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Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

[Description of Source: Hong Kong Asia Times Online WWW-Text in English - - Hong Kong-based online newspaper with a Bangkok branch office focusing on political and economic issues from an "Asian perspective," with over 50 contributors in 17 Asian countries, the United States, and Europe. Successor of the Hong Kong/Bangkok based print daily Asia Times that closed in 1997, it claims an average of 100,000 daily site visitors as of Feb 2006, with 65% of the audience based in North America, and 22% in the Asia-Pacific region. Root URL on filing date: http://www.atimes.com]

Asia Times: 'At War with the Taliban: A Fighter and a Financier, Part 2'
CPP20080523715001 Hong Kong Asia Times Online WWW-Text in English 1055 GMT 22 May 08
[Asia Times: "At War with the Taliban, Part 2: A Fighter And a Financier'; headline as provided by source]
KUNAR VALLEY, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's troubled recent history, which spans the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the vicious post-Soviet civil war and then Taliban rule, has thrown up a number of men who have obtained "legendary" status - whether through their tribal followings or from connections with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) .
These mujahideen resistance figures include Jalaluddin Haqqani,Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ismail Khan and the late Ahmad Shah Massoud.
The new leaders of the anti-American resistance in Afghanistan, however, are cut from a different cloth. They are despised and victimized by the ISI and often condemned by tribal elders. They are the sons of a global ideology which is orphan all over the world except in the merciless border terrain of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Take Qari Ziaur Rahman, commander of the Taliban in Nooristan and Kunar provinces, which border Pakistan. He is not the son of a legendary mujahideen commander, but of a cleric named Maulana Dilbar. His ties do not lie with the ISI, but with Osama bin Laden, having instructed bin Laden in the lessons of the Prophet Mohammad's life.
Ziaur, in his early thirties, was raised in the camps of Arab militants, who instilled in him the passion to fight against the Americans - not only in Afghanistan, but across the globe. Ziaur did not get his command as any hereditary right. First he had to prove himself on the battlefield, which he did by taking on US troops in Kunar and Nooristan. He was the first to mount operations against the US in the Karghal district of Kunar and he engineered the second-biggest encounter ever in Nooristan.
His exploits drew the attention of the coalition forces, which placed him on a wanted list and distributed flyers from the air offering a reward of US$350,000 for his arrest or killing.
With the heat on, Ziaur tried to take refuge in Pakistan, but in a coordinated move by the US Central Intelligence Agency and the ISI, he was arrested. Fortune smiled on him though and under a scheme brokered by Pakistani tribal warlord Baitullah Mehsud he was released in a prisoner exchange for Pakistani military officials. Otherwise, he would certainly have ended up at the US's Bagram air base near Kabul, or even at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.
After his release, Ziaur was elevated from a military operations commander to the overall in-charge of the Taliban's affairs in Kunar and Nooristan. His duties include devising regional battle policies and arranging budgets. He also represents Kunar and Nooristan in Taliban leader Mullah Omar's shura (council).
Ziaur is widely tipped to become one of the most important Taliban commanders in the whole region. Asia Times Online spoke to him, and somewhat unusually - even brazenly - he allowed his picture to be taken.
ATol: Which Afghan province do you come from?
Ziaur: I come from the province of Kunar.
ATol: What madrassa (seminary) education do you have?
Ziaur: I memorized the Koran. Before that I studied in a primary school. Then I acquired education in the Arabic language. I did a diploma.
ATol: From which institution?
Ziaur: It belonged to some Arab fellows. The institution was supported by an Arab country.
ATol: At present you are the in-charge and commander of the Taliban in Kunar and Nooristan provinces?
Ziaur: I administer the Taliban's affairs, mainly finance.
ATol: So you mainly look after the Taliban's financial matters, not their military affairs?
Ziaur: I do look after military matters, but the main emphasis is on finance.
ATol: This means you are the in-charge of both financial and military operations in Nooristan and Kunar provinces.
Ziaur: Indeed.
ATol: NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] has made Kunar and Nooristan a hub of its operations. How do you assess NATO's plans and what is your counter-strategy?
