Washington (UPI) Oct 27, 2009
Deliberations regarding a future strategy for Afghanistan need to include a consideration that the predominantly Afghan, Pashtun-based Taliban may have the capability of infecting other ethnic groups and becoming a greater transnational fundamentalist threat.
It is well-known that the Taliban was spawned and gained support among the Pashtuns in the Kandahar area of southern Afghanistan. At that time, the population had grown weary of continuous fighting among mujahedin warlords and the general lawlessness following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.
Many of the Taliban recruits were young male graduates of the Islamic religious schools, the madrassas, which populated the western regions of Pakistan and where many Afghan refugees had congregated. It is believed by many that the Taliban were supported by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence as a means of containing Pashtun nationalism in its western provinces and protecting its western flank in Afghanistan.
The Taliban consolidated its control of Afghanistan in 1996 and established a radical religious and political form of government based on a mixture of Pashtun tribal traditions, Pashtunwali, and a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, the latter becoming its most prominent feature. That combined approach eventually alienated non-Pashtun and non-Sunni elements of Afghan society. The conflicts generated from these differences festered until 2001, when the Taliban were driven from power by a combination of Western and indigenous opposition forces. They retreated into the western provinces of Pakistan, which has remained their base of operations for attacks both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan is the main Taliban militant group in Pakistan. The consensus of opinion is that it was formed as a result of Pakistani army incursions into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border. Originally composed of Afghan Taliban, it was later reinforced with Pakistanis opposed to the attempt by the central government in Islamabad to extend its authority more deeply into Pashtun tribal areas.
According to news reports, the Pakistani Taliban have been responsible for a wave of attacks across Pakistan, including a recent suicide bombing aimed at the Kamra military complex that is believed to house a nuclear weapons facility. There has been a significant increase in insurgent attacks in and around major Pakistani population centers, for example the capital Islamabad, Lahore on the Indian border and the army headquarters city of Rawalpindi. These attacks plus the so-called Talibanization of FATA and parts of the North-West Frontier province have forced the Pakistani government to mount a major military operation into these regions to disable the Pakistani Taliban.
Less well-known but far more ominous is the growing role of the Punjabi Taliban. The Punjab is Pakistan's most populous province and home of the country's dominant ethnic group. According to Raza Khan and Ayesha Nasir of The Washington Times, the increased participation of Punjabis as part of a Taliban insurgency marks a major escalation of the extremist threat because Punjab is the heartland of Pakistan and home to its political and military elite.
Khan and Nazir wrote that "initially made up largely of Pashtuns -- an ethnic group that straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan border -- the Taliban movement in Pakistan is now dominated by Punjabi militant groups that were created or nurtured by Pakistani intelligence to contest Indian control of Kashmir." Punjabis represent the largest ethnic group within the Pakistani army. Discord developing within its ranks could have dramatic consequences for the stability of the country.
Writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Gilles Dorronsoro claims the Taliban is attempting to expand its influence beyond the Pashtun-dominated regions in southern Afghanistan by reaching out to non-Pashtun Afghans who hold similar ideological views. According to Dorronsoro, the Taliban may have made some progress with the Tatar community in north-central Afghanistan and with Uzbek and Turkmen militants.
Clearly, the Taliban have not only improved their military tactics, but they have often successfully leveraged political, religious and social fissures in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This does not mean they are invulnerable to a comprehensive strategy that can counter their efforts. At a minimum, this means that the objectives of the U.S. and NATO-led coalition, their regional partners and the Afghan government coincide to an extent that we are fighting the same war and not creating gaps that the Taliban can exploit.
In the meantime, the virus appears to be spreading.
(Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)
The latest attacks, which were claimed by the Taliban, came the day after 14 US soldiers and narcotics agents died in helicopter crashes, piling pressure on US President Barack Obama as he mulls sending tens of thousands more troops.
Seven of the soldiers were killed along with an Afghan civilian in one attack in the south of the country, said NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The eighth died in a separate attack in another part of the south, said ISAF without giving further details about the locations.
The deaths occurred in what a statement referred to as "multiple complex IED attacks," referring to improvised explosive devices that have become the scourge of troops fighting a resurgent Taliban.
"Additionally, several service members were wounded in these incidents and were transported to a regional medical facility for treatment," it added.
A Pentagon official confirmed the deaths made October the deadliest month for American forces since the war began in 2001, in the wake of the September 11 attacks on Washington and New York by Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.
The deaths brought the number of Americans killed to at least 53 for the month, compared with 51 killed in August, the next deadliest month for the US.
Tuesday's deaths bring the number of foreign soldiers killed in Afghanistan so far this year to 445, according to an AFP tally based on that kept by the independent website icasualties.org. Of those, 277 are Americans.
Southern Afghanistan is the most violent region in the country, the traditional stronghold of the Taliban and where foreign forces, backed by their Afghan counterparts, are concentrated.
In a separate statement, ISAF said it had recovered the remains of three civilian crew and the wreckage of a plane that went down in rugged terrain in Nuristan province on October 13.
The Army C-12 Huron failed to return to Bagram airfield, near Kabul, after a routine mission, it said.
"Upon visible inspection of the site, the mission changed from search and rescue to search and recovery," it said, adding that the cause of the crash was still being investigated but "hostile action is not believed to be the cause."
Commanders in the country have requested significant reinforcements, saying that the more boots on the ground the greater the chance they have against a Taliban-led insurgency that has intensified in recent months.
Obama on Monday promised US troops a clear mission before pitching them into the worsening battle, after conducting the latest meeting of his war council, which is mounting an exhaustive review of Afghan and Pakistan strategy.
"I will never hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests, I also promise you this -- and this is very important as we consider our next steps in Afghanistan," Obama told military personnel in Florida.
"I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way.
"I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary, and if it is necessary, we will back you up.
"Because you deserve the strategy, the clear mission, the defined goals and the equipment and support you need to get the job done."
Obama critics, some senior Republicans among them, have complained that Obama's weeks-long security review is dragging on too long. Former vice president Dick Cheney last week accused the president of "dithering."
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