West facing an emerging Taleban state

By Jason Burke

Carry on up the road that slices through Mir Ali bazaar, heading west into the mountains, and you will soon come to Miram Shah.

Lying in a hollow below a crucial pass over the mountains, the small town was a crucial support base for the mujahideen who fought the Soviets.

One of their leaders, an Afghan tribal chief called Jalaluddin Haqqani, held Miram Shah as a personal fief-dom for decades, building a mosque and a huge religious school.

Haqqani, a senior cleric, or maulvi, in the Deobandi school of Islam, is now old and ailing - some intelligence sources believe him to be dead - but his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has taken over and is as active as his father ever was. If anyone is going to be president of this new state, it is he.

Little is known about Sirajuddin Haqqani. According to Brigadier Shah, the Pakistani Army is "currently fighting blindfold", and Western intelligence agencies admit a "lack of visibility" in the tribal areas.

However, all believe that Haqqani is the dominant figure among the warlords hacking out their fiefdoms in the tribal areas.

"[Haqqani] is at the top of the food chain," said one Western military official in Islamabad. "He's one of the few people everyone listens to."

Sources told this reporter that it was Haqqani who, four weeks ago, brought three different warlords together to provide a big enough force to take on the Pakistani Army around Mir Ali.

But Haqqani, who is believed to be in his 40s, has another key role to play. He has inherited the influence his father built over 20 years - well beyond the tribal zones of Pakistan. That influence stretches across eastern Afghanistan as far as Ghazni and even into Uruzgan, where an Australian soldier was killed last week.

As in Pakistan, the Afghan Pashtun tribes do not unconditionally obey one commander, but Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son have been able to draw together a complex web of links of allegiance, some based on tribal loyalty, others inspired by religious devotion to the senior Deobandi cleric that Haqqani is (or was), still more by a quasi-national response to what is perceived to be a "foreign" invasion that threatens to change Afghan society forever.

"We respect Maulvi Haqqani," one tribal leader said by telephone from the Pakistani town of Kohat. "He has always been a true mujahed [freedom fighter], fighting the Russians and the Americans and the British. And he has built many schools and mosques."

Another reason the Haqqani dynasty is so powerful is its wealth. This allows them to buy the loyalty that their religious and jihadi credentials do not win them. That money comes from smuggling opium, weapons and timber out of Afghanistan, as well as from quasi-legitimate businesses.

It also comes in direct donations from backers in Gulf Arab states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - until 2001, Jalaluddin Haqqani was a frequent visitor to the Gulf and one of his wives is from a wealthy family in the United Arab Emirates - and from indirect donations via the scores of Islamic charities which gather the 10 per cent zakat levy that every devout Muslim gives to religious causes.

Cash is a critical commodity throughout the "southwestern Asian theatre". Though not among the prime motivations for many Afghan fighters, money is necessary for weapons, equipment and for the tribal auxiliaries who will turn out to protect drug shipments and boost numbers for major one-off attacks.

To bolster a recent, and rapidly broken, peace agreement in the tribal zones on their side of the frontier, Pakistani Army commanders distributed sums ranging from £10,000 to £100,000 ($26,300 to $263,000) to five leaders of militant militias who promised to lay down their arms.

The money, the men said, was needed to pay back advances given to them by "al Qaeda" to fight the Islamabad Government's forces.

But the militias, like the Haqqanis, are not loyal to Osama bin Laden, according to Peshawar-based analyst Ashraf Ali. "Baitullah Mahsud [one of the key leaders of the militant militias on the Pakistan side of the border] recently said that neither bin Laden nor al Qaeda was his leader," Ali said. "His leader was Mullah Omar [the ousted Afghan Taleban leader]."

In the sprawling multinational base in Kandahar, there is one hangar riddled with rusty bullet holes. It stands in stark contrast to the pristine new constructions - including a Pizza Hut outlet, a Burger King and a full-sized chapel - elsewhere in the vast complex that the headquarters of Nato's Regional Command South in Afghanistan has become over the past six years.

The hangar is known as the Taleban's Last Stand, and was left as a memento to the defeat of the hardline Islamic militia in 2001. It has since become something of an embarrassment.

The latest contingent of British troops to deploy in Afghanistan, 52 Brigade, arrived last week. Most will be based in Helmand, the province to the west of Kandahar. From there, the activities of the Haqqanis and the Pakistan Taleban will seem a long way away.

Analysts are split over the links between the two wings of the Taleban.

According to Brigadier Shah, "the Afghan Taleban have no extraterritorial operations or ambitions".

But others are less convinced. "The situation is so complex that you cannot draw a line between the Afghan and the Pakistan Taleban," said Ashraf Ali.

Certainly Mullah Omar, the one-eyed cleric who has led the Afghan Taleban since its creation in 1993, is respected by everyone on both sides of the border, including the Haqqanis.

"If there is one chief, it is him," one official in Islamabad said. "If Talebanistan suddenly came into being, he would be the president."

But the links that tie the two halves of the Taleban together go way beyond shared allegiances. A United Nations report into the new phenomenon of suicide bombers in Afghanistan stated that "much [but not all] of the recruiting and training happens" in Pakistan.

"While suicide attackers elsewhere in the world tend not to be poor and uneducated, Afghanistan's attackers appear to be young, uneducated and often drawn from religious schools in Pakistan," the report stated.