Ziaur: From the Soviet days in Afghanistan, Kunar's impo rtance has been clear. This is a border province [with Pakistan] and trouble here can break the central government [in Kabul]. Whoever has been defeated in Afghanistan, his defeat began from Kunar. Hence, everybody is terrified of this region. The Soviets were defeated in this province and NATO knows that if it is defeated here it will be defeated all over Afghanistan.
ATol: How many NATO troops are there in Kunar?
Ziaur: Thousands ...
ATol: How many bases do they have?
Ziaur: I tell you ... They have a central base which is called Topchi. Then in Pechdara they have a big presence in Maragai ... then they have many other bases like Koranghal ... then in Tarla ... on another side of Kunar there is a pass called Zarokas ... they have a big base over there as well, also in the Souqe region ... then in Sarkano ... in Nooristan they have a base in Kamdesh ... Rawat ... then in western Nooristan in the Doab district.
ATol: Can you compare the Taliban's strength with that of NATO, as they have so many bases. I witnessed Taliban rule in many districts in Helmand [province]. Do the Taliban rule any districts in Kunar?
Ziaur: Thank God that this is a mountainous region. NATO has a presence in the bases only, other than that they do not control anything. The mujahideen patrol everywhere and they carry out attacks freely.
ATol: How many mujahideen attacks are there each day?
Ziaur: Many small-scale attacks are carried out every day.
ATol: What are the main areas of attack?
Ziaur: Koranghal is our main operation theater in Kunar. It is a slaughterhouse for the Americans. Many Americans have been killed there. Kamdesh in Nooristan is our main operation front. We killed many Americans there as well. Similarly, we are very active in Sarkano, beside many other areas.
ATol: What is the Taliban's strength in these areas of Nooristan and Kunar?
Ziaur: I cannot disclose the numbers. The main thing is that the masses are with the Taliban and the Talibanare in huge numbers.
ATol: Nooristan has a very strategic position. It goes up to Kapisa province, from where a route goes to Kabul from north. Do you have any plans to mobilize a Taliban attack on Kabul from this route?
Ziaur: The Taliban will apply all sorts of strategies.
ATol: Kunar and Nooristan were the strongholds of the Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan led by Hekmatyar. Do they still have a presence in the region? Do the Taliban have some sort of joint venture with them?
Ziaur: They just have the name. They are only a little bit active, and not to the extent that is mentioned in the press.
ATol: There were reports in the Western press that on April 19, Hekmatyar, commanders Abdul Ghaffur and Kashmir Khan were spotted by NATO in Nooristan and there was a fierce encounter in which NATO forces sustained losses. What is your take?
Ziaur: This is a lie. NATO attacks here and there. It claims it attacked in Nooristan because of Osama bin Laden, as if Osama is omnipotent in Nooristan. They claim [al-Qaeda deputy] Dr [Ayman] Zawahiri is in Bajaur [Agency in Pakistan] and then attack that area. This is all gossip.
ATol: It is said that the Taliban's real strength lies in Arab and Punjabi fighters. What is the proportion of Arab and Punjabi fighters in your total strength?
Ziaur: We are all one, all faithfuls are brothers. Whether they come from the East or from the West, Arab or Pakistani, we are one and for each other.
ATol: You look after the Taliban's finances, so where do they raise resources?
Ziaur:Through contributions by the people.
ATol: I witnessed poppy cultivation in Kunar. I was told by the local population that clerics have now issued a decree that the mujahideen can buy weapons from the sale of poppy. Can you shed any light on that?
Ziaur: This is not true. Indeed, it is a controversial issue whether poppy cultivation is prohibited in Islam or not. But the Taliban are not depe ndent on poppy cultiva tion at all.
ATol: NATO has offered reward money for the arrest or killing of Taliban commanders. What amount is on your head?
Ziaur: There is some. I do not know how much.
ATol: Yesterday in Kunar I observed constant flights of [US Predator] drones and B-52 aircraft. Why are they so active?
