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Afghan Maoists: On the military situation of the Taleban and other Islamic anti-government forces
1 December 2008. A World to Win News Service. Following are edited excerpts from issue no. 19 (July 2008) of Shola Jawid, organ of the Communist (Maoist) Party of Afghanistan. The explanations in parentheses are by AWTWNS.
The Taleban made little use of guerrilla methods in their war against the "Islamic Interim State of Afghanistan" headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Massood (the warlord regime that came to power after the fall of the pro-Soviet regime in 1992 and eventually fell to the Taleban in 1996). For the most part their offensives took the form of conventional warfare.
In their initial confrontation with the U.S. and UK (after the October 2001 invasion), they used the same methods and suffered heavy losses. After two months of putting up more resistance than the invaders expected, they quickly retreated from the regions under their control. At that time they were unable to reorganise their forces to fight guerrilla warfare and continue fighting in the villages or mountains. In addition to these organisational and military questions, other major factors behind their inability to sustain the fighting were the lack of mass support and low morale in their own ranks due to the general assumption that it was impossible to resist the superior military forces led by the U.S. This defeat caused a relatively large section of the Taleban forces to defect and join the puppet regime.
The Taleban did not mount significant military operations between that time and the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq in 2003. The beginning of resistance in Iraq brought with it scattered guerrilla resistance by the Taleban and the growing activities by the (historically and organisationally distinct) Pakistani Taleban and Arab and non-Arab groups related to Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The widespread movement in the Western countries against the U.S. and UK invasion and occupation of Iraq increasingly turned its attention to the Afghanistan situation too. Previously the occupation of Afghanistan was not a big issue in these protests, in comparison with the war in Iraq. Further, the Iraq war widened the cracks among the imperialists, in particular between the U.S. and Russia, and somewhat intensified their contradictions. Moreover, the Taleban were able to gain manoeuvring room because of U.S. threats against Iran, on the one hand, and on the other Pakistan's alarm at the increasingly close relations between the U.S. and India, which Islamabad considers a threat to Pakistan's security and even to its existence. These factors created new conditions for cooperation between the Taleban and certain political forces and sections of the ruling classes in Iran and Pakistan.
However, the most important factor in sparking the revival of the Taleban was the consequences of the imperialist occupation and the rule of the regime they installed. This is the main reason why by 2006 the Taleban were strengthened to the point of becoming a relatively large force with bases in much of the country. In particular, the failure of the imperialists' reactionary reconstruction efforts in the political, economical, cultural and social spheres greatly helped the once-defeated and hated Taleban to regain influence among the masses and extend their military activities.
The Taleban made the most of the masses' increasing discontent with the occupiers and their puppet regime. Partly by relying on the masses in certain regions and with direct and indirect foreign support, they were able to give a more organised form to their scattered activities against the regime and the occupation armies, and win over new forces as well.
A report by the county's main security agency (the General Supervision of National Security) given to the regime's parliament largely reflects the intensification and expansion of Taleban military activities. The total number of Taleban operations recorded by this agency are as follows:
In 1383 (20 March 2004-20 March 2005) 1,466 actions
In 1384 (21 March 2005-20 March 2006) 1,796 actions
In 1385 (21 March 2006-20 March 2007) 3,012 actions
In 1386 (21 March 2007-20 March 2008) 4,118 actions
These figures include ambushes and assaults, sabotage, kidnappings, suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks, but not all Taleban military operations. For example, they do not include the numerous cases where, without fighting, the Taleban have seized villages briefly or even for a longer time. These operations are very important for the Taleban. When the regime loses control over these villages, the Taleban can enforce their own rules. They close girls' schools and establish their version of the Sharia (religious) justice system, impose Islamic taxes and collect donations. They also take over the security of poppy-growing farms, heroin production and drug trafficking. They have more freedom to run their religious schools and recruit from the people.
The Taleban recruiting methods are simple. They invite the inhabitants to join the jihad (holy war) against the kafir (infidels). They arm these volunteers and organise them into their ranks. In regions where they have more stable control, they demand that every certain number of families (for example 20) offer one person as a fighter, or that they pay the annual living expenses for one soldier. This kind of primitive recruiting has made it easy for spies and informers to infiltrate their ranks. The secret services have used the information they obtained in this way to inflict serious blows on the Taleban, including killing some of their leading commanders. But instead of changing their recruiting methods, the Taleban have tried to prevent infiltration by brutally punishing any spies and informers they can catch. Often this means beheading. Such terror has produced some results and seems to have hindered infiltration somewhat, but it has not been very effective. Moreover, it has given rise to so much discontent among the masses that recently Mullah Omar (the Taleban leader) ordered a halt to beheadings.
Taleban fighting tactics
The Taleban base their military tactics on the experiences of Afghanistan's previous wars, and, additionally, the methods used by Al Qaeda in Iraq. The operational methods used to occupy villages and districts are basically the same as during the war against the Soviet occupation. Suicide operations, however, were unknown in Afghanistan until recently. It is said the initial training for suicide attacks in Afghanistan took place in Iraq. The main Taleban guerrilla operations in urban areas are suicide bombings. The 27 April attack in Kabul that forced the Hamid Karzai government to cancel its celebrations (of the victory against the Soviet Union) in the capital and elsewhere – an operation with worldwide political impact – was meant to be a suicide attack. The regime is in such crisis that the members of its security forces ran way when the shooting started, so the attackers did not find it necessary to detonate their bombs and got away alive after their successful operation.
