight back without the support of al Qaeda. At first the role of al Qaeda’s few dozen members was limited to recruitment and providing the local insurgent groups some broad guidelines for operations. But over the last four years, Neo-Taliban groups have formed with al Qaeda’s support and leadership. Composed of young Pakistani and Afghan al Qaeda supporters, the Neo-Taliban have strategized a South Asian regional war and enabled the rustic and unskilled Afghan Taliban to occupy districts in the provinces of Helmand, Ghazni, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Wardak, Nimroz, Farah, and Kandahar.
Neo-Taliban groups recruited thousands of Pakistani jihadi youths from the Pakistani tribal areas and motivated them to fight NATO troops. One face of the Neo-Taliban is Lashkar-e-Zil (“Shadow Army”), also known as the 055 Brigade. It draws members from a range of regional actors: al Qaeda; Pakistani jihadi; the Kashmir-centered 313 Brigade; Hezb-e-Islami, the paramilitary forces of the Afghan mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; the Afghan Taliban; and Pakistani tribal youths. In early 2008 Lashkar-e-Zil orchestrated attacks on the NATO supply line passing through the Pakistani Khyber Agency into Afghanistan, which carries 70 percent of NATO supplies for Afghanistan. The attacks created a serious supply crisis for the troops and compelled NATO to opt for its long and expensive alternative through central Asia, which now carries about 15 percent of the troops’ equipment. Lashkar-e-Zil has also conducted special operations, like the Hotel Serena attack in Kabul in February 2008, and several attacks on U.S. bases in Afghanistan. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, another arm of the Neo-Taliban, sends 20,000 youth to Afghanistan each year to support the Afghan Taliban.
The Neo-Taliban do not take direct orders from the Afghan Taliban command. They conduct their missions in Afghanistan and fight their war against NATO independently. Their commanders—such as Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the anti-Soviet Afghan commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Qari Ziaur Rahman in Kunar and Nuristan provinces—are close to al Qaeda.
The formation of Laskhar-e-Zil and allied groups ensures that strategies such as the troop surge, stationing additional troops in the population centers, or soliciting local Taliban commanders to lay down their arms and integrate into the political process are all exercises in futility. Until Washington changes its assessment of the threat in Afghanistan to take full measure of the Neo-Taliban, any strategy will be deeply flawed.