Ziaur: Because of the daily attacks [by the Taliban] in Kunar province. They are aware that this year there will be a decisive battle and they know they cannot fight in the mountains.
ATol: NATO bombs the Nawa Pass [leading to Pakistan] and in the process a few shells also hit Pakistan's Bajaur area. What is happening here?
Ziaur: This is because recently the mujahideen carried out a huge operation in the Nawa Pass, which was successful. Therefore, NATO is terrified and is trying to pre-empt any more attacks by bombing the area.
NEXT: A revolution of guns and culture
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

[Description of Source: Hong Kong Asia Times Online WWW-Text in English - - Hong Kong-based online newspaper with a Bangkok branch office focusing on political and economic issues from an "Asian perspective," with over 50 contributors in 17 Asian countries, the United States, and Europe. Successor of the Hong Kong/Bangkok based print daily Asia Times that closed in 1997, it claims an average of 100,000 daily site visitors as of Feb 2006, with 65% of the audience based in North America, and 22% in the Asia-Pacific region. Root URL on filing date: http://www.atimes.com]

Asia Times: 'A Struggle Between War And Peace'
CPP20080603721001 Hong Kong Asia Times Online WWW-Text in English 1022 GMT 02 Jun 08
[Article By Syed Saleem Shahzad; headline as provided by source]
KARACHI - Since 2006 in Afghanistan, coalition forces battling the Taliban-led insurgency have alternated between all-out offensives and ceasefire deals. Similarly in Pakistan, the authorities have chopped and changed between peace accords and military action against militants in the tribal areas.
This vicious - and unproductive - cycle in the South Asian "war on terror" theater can be expected to continue unless the major players drop the idea of piece-meal peace agreements and adopt a broad and consistent policy of grand reconciliation.
In the latest "peace' phase, Islamabad agreed a ceasefire this month with the Taliban in the tribal areas along the Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The ink on this accord had hardly dried than Ghairat Bahir was released last week from the United States Bagram air base near Kabul.
Ghairat Bahir is the son-in-law of veteran mujahid Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and a top leader of the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA). He was arrested by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Islamabad in 2002 on American pressure when he was making desperate moves to activate the HIA's jihadi network in favor of the Taliban. He was handed over to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and kept in various secret locations before being moved to Bagram. He was recently sent to Pul-i-Charki jail in Kabul after apparently agreeing to cooperate with the administration of President Hamid Karzai.
Immediately after his release, Ghairat Bahir was received at the presidential palace in Kabul and offered powerful ministries for the HIA if he agreed to act as a power-broker between top insurgent commanders, including Jalaluddin Haqqani and Hekmatyar, on one side and the US-backed Karzai administration on the other.
While Ghairat Bahir's release has been welcomed in top jihadi circles - he is being feted in Kabul by top mujahideen leaders both a part of the government and in the opposition ranks - the development is being touted in the corridors of power as a major breakthrough in helping stabilize the weakening Karzai administration.
In the months prior to Ghairat Bahir's release, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had entered into ceasefire agreements with the Taliban in several districts of Helmand and Farah provinces, Badghis in the northwest and Herat in the west. The agreements were terminated when the Taliban launched their spring attacks in April and May.
Playing with peace
BOTh Pakistan and Afghanistan are aware of the shortcomings of such accords, yet they have persevered with them even though they offer little chance of enduring peace.
Under the Bonn Agreement of December 2001, hammered out by the international community after the US-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, a framework was established for the country to stage elections and build a reliable political and economic infrastructure.
By the end of 2005, this had by and large happened, but none of the state actors and the international institutions working in Afghanistan had any idea what to do next, especially in the face of the Taliban's successful spring offensive of 2006, which took all by surprise.
The response was the implementation of ad-hoc peace deals with the insurgents, but the face of the is changing: many are now true radicals and extremely unreliable from the perspective of any establishment.
The best example is pro-Taliban Pakistani tribal warlord Baitullah Mehsud. He has been cultivated by al-Qaeda and is now part of a nexus headed by Takfiris (those militantly intolerant of "infidels") belonging to al-Qaeda and a group of former Pakistani jihadis who cut their teeth in Kashmir under Baitullah.
