Taliban rivals unite to fight US troop surge
Saeed Shah in Peshawar
Tuesday 3 March 2009
Taliban fighters have taken over the Swat valley, in the lawless
north-west of Pakistan, and have forced the government to impose
sharia law in the region.
Three rival Pakistani Taliban groups have agreed to form a united
front against international forces in Afghanistan in a move likely to
intensify the insurgency just as thousands of extra US soldiers begin
pouring into the country as part of Barack Obama's surge plan.
The Guardian has learned that three of the most powerful warlords in
the region have settled their differences and come together under a
grouping calling itself Shura Ittihad-ul-Mujahideen, or Council of
United Holy Warriors.
Nato officers fear that the new extremist partnership in Waziristan,
Pakistan's tribal area, will significantly increase the cross-border
influx of fighters and suicide bombers - a move that could undermine
the US president's Afghanistan strategy before it is formulated.
Saeed Shah on how the Taliban in Pakistan are being called to fight
Link to this audio
The unity among the militants comes after a call by Mullah Omar, the
cleric who leads the Afghan Taliban, telling Pakistani militants to
stop fighting at home in order to join the battle to "liberate
Afghanistan from the occupation forces".
The Pakistani Taliban movement was split between a powerful group led
by the warlord Baitullah Mehsud and his bitter rivals, Maulvi Nazir
and Gul Bahadur. While Mehsud has targeted Pakistan itself in a
campaign of violence and is accused of being behind the assassination
of the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Nazir and Bahadur sent
men to fight alongside other insurgents in Afghanistan.
The move potentially provides short-term relief in Pakistan but
imperils Nato forces, especially those stationed in southern and
eastern Afghanistan, including the British, close to the Pakistani
"It's of concern to us when we see a grouping like that," said a
western security official in Pakistan. "This can't be ignored."
Fears of an increase in fighting come as the International Committee
of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned yesterday that civilians would face
the brunt of any increase in violence in Afghanistan. Ordinary
Afghans were now more at risk from the fighting than at any time
since the start of the war in 2001, said Pierre Kraehenbuehl,
director of operations for the ICRC.
Violence in Afghanistan intensified last year with some 5,000 people
killed, including more than 2,100 civilians, a 40% increase on the
previous year, the UN reported last month.
Pakistan was already under intense western pressure to act against
extremists based in its tribal area. A western military adviser, also
based in Pakistan, said a Pakistani Taliban alliance would cement the
grip of the militants over Waziristan. The region is also home to
Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida, who use Waziristan and other parts of
the tribal area as a haven to regroup and launch attacks against
Afghan and Nato forces.
"No insurgency has ever been destroyed as long as the sanctuaries are
still alive. If the sanctuaries are gaining more strength, that
certainly worries Nato," said the military adviser.
The Obama administration in Washington has announced 17,000 extra
troops for Afghanistan. American forces will concentrate on areas
close to the Pakistani border, which are seen as the most
troublesome. Obama is pressing European countries to also boost their
In an apparent response to the augmented US challenge, Mullah Omar
has directed Pakistani militants in Waziristan to halt attacks on
Pakistani forces.Baitullah Mehsud is feared in Pakistan, having led
an assault on his own country since 2007, killing hundreds of
soldiers, policemen and ordinary Pakistanis through suicide attacks
and other bombings. But his tactics, influenced by al-Qaida, were
controversial even within the Taliban.
"If anybody really wants to wage jihad, he must fight the occupation
forces inside Afghanistan," Mullah Omar told Pakistani militants in a
letter. "Attacks on the Pakistani security forces and killing of
fellow Muslims by the militants in the tribal areas and elsewhere in
Pakistan is bringing a bad name to mujahideen and harming the war
against the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan."
The Pakistani Taliban recognise Mullah Omar, founder of the Taliban
movement in Afghanistan, as their ultimate leader, although
operationally they work independently.
"Baitullah Mehsud is now taking on the Americans," said Talat Masood,
a retired Pakistani general turned analyst. Baitullah Mehsud has
recently called off his fighters in two key battles inside Pakistan,
with ceasefires declared in Swat valley, in the North West Frontier
Province, and Bajaur, another tribal area. While Pakistani forces
claim to have "won" in Bajaur, they show no appetite for taking the
war to Waziristan.
Controversially, the Pakistani government has acceded to the
militants' demand for Islamic law in Swat. Under two secret peace
deals signed by Pakistani authorities with the militants last year,
covering north and south Waziristan, a truce exists there.
While western countries want to see the Pakistani army take the fight
to Waziristan, Pakistani forces have been repeatedly defeated there.
Major General Athar Abbas, chief spokesman for the Pakistan army,
said that there was "no plan" to start operations in Waziristan.
"It's the government that decides these things," he added.