LAHORE, Pakistan — UNITED STATES and British forces that launched their assault on Afghanistan this week can expect tough guerrilla resistance from a hard core of Taliban leaders who helped found the movement and continue to lead it. Osama bin Laden and his Arab forces, who have become part of the Taliban's decision-making process, now have an integrated military role in the Taliban resistance. Defections from the movement are likely to come from the nonideological "fellow travellers" among Pashtun commanders and tribal chiefs rather than the hard core.
For the past seven years a tight circle of some 30 young men has led the Taliban. A third have been killed in the bitter fighting in northern Afghanistan since the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, but the rest have always remained close friends, comrades-in-arms who are loyal to their leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Originally from two southern provinces, Kandahar and Urozgan, most were too young to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. Their battle experience and comradeship stems instead from the 1989-92 mujahideen war against the communist government that the Soviets left behind. “After the Soviets left we fought the communist regime of Najibullah, and after his fall we went home or to study in madrassas [Islamic schools] in Pakistan,” Mullah Mohammed Hassan, the one-legged governor of Kandahar, told the Review in an interview in 1997. “We all knew each other because we came from the same region, had fought together and attended the same madrassas.”
Pervasive presence of outsiders
The loyalty of these men to each other is profound, and they have rarely disagreed with Omar, even though privately several complain about the pervasive presence of bin Laden’s Arab associates. Today they occupy all the top positions in the Kabul government, the army, the much-feared religious police and in the provinces. This close-knit group has never attempted to broaden the base of the Supreme Shura, or Islamic council, in Kandahar by including leaders who joined the Taliban later or were conquered by it. Ninety percent of the Supreme Shura, presided over by Omar, is drawn from the same original “Kandahari” group of Pashtuns and includes no prominent leaders of minority ethnic groups or even Pashtuns from other regions.
A coup against Omar by anyone from this Kandahari group, such as Mullah Mohammed Hassan Akhund, the present head of the Kabul government and second-ranking Taliban leader, is highly improbable. “They will live and die together and they will not betray each other,” says an Afghan intellectual in Peshawar.
The “moderate” wing of the Taliban has emerged from later recruits to the movement—clan chiefs, commanders and traders who joined the winning side as the Taliban completed its rush of victories in the southern Pashtun belt between 1994 and 1996. Today some of these figures occupy the second rung of top positions in Kabul, governorships in the provinces and commanders on the front. Many of them dislike the presence of the Arabs and have tried unsuccessfully to persuade Omar to create a more modern system of governance in Kabul, which would be more responsive to people’s needs. But Omar has resisted because such steps could dilute the Kandahari group’s power.
Moreover, since the death in April of the Taliban’s second-most powerful man, Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, the moderates have no leader. Rabbani, who died from cancer, was a founding member of the Taliban and became head of the Kabul government. He had developed differences with Omar, particularly over the influence of the Arabs and the need to establish a proper consultative government mechanism. Rabbani’s power base was in the eastern city of Jalalabad and he was not dependent on the Kandahari group for political support.
Rabbani’s death left a leadership void for the moderates, which some Western analysts have hoped could be filled by Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil—the public face of the Taliban since 1999. But Muttawakil, who studied with Omar at the same madrasah and began his political career as Omar’s driver, food taster, translator and note taker, has always depended on Omar for support and has no tribal power base. Muttawakil is the closest to being a Taliban technocrat, but he will never cross Omar.
Attempts now under way by Pashtun tribal leaders loyal to former King Zahir Shah to create a split in the Taliban are focusing not on the Kandahari group, but on the fellow travellers who dislike the influence wielded by the Arabs and are not prepared to hold the Afghan nation hostage for bin Laden.
Bin Laden has been the centre of a controversy within the Taliban for several years, even as his influence has grown. After leaving Sudan in May 1996, he returned to the Jalalabad region in eastern Afghanistan and was introduced to the Taliban in September after it captured Kabul. Retired military officers and Islamic parties played a critical role in ensuring that the Taliban and bin Laden worked together, to ensure that training camps in eastern Afghanistan for Pakistani and Kashmiri militants could be maintained.
Bin Laden quickly ingratiated himself with Omar, building a new bomb-proof house and mosque for Omar in Kandahar and training his bodyguards. He then began to fund Taliban military campaigns and the building of roads and wireless facilities, and recruited some 3,000 Arabs who now fight for the Taliban. He set up business ventures with the Taliban, which included the smuggling of consumer goods from Dubai and Pakistan and drugs trafficking from Afghanistan.
He has built underground bunkers for himself and the Taliban leadership and is said to be deeply involved in planning Taliban military strategy. “Bin Laden is now the virtual defence minister of the Taliban,” says Hamid Karzai, an Afghan tribal chief who is trying to organize a pro-king revolt against the Taliban.
But bin Laden’s most enduring contribution has been the radicalizing of the Taliban leadership through his vision of a global jihad against the United States. The Taliban never articulated a foreign policy before 1997, nor did they see themselves as a model for the Islamic world. Bin Laden introduced Omar to the wider world of Islamic radicalism by flattering him and calling him the Emir, or leader, of the whole Muslim world, who had created the purest Islamic state in the world.
It was bin Laden’s influence, according to Western humanitarian-aid workers, that persuaded Omar to take on United Nations relief agencies in a string of vitriolic incidents, which since 1998 have made the international humanitarian task in Afghanistan much more difficult. More recently bin Laden is suspected of playing a major role in influencing the Taliban’s decisions to destroy the ancient Buddha statues of Bamiyan, to force all Western journalists out of the country and to create security hazards aimed at forcing aid workers to leave. Days before the September 11 terrorist attacks, bin Laden is suspected of having organized the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masud, the Taliban’s worst enemy and leader of the anti-Taliban United Front, or Northern Alliance.
In the present crisis, bin Laden’s flattery of Omar has reached new heights. “We are firm on the road of jihad for the sake of God inspired by His Prophet and with the heroic faithful Afghan people under the leadership of the Emir of the faithful Mullah Mohammed Omar and to make him triumph over the infidel forces,” bin Laden told Qatar’s al-Jazeera television in a faxed message on September 23.
In turn, Omar’s ultimatum to the U.S. had little to do with his country or the plight of his people, but instead echoes bin Laden’s own message. “If America wants to end terrorism it should withdraw its forces from the Gulf and end its partiality on the Palestinian issue, “ he said in a speech on Radio Sharia on September 25.
The two leaders have now merged in a symbiotic relationship and a single voice. “America has created the evil that is attacking it,” Omar told Voice of America radio on September 23. “The evil will not disappear even if I die and Osama dies and others die,” he added. In death as in life they will be together.