Government and military sources in Kabul said that many bombers came from the Haqqanis' madrassas [religious schools] around Miram Shah, others from the system of Deobandi madrassas around Quetta.

In Peshawar, this reporter found evidence that one bomber who killed himself in Kandahar last northern autumn was recruited in the small town of Charsadda, northeast of the Pakistani frontier city, by a Pakistani group.

The bomber, who had no previous involvement with radical Islam, had travelled nearly 800km, from one side of the border to the other, to attack Western troops.

Equally, though substantial funding is generated within Afghanistan from taxes on the sale of opium and contributions from wealthy sympathisers, much of the funding of the Afghan Taleban comes from across the border.

Weapons from stores in Pakistan or from gun factories such as that at Darra Adam Khel to the south of Peshawar - temporarily occupied in August by a group of Pakistan Taleban - cross the mountains to be used against Nato forces too.

And though much of the fighting in Helmand or in Kandahar is in part based on tribal rivalries, cross-border personal links, not least through the Deobandi religious network, play a key role. "At the end of the day, it is all about who knows who," said one Kabul-based intelligence official.

Maulana Rahat Hussain, a senior cleric interviewed in Peshawar last week, reeled off a list of his classmates at the massive Binoria madrassa in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and commercial centre, who had all become senior figures in the Taleban.

"They were and are and will forever be my brothers," Hussain, the deputy secretary of the Deobandi-linked political party that has run Peshawar for the past five years, said. "They are fighting an occupying force and, inshallah [God willing], they will be victorious."

On the ground, differences disappear. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans displaced in the 1980s and early 1990s grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan or studied in religious schools there.

"Telling the two apart is impossible," said one British officer in Helmand. "We have found bodies with pockets full of Pakistani currency. But does that mean it's an Afghan or a Pakistani? Round here the distinction is meaningless. Nation states don't really exist in the way we imagine them to."

And though British intelligence officers and diplomats who have served on both sides of the frontier stress that there are considerable differences between the Afghan and Pakistani Taleban, warning that "to conflate the two" would be a bad error, they admit there are many links too.

"The short-term objectives may differ but if you are looking for shared long-term aims or a common world view, culture, language and so on, they are very close indeed," one official, a veteran observer of the region, said last week.

Nato officers in Kabul dismiss the suicide bombings as "not a strategic threat", but senior officers admit privately that there is a danger that the south and east of Afghanistan, already well beyond the authority of Kabul, will effectively translate "de facto autonomy" into independence.

That raises the spectre of the confederation of warlord states that is in the process of emerging on the Pakistani side of the border effectivelytrebling in size with the addition of the Taleban-controlled zones in Afghanistan.

"It would be the United Taleban Emirates and it would be a very nasty place indeed," one said. "It would be the biggest and most defensible terrorist safe haven the world has ever seen."

Few are hopeful that a swift solution will be found to the problem posed by the emerging state without a state on the borders of Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Army, according to Western defence officials in Islamabad, lacks the doctrine or the equipment or the will to take on the forces against them.

"They are demoralised. They are taking heavy casualties, having hundreds of guys captured. They are in real trouble up there," said one.

Nor is the Pakistani Army's will to fight unquestionable. "The men and the officers are sick of fighting America's war," said one recently retired general in Islamabad.

"Why should we kill other Pakistanis and other Muslims or sacrifice our lives for President Bush? It is not just the tribesmen who are anti-American. The whole country is."

There are frequent allegations that the Pakistani intelligence services are helping the Taleban on both sides of the border.

"There is no institutional policy to provide support for the militants but it may well be happening at a low level with some individuals pursuing their own agendas," said one Islamabad-based defence official. "I have never seen a smoking gun though."

There is general recognition that the Nato alliance and the Taleban, who are increasingly relying on amateurish suicide bombings, have fought each other to a standstill.

Nato partners such as Germany, the Netherlands and France are tiring of a war that British commanders admit may take "30 years to win".

British ministers have suggested talking to the Taleban - something President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has offered to do. This month he made a personal plea to Mullah Omar to negotiate and stop "the destruction of [his] country".

But the confederation of warlords, Pakistan Taleban, Deobandi religious networks, businessmen and smugglers - the veterans such as Haqqani, the newcomers who have seized power in villages like Mir Ali - will not give way easily.

"The loose, chaotic quasi-state which we are seeing emerging has been in the process of being built since the early days of the war against the Soviets 30 years ago," said one Western diplomat in Pakistan. "It is going to take that long, if not longer, to dismantle."

Rise, fall and resurgence of the radicals

Doctrine

Taleban literally means "students". Originally mainly ethnic Pashtuns, many footsoldiers came from radical seminaries in Pakistan, where two million Afghans sought refuge from two decades of war.

Comeback

Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989. The pro-Soviet Government fell in 1992; rebel factions took power but then began infighting. Thousands died in a vicious civil war. The Taleban emerged as a real force in 1994. In 1996 they captured Kabul. They were forced out in 2001 by a United States-led invasion, but staged a comeback last year.

Authoritarian

The Taleban believe in a strict interpretation of Islamic law and last month produced a constitution. Executions are carried out in public. Women are fully covered and are not permitted education. Men should wear beards, and entertainment - music, television and film - is deemed to be anti-Islamic.

Opium

Poppy production in Afghanistan rose dramatically after the 2001 invasion destabilised a shaky economy, leading more and more farmers to turn to opium production to survive. The country provides 86 per cent of the world's supply of the drug.

- Observer

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