Although Baitullah has been touted by US intelligence as one of the world's most dangerous men against American interests, his contribution in fighting against NATO is nothing compared to the network of another Pakistani Taliban commander, Haji Nazir, a rival of Baitullah who has be en accused of links with the ISI.
Baitullah sees a very broad role for himself and for his comrades. They do not want simply to be members of a local resistance movement. They are riding the global ideological bandwagon of al-Qaeda and envisage a complicated strategy to win a war against the West.
Taliban leader Mullah Omar has openly opposed Baitullah's penchant for fighting against the Pakistani security forces, especially after Baitullah established the Pakistani Tehrik-i-Taliban - the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan - last year. When Baitullah did not heed Mullah Omar's advice, Omar distanced himself from Baitullah, as did other top Taliban leaders, such as Hafiz Gul Bahdur.
Baitullah did, however, recently agree on a ceasefire, but most people believe he is looking for a chance when it suits him to end the deal and resume attacks on the Pakistani security forces.
In Afghanistan, Karzai had made deals with several Taliban commanders, including Abdul Salam Rocketi and a group of the HIA. They were even elected as members of parliament, but time proved they were not helpful in making further peace deals with Taliban-led insurgents.
The reason was the rapid emergence of new commanders close to al-Qaeda, such as Baitullah. They are likely to outnumber the veteran Taliban commanders soon and the chances of dialogue will be further reduced.
In another development, the United National Front of Afghanistan, representing the strongest northern Afghan warlords and politicians, and the strongest force in the south, the Taliban and HIA, have admitted to opening channels of discussion. The US-backed Karzai is the only stumbling block - at this stage he is not acceptable to the southern strongmen or the northern ones.
Despite this, the development offers the Western coalition a chance to exploit the situation through leading Muslim countries which still have influence over the Taliban, notably Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. If the Western coalition gives leeway to such countries to play a major role and at a later stage even replace NATO with Organization of Islamic Conference forces, a consensus government of the northern and southern forces could emerge. This would effectively sideline al-Qaeda elements. The Taliban are undoubtedly natural allies of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, while al-Qaeda is a common enemy of all.
However, this approach will only be useful if people like Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are in command. If these powerful persons are pushed into the background, the future of the region will be in the hands of people like Baitullah Mehsud, who only dream of a global war launched from Afghanistan.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

[Description of Source: Hong Kong Asia Times Online WWW-Text in English - - Hong Kong-based online newspaper with a Bangkok branch office focusing on political and economic issues from an "Asian perspective," with over 50 contributors in 17 Asian countries, the United States, and Europe. Successor of the Hong Kong/Bangkok based print daily Asia Times that closed in 1997, it claims an average of 100,000 daily site visitors as of Feb 2006, with 65% of the audience based in North America, and 22% in the Asia-Pacific region. Root URL on filing date: http://www.atimes.com]

Asia Times: 'US Strike Hits Pakistan's Raw Nerve'
CPP20080613715017 Hong Kong Asia Times Online WWW-Text in English 1112 GMT 12 Jun 08
[By Syed Saleem Shahzad: "US Strike Hits Pakistan's Raw Nerve"; headline as provided by source]
KARACHI - The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has for a long time been split over strategic questions in Afghanistan. These divisions will be further sharpened following Tuesday evening's attack by United States warplanes on a Pakistani military post in Mohmand Agency in which 11 Pakistani paramilitary soldiers were killed.
Indications that Pakistani soldiers were fighting alongside Taliban forces against Afghan army and US units in the border area will also bolster critics of US policy who argue that the Pakistani military is playing a "double game" and can no longer be trusted. All the same, should NATO "lose" Pakistan, it would be a devastating setback.
While the precise circumstances of the incident remain unclear, an eye witness, Taliban spokesman Zubair Mujahid, who represents the Taliban's commanders for Kunar and Nooristan provinces in Afghanistan, told Asia Times Online by telephone: "The multiple Taliban groups operating on both sides of the border - in the Afghan Kunar Valley and in Mohmand Agency - spotted NATO forces launching into Mohmand Agency's mountain-top Sarhasoko military post (below).
