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USA's Afghan Ops: critical analysis VIII

paper367                                                        26.11.2001


by B.Raman

The conflicting reports emanating from Kunduz, despite the United Front's (the Northern Alliance) claims of occupying it or on the verge of doing so, highlight the various forces which are in operation in Afghanistan and which, not infrequently, keep treading upon each other's toes.  Amongst these forces are:

* The Afghan Pashtun component of the Taliban, who are in a minority in the Taliban and who seem to be amenable to offers from the United Front for a compromise and surrender, not only in Kunduz, but also in other pockets of Taliban resistance, which still exist in Northern and Eastern Afghanistan, contrary to the claims of the United Front that the Taliban has been wiped out all over the North except in Kunduz and adjoining territory.

* The foreign component of the Taliban consisting of Pakistanis belonging to various religious organisations and serving and retired members of Pakistan's military-intelligence establishment; the Arabs of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda, the Chechen, Uzbek and Tajik fundamentalist elements from the Chechnya region of Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan respectively; and a small number of terrorists from the southern Philippines, mainly belonging to the Abu Sayyaf group, Bangladesh and Myanmar.  The Pakistani extremist elements---including a large component from the Binori madrasa of Karachi--- belong to the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), the Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammedi (TNSM). While the HUM, the LET and the JEM were and continue to be supported by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for operations in India's Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) as well as in support of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the SSP was sponsored by Pakistan's military-intelligence establishment after the success of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 to counter the activities of the Shia organisations of Pakistan, including in the Pakistan-occupied Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan).  The TNSM, headed by Mufti Soofi Mohammed, is a fundamentalist organisation from the tribal areas adjoining the Afghan border, with a large percentage of ex-servicemen in its membership.  The Mufti himself has been ostensibly jailed by the Pakistani authorities while returning to Pakistan from Afghanistan, but he has been allowed to meet and issue directions to his followers fighting in the ranks of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

* Ex-servicemen and retired ISI officers guided by a brains trust headed by Lt.Gen. (retd) Hamid Gul and Lt.Gen.(retd)Javed Nasir, former Directors-General of the ISI.

* Serving officers of the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, who are controlled and guided by Gen.Mohammad Aziz, the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the clandestine head of Pakistan's Army of Islam, consisting of the Al Qaeda, the HUM,the LET, the JEM and the Al Badr.

* The Afghan  Uzbek component of the United Front headed by Gen.Abdul Rashid Dostum,the Afghan Tajik component of the Front headed by Gen. Mohammad Faheem, the successor of the late Ahmed Shah Masood, and the Afghan Shia  component of the Front headed by Karim Khalili.  Dostum has had a long history of contacts with the intelligence agencies of the USA, Turkey, Uzbekistan  and Pakistan; Faheem with the intelligence agencies of the erstwhile USSR, Russia and Tajikistan; and Khalili with the intelligence agencies of Iran.  There are strong reasons to believe that these contacts continue and have been coming in the way of unity of action by the United Front.

* The USA's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which reportedly attaches greater importance to the co-operation with the United Front than to that with Pakistan's intelligence establishment, and is distrustful  of the ISI.  This has been particularly so since the capture and execution of Abdul Haq,  the CIA's mole in the Pashtun community, by the Taliban in October.

* The USA's Central Command and the Pentagon's Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), who find themselves caught in a dilemma between the need to wipe out the multi-national terrorist network headed by bin Laden operating from Afghanistan and that to protect and strengthen the position of Gen.Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's self-reinstated Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), self-styled Chief Executive and self-promoted President, in order to enable him to counter the fundamentalist elements at home.  They initially put all their operational eggs in the Musharraf basket; then started supporting the United Front much more vigorously than in the beginning when they realised that Musharraf as the frontline ally was not leading them anywhere on the ground; and then let the sensitivities and ostensible concerns of Musharraf over the destabilising effect in Pakistan of large-scale Pakistani casualties in Kunduz distort their operational decisions.

* The State Department, which seems to have veered away from the basic aim of the operation of wiping out terrorism.  As a result, instead of being a war against international terrorism as it was originally intended to be, it has come to be projected as a war to restore political stability in Afghanistan. Consequently, the operational requirements of no-holds-barred counter-terrorism have been moderated  by the realpolitik requirements of a political solution.

* The UK and other European allies, whose rhetoric has been high, but ground actions have been reduced to shadow-boxing.  Like the US State Department, they too have focussed more on the realpolitik than on the operational requirements.

The conflicting pulls and pressures of these forces have been compounded by the individual agenda of the components of the international coalition headed by the US as seen from:


The Russian anxiety to use the Afghan Tajik component to neutralise the Chechens in Kunduz.

* Uzbekistan's interest in using the Afghan Uzbek component to wipe out the Uzbek fundamentalists.

* Tajikistan's eagerness to use the Afghan Tajik component to neutralise the threats to its security.

* Iran's interest in strengthening the influence of the Shias and checkmating that of the USA and Turkey.

* Pakistan's interest in airlifting its nationals, particularly the serving and retired officers of its military-intelligence establishment, out of Kunduz so that they could live to fight another day in India's J & K as well as in Afghanistan.

* The CIA's interest in capturing or eliminating all foreign terrorists, whatever be their nationality, in order to prevent them from contributing to an September 11 encore.

* The Pentagon and the DIA's adherence to the same objective, but moderated by the anxiety not to add to the difficulties of Musharraf.

* The European allies' eagerness for an early political solution possibly with an eye on the contracts which could flow to their business firms if and when the reconstruction starts.

As a result of these conflicting forces and agendas, the battle for Kunduz has been messy and has not produced as conclusive a result as one would have hoped for.  There is still considerable confusion regarding the number of Taliban and foreign troops, who were present  in the town, the composition of the foreigners, the number of those surrendered, captured and killed and of those who managed to escape and where have they gone.


 The Kunduz battle was important because there was authentic information that many hard-core members of the Al Qaeda, though not the office-bearers themselves, and of the International Islamic Front For Jehad against the US and Israel, such as the leaders of the non-Arab components of the Front, had taken shelter there after withdrawing from Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul.

When the Taliban and the foreign terrorists withdrew from Mazar and Kabul, part of them went southwards towards Jalalabad and  Kandahar and the remaining fortified themselves in Kunduz near the Tajikistan border.  They went to Kunduz because it is the only town in Northern Afghanistan with a sizeable Pashtun population and were hence hopeful of support from the local population.

It would be reasonable to infer that among those who took shelter in Kunduz there would have been at least some with possible knowledge of the identities of the surviving members of the plot to launch the September 11 terrorist strikes in the US, the Al Qaeda's future plans and its capability for the use of weapons of mass destruction.

The inept handling of the Kunduz siege and the success of Pakistan's military-intelligence establishment in taking advantage of the confusion to airlift its serving and retired officers serving with the Taliban have deprived the United Front and the international coalition of an operational bonanza.  The sequel of this inept handling  could retard further the achievement of the operational aims of the coalition. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-Mail: )