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Signs of Strain as Taliban Gird for More Fighting
By CARLOTTA GALL
Published: March 30, 2011
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan Taliban are showing signs of increasing strain after a number of killings, arrests and internal disputes that have reached them even in their haven in Pakistan, Afghan security officials and Afghans with contacts in the Taliban say.
Three powerful Taliban commanders were killed in Quetta, and a fourth in Chaman in February and March. A traffic jam in Pakistan between Chaman and Quetta.
The killings, coming just as the insurgents are mobilizing for the new fighting season in Afghanistan, have unnerved many in the Taliban and have spread a climate of paranoia and distrust within the insurgent movement, the Afghans said.
Three powerful Taliban commanders were killed in February in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, well known to be the command center of the Taliban leadership, according to an Afghan businessman and a mujahedeen commander from the region with links to the Taliban. A fourth commander, a former Taliban minister, was wounded in the border town of Chaman in March, in a widely reported shooting.
There have also been several arrests in Pakistan of senior Taliban commanders, including those from Zabul and Kabul Provinces, and the shadow governor of Herat, Afghan officials said. Mullah Agha Muhammad, a brother of Mullah Baradar, the former second in command of the Taliban who was arrested by Pakistan security forces over a year ago to stop him negotiating with the Afghan government, was also detained briefly to send out the same warning, said the chief of the Afghan border police in Kandahar, Col. Abdul Razziq.
While the arrests have been conducted by Pakistan security forces, no one seems to know for sure who is behind the killings. Members of the Taliban attribute them to American spies, running Pakistani and Afghan agents, in an extension of the American campaigns that have used night raids to track down and kill scores of midlevel Taliban commanders in Afghanistan and drone strikes to kill militants with links to Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Others, including Pakistani and Afghan Parliament members from the region, say that the Pakistani intelligence agencies have long used threats, arrests and killings to control the Taliban and that they could be doing so again to maintain their influence over the insurgents.
Afghan officials in Kabul denied any involvement in attacks on the Taliban inside Pakistan, as did American and NATO military officials. “We’ve heard of infighting that reportedly has led to internal violence at several points in recent months,” one senior American military official said of the Taliban, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of discussing events in Pakistan. Military forces were not involved, he added.
Whatever the case, Taliban commanders and fighters, who used to be a common sight in parts of Quetta, have now gone underground and are not moving around openly as before. Two members of the Taliban, including a senior official, declined to talk about the issue of killings on the telephone, saying it was too dangerous. Many will not answer their phones at all.
The Taliban have been under stress since American forces doubled their presence in southern Afghanistan last year and greatly increased the number of special forces raids targeting Taliban commanders. Yet they still control a number of remote districts and in those areas the insurgents can still muster forces to storm government positions, as demonstrated by their capture of a district in Afghanistan’s eastern Nuristan Province this week.
While there is still some debate over the insurgents’ overall strength, Pakistanis with deep knowledge of the Afghan Taliban say that they have suffered heavy losses in the last year and that they are struggling in some areas to continue the fight.
“The Afghan Taliban have, I think, run into problems,” said Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani interior minister who served as ambassador in Afghanistan after 2001 and as a peace negotiator with the Taliban.
“So many of them have been killed in the last one to one and a half years as a consequence of targeted assassinations,” he said in an interview. “That has depleted the strength, capacity and ability of the Taliban.” Commanders were without communications and resources and were struggling to find recruits to replace those killed, he said.
One Taliban commander from Kunar Province said losses had been so high that he was considering going over to the side of the Afghan government in order to get assistance for his beleaguered community. “This does not mean the Taliban will stop fighting, but maybe it will be at a reduced level,” Mr. Mohmand said.