India-Pakistan: Inside The Taliban


October 1, 2008:  While the Taliban appear to be on a roll, internally they are in big trouble. A battle with the Pakistani army in Bajaur is going badly, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud  has been sick for months, and recently died, from kidney failure. That means a messy succession struggle to determine the new top dog. Meanwhile, some leaders of the Afghan Taliban have been engaged in secret (well, not so secret anymore) negotiations (brokered by Saudi Arabia) with the Afghan government. These talks are not going well. But now it will get worse, as NATO announced a Winter offensive against the Taliban, taking advantage of the snow, bad weather and lack of mobility the Afghans suffer then. NATO has helicopters and air power, and has increasingly used this edge during the Winter. This year, the Taliban have announced that they will try to keep many of their gunmen operating during the Winter. To do this, you have to use the roads, at least when they are free of snow. That is less of a problem in southern Afghanistan, which is less frigid and snowbound. The smart money is on NATO in this one, and the Afghan Taliban cannot afford yet another loss at this point.

The Pakistanis also recognize that defeating the Taliban is more a matter of symbols than body count. The tribes have several hundred thousand potential recruits along the Afghan border, but only a few percent of those have joined the Islamic radical groups (al Qaeda, Taliban and several others you don't hear the names of much). Many more tribesmen oppose the Taliban, but most of these are not willing to go to war in support of these views. While the pro-Taliban tribesmen believe they are on a Mission From God, the effort is getting discouraging. The national backlash to the Marriott Hotel bombing on September 20th was noted, as are the other defeats. The Taliban are generally unpopular in Pakistan. Yes, the few guys with guns and bad manners will attract the journalists, but in this part of the world, the majority with better manners have guns as well. And increasingly they have been using them to show their displeasure with the Islamic radicals.

News stories about Pakistani troops exchanging fore with NATO and U.S. helicopters at the border appear to be more stories than news. Many of the border guards (a force recruited from local tribes) are pro-Taliban, and quick to fire on aircraft and any armed men they were not familiar with. That's been going on for decades, and was the cause of tension with the Russians in the 1980s. Real violence between Pakistan and the United States is unlikely, because the U.S. is the major financial and military supplier of the government. Without U.S. support, the military upgrades and the economy tank. Religion is one thing, defense and economics are something else (that is more important to more Pakistanis). Meanwhile, the government makes the right noises about "defending Pakistan's borders" while doing nothing to actually interfere with American operations on both sides of the border.

Pakistani officials admit that the U.S. appears to have a good intelligence network in the tribal areas, at least when it comes to al Qaeda and foreign Islamic militants, but not so much about the Taliban. That's because the tribesmen are more willing to talk about foreigners in their midst, than cousins mixed up with the Taliban. Pakistani intelligence agencies have better sources inside the tribes, mainly because many of the intel operators are from the tribes, either by blood or marriage.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, has been brought to heel by the new government, with the appointment of a new director. In the past, the ISI has  refused to take orders from the government. How can this be? Simple, the ISI has, over the last three decades, become the effective tool of the government in dealing with troublemakers, and keeping top politicians informed on who is doing what to who. But the ISI is part of the military, and is full of Islamic conservatives, and men who sympathize with the Taliban and al Qaeda. The ISI has been willing to use those has files on the misbehavior of politicians and senior military men. But the ISI militants have been losing ground since September 11, 2001, as Islamic radicalism became more of a liability. The new director is an attempt to accelerate this process. But the Islamic conservatives are still a formidable bloc within the ISI, and things might get interesting.

Bombs, smaller ones, keep going off in the cities of the Pakistani tribal zones. Some of these are part of extortion efforts, to get businesses to pay their "taxes" to Islamic radicals, or just criminal gangs. There is some crossover between Islamic radicals and criminal gangs, and that becomes important because gangs can quickly drop the religious angle if that approach becomes a liability. But the extortion and violence continue, religion or not. Terrorist bombings  became a major terrorist weapon in Pakistan after the government shut down the Red Mosque, and its Islamic radical operations, in July 2007. Since then, 1,188 people have died from suicide bomb attacks. But over 75 percent of the dead were civilians, and, as has happened so often recently, the public has become very hostile to Islamic militants. And in all those other nations, this led to heavy losses for the Islamic militants, and crippling of their abilities.

In Kashmir, more Islamic terrorists are trying to get across the border from Pakistan before the Winter snows close the easiest routes. Indian troops, using better sensors (especially heat sensitive ones) are catching more of these infiltrators, and killing or capturing them. This means hundreds of trained (in Pakistan camps) terrorists are put out of action, and the number of active Islamic terrorists in Kashmir continues to shrink (along with the number of violent incidents).

September 27, 2008: An example of how the Taliban make themselves unpopular occurred recently in the suburbs of Peshawar (one of the major Pushtun cities along the Afghan border). There, a group of Taliban began kidnapping women who are caught in public without a veil, and demanding a "fine" of $210 to release them. A similar bit of extortion was practiced on the drivers of busses carrying unveiled women. The Taliban did not grab all unveiled women, just those from families able to pay the fine. It's scams like this that push many tribesmen over the edge, meaning they pick up their guns and go after the Taliban. This happened to the Taliban in Afghanistan a few years after they took over there in the 1990s. It's happening a lot more quickly in Pakistan.

September 24, 2008: The U.S., and several other Western countries, have urged their citizens to stay away from Pakistan, and it take care of their security if they do come.


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