Tale­ban lead­ers may have ‘re­lo­cated’ to Afghanistan Shift from Pak­istan sig­nal group’s grow­ing con­fi­dence

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Af­ter op­er­at­ing out of Pak­istan for more than a decade, the lead­ers of Afghanistan’s Tale­ban move­ment may have moved back to their home­land to try to build on this year’s gains in the war and to es­tab­lish a per­ma­nent pres­ence.

If con­firmed, the move would be a sign of the Tale­ban’s con­fi­dence in their fight against the USbacked govern­ment in Kabul. It could also be an at­tempt by the mil­i­tants to dis­tance them­selves from Pak­istan, which is ac­cused of sup­port­ing the move­ment. The Tale­ban’s lead­ers have been based in Pak­istani cities, in­clud­ing Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar, since their rule in Afghanistan was over­thrown in the 2001 US in­va­sion af­ter the 9/11 at­tacks.

Tale­ban spokesman Zabi­hul­lah Mu­jahid said the lead­er­ship shura, or coun­cil, re­lo­cated to Afghanistan “some months ago,” although he would not say to where.

One Tale­ban of­fi­cial said the shura had moved to south­ern Hel­mand prov­ince, which the in­sur­gents con­sider to be part of their heart­land and where most of the opium that funds their op­er­a­tions is pro­duced. The of­fi­cial re­fused to be iden­ti­fied be­cause of se­cu­rity rea­sons.

Other Tale­ban sources said the jus­tice, re­cruit­ment and re­li­gious coun­cils had also moved to south­ern Afghanistan. The state­ments could not be in­de­pen­dently con­firmed. Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani’s of­fice said it had no con­fir­ma­tion that any such move had taken place.

“No in­tel­li­gence con­firms that the Tal­iban has shifted its shura to Afghanistan,” said Ha­roon Chakhansuri, Ghani’s spokesman. “We still be­lieve they are still op­er­at­ing in their safe havens out­side Afghanistan.” Mu­jahid, how­ever, said Kabul of­fi­cials were aware of the moves, prompted by bat­tle­field gains that the in­sur­gents be­lieved would put them in a strong po­si­tion once talks with the Afghan govern­ment aimed at end­ing the war were restarted. Di­a­logue broke down ear­lier this year.

The in­sur­gents have spread their foot­print across Afghanistan since in­ter­na­tional com­bat troops scaled down in 2014. They have main­tained mul­ti­ple of­fen­sives and threat­ened at least three pro­vin­cial cap­i­tals in re­cent months: Kun­duz, in north­ern Kun­duz prov­ince; Lashkah Gar, in Hel­mand in the south; and Tirin Kot in Uruz­gan.

The US mil­i­tary has con­ceded the in­sur­gents have gained ground, although de­fin­i­tive break­downs are dif­fi­cult to ver­ify. This year, Afghan se­cu­rity forces are be­lieved to have suf­fered their worst losses since 2001, with the mil­i­tary es­ti­mat­ing 2016 fa­tal­i­ties at more than 5,000 so far.

A per­ma­nent Tal­iban pres­ence in Afghanistan would send a mes­sage to fol­low­ers and fight­ers that the in­sur­gents now con­trol so much ter­ri­tory they can no longer be dis­lodged by govern­ment se­cu­rity forces, said Franz-Michael Mell­bin, the Euro­pean Union’s am­bas­sador in Kabul. He said he has not con­firmed the re­ports, which have cir­cu­lated for weeks. But such a move could also be part of “the Tale­ban’s at­tempt to try to cre­ate a more in­de­pen­dent po­si­tion,” he said, as “parts of the Tale­ban would like to be un­der less di­rect pres­sure from Pak­istan.”

Ghani has failed to make head­way in ef­forts to fully en­gage Pak­istan in cut­ting sup­port for the Tale­ban and bring­ing them into a di­a­logue aimed at peace. Af­ter a year-long diplo­matic of­fen­sive, Ghani in late 2015 cut ties with Islamabad and has since openly ac­cused Pak­istan of wag­ing war on Afghanistan, us­ing the Tale­ban as its proxy.

Pak­istani au­thor­i­ties deny ac­cu­sa­tions that their pow­er­ful ISI in­tel­li­gence agency sup­ports the in­sur­gents. With the ma­jor coun­cils based in Afghanistan, Pak­istan’s role could be re­duced at a time when the Islamabad govern­ment is un­der pres­sure from the United States and ma­jor ally China to rein in what many see as its ter­ror­ist-sup­port­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

Unity among lead­ers

If the move is con­firmed, it could also in­di­cate a unity among lead­ers, who have re­cently been por­trayed by some ob­servers, in­clud­ing the US mil­i­tary, as suf­fer­ing widen­ing di­vi­sions and strug­gling for cash - even though the opium pro­duc­tion un­der their con­trol has an an­nual ex­port value of $4 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the UN Of­fice on Drugs and Crime.

The Tale­ban’s lead­er­ship shura con­sists of 16 elected of­fi­cials who over­see ac­tiv­ity across Afghanistan, give per­mis­sion for any changes in plan­ning and strat­egy, and me­di­ate dis­putes among mil­i­tary com­man­ders. The mil­i­tary com­man­ders in­clude Mul­lah Yaqoub, the son of the move­ment’s founder, Mul­lah Mo­ham­mad Omar who was de­clared dead last year - and Si­ra­jud­din Haqqani, leader of the bru­tal Haqqani net­work and a co-deputy leader with Yaqoub. — AP

HERAT: Tale­ban fight­ers re­act to a speech by their se­nior leader in the Shin­dand district of Herat prov­ince, Afghanistan, in this file photo. — AP

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