In the garden of bad and evil

The New York Times quotes a Brookings scholar who believes that the sudden increase in the number of Taliban captured indicates that the Pakistani authorities have decided to move against them. The arrest of Mullah Kabir, a member of the Quetta Shura and associate of Mullah Omar, in an all-Pakistani operation, follows closely on the capture of “Mullah Mohammed Yunis, the Taliban’s shadow governor of Zabul Province”. Bruce Riedel of Brookings was moved to say that “this indicates Baradar was not a one off or an accident but a turning point in Pakistan’s policy toward the Taliban. We still need to see how far it goes, but for Obama and NATO this is the best possible news. If the safe haven is closing then the Taliban are in trouble.”


NATO is in need of good news. Defense Update says that the collapse of the Dutch government over the issue of continuing the Afghan mission could lead to a “domino effect” in which the departure of one puts an intolerable stress on all the rest. The departure of the Dutch would leave a hole in Urugzgan province. Australia has refused to take it over and Canada is committed to withdrawing 2,800 troops by 2011. But not everybody thinks the Pakistanis have turned on Taliban.

Steve Coll, writing in the New Yorker, argues that although the Taliban have now become a corrupt and hidebound organization in which there is ample reason for one to turn on the other, it remains in Pakistan’s best interests to keep it going. The hope that Islamabad will round completely on their proteges is to expect too much. The Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, has long used arrests to reshape the Taliban to their will — “striking against some Taliban factions in Pakistan but tolerating or helping others”. Coll believes the Pakistanis are moving against those who have started to bite the hand that feeds them.

Why might Pakistan consider modifying its strategy? In 2009, Islamist militants, mainly Taliban, carried out eighty-seven suicide attacks inside Pakistan, killing about thirteen hundred people, almost ninety per cent of them civilians, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. Last October, Taliban raiders staged an unprecedented assault on the Army’s General Headquarters, in Rawalpindi. Customarily, Pakistani officers have blamed “bad” Taliban for such domestic raids, while absolving “good” Taliban (who shoot only at infidels in Afghanistan). As the violence on Pakistani soil intensifies, however, it would be natural for Pakistan’s generals to question whether their jihad-management strategy has become mired in false distinctions.


But once the rogue Taliban have been weeded from their noxious garden the ISI will be more than happy to let fleurs de mal blossom. Coll says it is an unhappy fact that:

the geopolitical incentives that have informed Pakistan’s alliance with the Afghan Taliban remain unaltered. Pakistan’s generals have retained a bedrock belief that, however unruly and distasteful Islamist militias such as the Taliban may be, they could yet be useful proxies to ward off a perceived existential threat from India. In the Army’s view, at least, that threat has not receded. Indo-Pakistani peace negotiations that have been in suspension since the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack are only just re-starting. Absent a sudden breakthrough that charts the potential for normalizing relations between Pakistan and India—a framework settlement on Kashmir, freer trade, freer borders, and demilitarization—Pakistan’s rationale for preserving the Taliban and similar groups is not likely to change.

Bill Roggio’s excellent survey of the sprawling Taliban organization shows that despite the recent cooperativeness of Pakistani intelligence there are a heck of a lot more to go. He describes its regional commands and its ten specialized bureaus. He concludes that the Taliban have a very deep bench and while the recent blows on them have been heavy, they are by no means mortal.

The Afghan Taliban’s leadership council and its regional shuras and committees have weathered the capture and death of senior leaders in the past. The Taliban have a deep bench of leaders with experience ranging back to the rise of the Taliban movement in the early 1990s. On prior occasions, younger commanders are known to have stepped into the place of killed or captured leaders. It remains to be seen if the sustained US offensive and possible future detentions in Pakistan will grind down the Taliban’s leadership cadre.


However, General Petraeus is doing some shaping of his own. The next phase of his offensive is aimed at Kandahar, not as geographical entity, but as a key part of the Taliban network. After striking at Helmand, which is the center of the Taliban’s opium trade, hitting Kandahar may be an attempt to cut the younger cadre of insurgents loose from the old heads.

“The younger generation (of Taliban ) are very ruthless people,” said Hajji Mohammad Khan, a tribal elder from Zhari district. “The Americans don’t recognize them. They just stand there when the Americans pass.”

That may be part of the plan. If the Petraeus can loosen the grip of the Taliban’s Military, Ulema and Political committees (all described by Roggio) from the young guns then discipline may break down and cause the population to turn against them. By deconstructing the Taliban command and control, Petraeus may win the political war. Yet even if this were Petraeus’ goal, the main roadblock standing in his way will the Pakistani ISI. If Coll is right, they will not stand idly by and watch Petraeus plow under their plantation of terror. They’ll stand for a little weed-whacking, but will they tolerate it’s extirpation root and branch?

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Extreme weeding

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