"We realized the Pakistani troops were struggling against the NATO forces so we activated our networks all over the area," Zubair said.
"The Pakistani security forces were under siege and were at the point of being evacuated from the post when we opened fire on them (NATO) from several positions. Our attack was so unexpected for NATO that they had to retreat. The Pakistan army lost 11 soldiers, the Taliban lost eight and NATO lost 20 soldiers during the operation."
An official Pakistani armed forces release called the air strikes "unprovoked and cowardly" and added that "the incident had hit at the very basis of cooperation and sacrifice with which Pakistani soldiers are supporting the coalition in (the) war against terror".
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, meanwhile, said, "Although it is early, every indication we have is that it was a legitimate strike in self-defense against forces that had attacked coalition forces."
Damning report
The timing of the attack coincides with the release of a report this week by the US Defense Department-funded RAND Corp, entitled "Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan", which said that some active and former officials in Pakistan's intelligence service and the Frontier Corps - a paramilitary force - directly aided Taliban militants.
Significantly - as happened on Tuesday - the report suggested direct NATO operations in the Pakistani tribal areas to root out the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Confusingly, at the very moment the Taliban went to aid Pakistani security forces - which will boost respect for them among the lower- and middle-order cadre of the armed forces - the Taliban kidnapped seven security personnel in Dera Adam Khail in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and in Mohmand Agency they exchanged fire with security forces at a checkpoint.
This contradiction highlights the complex relationships between the Taliban, militants and the Pakistani establishment: nothing can be read as black and white. What can't be ignored is that ethnic Pashtuns are natural Pakistani allies and the Pashtun heartland is overwhelmingly under the influence of the Taliban, a factor Pakistan has to factor into its regional relationships.
The case of Taliban commander Haji Nazeer illustrates the point. Al-Qaeda leaders, Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud and even Uzbek warlord Qari Tahir often praise his services for fighting some of the toughest battles against NATO in Afghanistan. Yet they also curse him for his links to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), for which he acts as a point man to work against Uzbeks, the network of Baitullah Mehsud and Takfiri Arabs - those who take it on themselves to decide who is a true Muslim and who is not.
Haji Nazeer is not the only example of this, several big and small operators receive support or patronage from the Pakistani security force s, which allows think-tanks such as the Rand Corporation to blame Pakistan for actively supporting and facilitating the Taliban fight against NATO.
From 2006 onwards, US officials and NATO have on several occasions provided evidence directly to Islamabad on Pakistan's support for the Taliban. Yet the crux is, Pakistan needs to do this.
The US does the same in Iraq, where it struck deals with former Ba'athist elements to take on al-Qaeda, knowing that Sunni-nationalist Arab tribes would continue to fight against them, though with low intensity.
A lesser evil
By late 2003, foreign elements, especially Egyptians and Uzbeks, had regrouped in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal area and established two organizations. One was for international operations, the Jaishul al-Qiba al-Jihadi al-Siri al-Alami, the other, specifically aimed to operate inside Pakistan, was Jundullah. See The legacy of Nek Mohammed Asia Times Online, July 20, 2004.)
Between them, the two groups masterminded operations such as the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings and the July 7, 2005, London bombings and several attacks on the life of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as well as other officials and security installations.
Pakistan mounted several military operations against the groups and killed many commanders, including Nek Mohammed, but the insurgency intensified and new faces emerged, such as Baitullah Mehsud, and they established even better facilities for al-Qaeda operations.
These new commanders did not restrict their activities to South Waziristan, they spread their networks across the country. The previously calm Swat Valley in NWFP and the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad became two important bases for them.
The new self-proclaimed "Pakistani Taliban" quickly eliminated the local networks of the tribal elders, the only reliable front on which Islamabad could deal with the new militant movements. Over 130 tribal chiefs were killed and dozens fled to different cities. Any cleric who spoke in favor of harmony with Pakistan risked being killed and ending up with a message attached to his body: "A lesson for CIA-ISI proxies."

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