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The birth of Al qaedastan

Six years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden is on the path to building a new terrorist state along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

world Updated: Sep 02, 2007 00:34 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

In the year 2016, the world may find itself gloomily marking September 6 as the tenth anniversary of the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan. The Emirate received de facto recognition when the Taliban used the name on the ceasefire agreement they signed with Pakistan on that day in 2006. If things go terribly wrong in the coming decade, they could come to rule a mountainous fragment of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Emirate would be a nightmare state: Osama bin Laden as sultan, Ayman al Zawahiri as vizier, and Mullah Omar the spiritual leader. An economy built on smuggling and heroin. Primary export: terrorism. Welcome to ‘Al Qaedastan’.

Analysts say the rise of a terrorist state straddling the rugged area between Pakistan and Afghanistan is now viable. The reason is a number of troubling trends. One, the revival of a Taliban firmly in the control of Al Qaeda. Two, the seeming inability of either Kabul or Islamabad to defeat the new threat militarily. Three, and the most striking, the Taliban’s systematic supplanting of the traditional tribal leadership in the area.

The New state

The British developed a simple means to keep the turbulent Pashtuns in check. British political agents ruled the tribes — but indirectly, through local chiefs, or maliks, and through the exercise of traditional codes like Pashtunwali. The malik was kept happy with money. He kept the mullah in check and the tribes from taking up arms.

Thirty years of wars in Afghanistan has left that system in tatters. The Pakistani military undermined the system on their side of the Durand Line, preferring mullahs over maliks because of the need to recruit jehadis to fight the Soviet Union, and later, India.

What the Inter-Services Intelligence taught them, the Taliban now practise on their own. “The Durrani tribal leadership, that once dominated these areas, is being eradicated,” says Michael Shaikh of the International Crisis Group. The most striking evidence that the old ways no longer hold sway is how different today’s Taliban is from Mullah Omar’s original outfit. During previous hostage crises, it was possible to find a tribal leader to negotiate a release. No more. “The Taliban at present is militarily more competent and is moving into kinds of tactics — kidnapping, suicide bombings and the professional use of media,” says Afghan expert Christine Fair of the US Institute of Peace. The Taliban’s new tutors are the Taliban. Says Afghanistan’s ambassador to the US, Said Tayeb Jawad, “Al Qaeda is the commander, the Taliban the foot soldier.”

Islamabad was happy to undermine secular Pashtun nationalism — it was useless for the jehadi and inclined to talk of an independent Pashtunistan. But the radical Islamicism that has taken its place takes its cue from bin Laden.

The Pakistan army’s offensives against the Taliban were notable for high casualties, high desertion rates, and for having officers court-martialled for sympathising with the enemy. Islamabad argued the four tribal ceasefires they signed where about allowing the malik to reassert himself. In reality, says Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute, “the goal remains a policy of containment and that is what the agreements were all about”. Jawad points out the ceasefires were signed with local Taliban leaders, not the Pashtun chiefs.

The threat

Washington is fretting. So is Britain. The first international terrorist plot to emanate from Al Qaedastan was last August’s plot to hijack airplanes from Heathrow. Western intelligence sources say the terror trail led back to Waziristan and bin Laden. Unsurprisingly, most experts believe more attacks are just a matter of time.

India should be concerned. The US successfully killed or captured most of bin Laden’s original Arab inner circle. The new inner circle, reflecting the fusion of Al Qaeda and the new Taliban, is Afghan-Pakistani. They accept bin Laden’s belief the US is the root of all evil, but they also see India as part of the global jehadi cause in a way their Arab predecessors did not. Bin Laden and Zawahiri have upped their references to India, bracketing it more often with the US, Israel and Russia as a target.

Bin Laden spoke of a “Crusader-Zionist-Hindu war against the Muslims” in April 2006 for the first time. The Al Qaeda said an attack on New Delhi was “legitimate” in a tape last month.

In the tribal areas, the Taliban now have more or less replaced the leadership in North and South Waziristan. They are closing their grip on adjacent areas as well. In Afghanistan, where they face Nato, they are focusing on indiscriminate violence to rob the Karzai government of legitimacy and create a vacuum. “Their agenda is to spread fear, force everyone’s submission,” says Jawad. Afghanistan experts like Barnet Rubin have noted that the new Taliban’s real advantage lies in its ability to wage ‘network war’. The group has a web of international links developed through the heroin trade and smuggling. Hundreds of would-be jihadis are once again flocking to Afghanistan seeking training and orders.

The scenarios

The Pakistan army is unable or unwilling to wage a counterinsurgency war. One reason Musharraf’s star has fallen so low is that to push into the Pashtun areas, he will have to absorb waves of suicide bombers of the sort that followed the clearing out of the Red Mosque — and the General doesn’t have the political legitimacy.

All the players are getting desperate. Shaikh says Karzai is holding secret talks with Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, an ex-mujahideen and Taliban ally. Pakistan has agreed to look the other way when Nato struck south of the Durand Line. Nato constituents worry how long they can maintain public support for deployment. Only bin Laden seems more confident.

It isn’t all bad news. Mullah Dadullah Akhund, the Taliban leader who had taken up bin Laden’s global jehad — declaring he would attack the US even after they withdrew from Afghanistan — has been killed and his brother has joined him six feet under. After the battle of the Red Mosque, Islamabad is cooperating more closely with Kabul against the Taliban. The secular Pathans are resisting the Taliban, but without support from Islamabad. However, says Shaikh, the best case scenario is another 30 years of low-level tribal warfare. The worst is Al Qaedastan.