The Taleban fighters have no air defence weapons. Their arms and equipment come from three sources: the material remaining from their years in power, and that which they get from Iran and Pakistan. Certain sections of the ruling powers in these two countries support them to a certain degree. In addition, the Taleban have developed an almost nation-wide network for buying arms and ammunition. This is the only Taleban activity that is not limited to Pashtun areas.
It is impossible to have an opinion on the exact number of Taleban fighters. The occupiers and regime put their numbers at 15,000 – 20,000, but these statistics are far from reliable. The Taleban themselves have not put out figures, and in fact it is likely that they themselves do not have an accurate count. This is because most of their fighters are not permanent. Even their full-time fighters are not organised separately into a regular army. Many fighters are either part time or enlist for a limited time frame (often defined by harvests). Despite their relatively broad international connections, the Taleban and their fighting forces have mainly kept their tribal character. This is an impediment to combining their forces into a single army.
The Taleban suffer from an incurable limitation: they are known as the most violently Pashtun chauvinist organisation in Afghanistan. (At roughly 42 percent of the population, the Pashtun are not only by far the single biggest ethnic group but historically the country's oppressor nationality – Afghanistan means "land of the Pashtuns" in Farsi.) During their "Islamic Emirate", they acted with an extraordinary ruthlessness and brutality against non-Pashtun people. They harshly suppressed the people in general in non-Pastun regions and non-Pashtuns in the mixed areas in the north. In the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif they waged a brutal war of ethnic cleansing. That is why the Taleban forces are almost entirely Pashtun. In addition to the country's south and east, where Pashtun are the majority, they are also active in Pashtun minority regions in the west and north.
Many of the anti-Soviet jihadis and the formerly pro-Soviet militias who quickly capitulated to the U.S. claimed that these new invaders offered a ray of hope to save the country from the Pashtun-chauvinist Taleban. They continue to do so today. This factor played an important role in spreading capitulationism among the non-Pashtun nationalities. Over the years of occupation this "ray of hope" has lost much credibility, but the Taleban are still unable to exert much influence among the non-Pashtun nationalities. The Taleban themselves are aware of this limitation and that is why they do not make much effort to recruit from them.
The Pakistani Taleban have also emerged as an important force, able to carry out significant military operations over a wide area. But in Pakistan, too, they are a single-nationality movement, active only in Pashtun areas and mainly among the tribal areas. The Pakistani Taleban have played an important role in strengthening the Taleban movement as a whole and participated extensively in the war in Afghanistan. In some cases their actions have gotten more attention than their Afghan counterparts. For example, most of the suicide attacks attributed in Afghanistan are carried out by Pakistani Taleban. The Pakistani Taleban areas serve as a secure rear area for Afghan Taleban, where they can rest, train and satisfy logistical needs.
On other Islamist forces
Among other Islamist forces that fight the occupiers and the regime is the Hezb-e Islami, the Islamic Party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (The prime minister of the Islamic regime established after the departure of the Soviet army, Hekmatyar's faction played a key role in reducing Kabul to rubble during the subsequent civil war among the former jihadis.) Like the Taleban, Hekmatyar's party is limited to the Pashtun heartland and Pashtun minority areas. The Islamic Party used to be multi-national, but after the occupation nearly all its non-Pashtun components joined the Karazi regime.
Where the Taleban are strong, the Islamic Party works through them. In fact, the Taleban do not allow anyone else to carry out independent activities. Where the party is stronger than the Taleban, they do mount their own military activities. For instance, it is widely believed that the Islamic Party and associated organisations are behind many of the operations in Ghazni (a province in east-central Afghanistan) .
Hekmatyar has some backing among fundamentalist circles in Pakistan and certain circles in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Militarily his forces today tend to follow the same model they employed during the war against the Soviet occupation – a war of attrition focused on planting mines, and rocket, artillery and sniper attacks from a distance. They do not carry out suicide operations.
A few words on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan: despite the dramatic presence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it seems that the main Al-Qaeda bases are still in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, this presence has diminished. In the last few years, due to the intense contradiction between the Parvez Musharraf regime and Al-Qaeda, heavy blows were inflicted on the Al-Qaeda organisation in Pakistan. Nearly a thousand of its leaders and cadres in Pakistan have been killed or arrested and handed over to U.S. officials.
In any case, while it is impossible to exactly determine the number of Al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, considering the number of their causalities and arrests over the last few years, it seems that they are much less numerous than the Taleban and do not dominate the fundamentalist opposition overall. However, their presence in Afghanistan is still relatively effective.
As we can see, in general the Islamist forces monopolise the military resistance to the occupiers and the puppet regime. Both in the country and abroad, this military resistance is considered Islamist and basically Taleban. In other words, revolutionary military forces are not present on the battlefield. Experience shows that if this continues to be the case, the Islamic and Taleban colouring of the resistance will only get stronger. At a certain point, it is possible that the grounds for the presence of the revolutionary armed forces in the battlefield will disappear and the whole revolutionary movement and communist movement will be marginalized, unable to assert an effective influence on the country's political scene for years and years to come.
It is absolutely clear that there are certain objective and subjective factors that make it potentially possible for revolutionary military forces to enter the battlefield against the occupiers and the regime. However, these potentially favourable objective and subjective
elements will not flourish automatically. Emerging from the present unfavourable situation would require hard and tireless work by the whole party and advanced masses. We are well aware that without such a turn, we will not be able to play a significant positive role in changing the country's political situation. Only by launching and successfully advancing a revolutionary people's national resistance war against the occupiers and the puppet regime will we be able to wage an effective ideological and political struggle against the enemies of the revolution and position ourselves to provide the practical revolutionary leadership on the whole war of resistance and lead this war to the victorious path of new democratic revolution