By Manzar Zaidi
Feb 3, 2014
When the Americans became aloof from Afghanistan after the defeat of soviets, losing all interest in the region, the face of the Af-Pak region changed forever. This made the Arabs in Afghanistan and the extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan as the new regional actors. This was the beginning of the new Afghan Jihad, which would lay the seeds of regional insecurity in the region for years to come. In the Jihad, only the most extremist parties were supported by American cash, such as Gulbuddin Hikmetyar’s Hizb-e-Islami party. The Mujahideen soon started a bloody internecine war which would tear Afghanistan apart; Hikmetyar was bitterly opposed by Ahmad Shah Masud, who had become defense minister in Kabul under Rabbani, who had followed Mujaddedi as president. Ethnic rivalries between Tajiks, Pashtuns and hazards soon started coming to the forefront, with he eruption of a bloody civil war between the warlords; Kabul was heavily shield by Hikmetyar against the solidly entrenched Masud, in January 1993 which caused huge casualties on both sides and on the civilian population. By 1994, the country became a set of principalities, with Rabbani as the president holding only Kabul and the northeast of the country, while the west particularly Herat, was controlled by Ismael Khan. Six Northern provinces were administered by the Uzbek general Rashid Dostum, and central Afghanistan was in the hands of the Hazaras. The predominantly Pashtun south presented an even more chaotic picture; there was one large fiefdom in Jalalabad, a small area adjacent to Kabul controlled by Hikmetyar; and numerous commanders ruled the south with impunity. The emergence of Taliban in madrassahs of Pakistan was a consequence of this anarchy, with the nomination of Mullah Omar as their spiritual leader signifying their resolve to enforce minimalist agenda short term agendas. The Taliban soon became permanent players in Afghan power politics by seizing Kandahar in 1994, Herat in 1995 and Kabul in 1996, with many Pashtun warlords surrendering voluntarily to them. They faced stiff resistance eventually, when in May 1997, they were routed at Mazar-e-Sharif. The Taliban had by then dispensed with attempts to win over public opinion by calling Loya Jirgas, and had become absolutist in disposition, with their own dogmatic strain of Sharia evoking popular sentiment against them. This harsh ideology also provided an overarching umbrella for Al Qaeda’s affiliation and permeation within ten ranks of the Talibs, with the conflict becoming an ethnic blood feud between the Pashtuns and the non-Pashtuns of Masud’s Northern Alliance (NA), also called the United Front. Masud relied mainly on Tajiks drawn from Panjsher valley , but also commanded the support of Herat’s Ismael Khan, the Hazara commanders in central Afghanistan, and Gen. Rashid Dostum, the commander of Uzbek forces in northern Afghanistan. When Taliban captured Mazar e Sharif in 1996, they had gained control of most of the country, with the northern alliance squeezed into a small area in northeastern Afghanistan and around Kabul. By 1996 Bin Laden had already established himself as a threat to the Americans, with his continued logistical, financial and human resource support to the Taliban ingratiating him greatly towards them. This ‘Afghan Arab’ presence resulted in the formation of Al Qaeda, which was given control of Taliban training camps in eastern Afghanistan. Not coincidentally, concomitant with this growing affiliation with Al Qaeda, global Jihadist ideals began to permeate the ranks of the Taliban. It has been estimated that between the time period of 1996 and 2001, al Qaeda training camps churned out an estimated thirty thousand militants from around the world.
On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda launched its first attacks on the Americans by bombing its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and wounding nearly 5,000. Barely a day later, the Taliban annexed the bastion of Mazar-e-Sharif and much of northern Afghanistan, massacring more than four thousand Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. America retaliated by launching seventy-five cruise missiles on Al Qaeda controlled training camps in eastern Afghanistan. They also tried to get Bin Laden handed over by exerting diplomatic pressure on the Taliban government. By this time Al Qaeda had organized Arab and North African fighters into a special unit called Brigade 555, which acted as a reserve offensive force in the Taliban’s campaign against Northern alliance; the organization also enlisted the support of extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Chechen fighters from the breakaway republic of Chechnya, and Uighur Muslims from China’s eastern province of Xinjiang. On October 12, 2000 Al Qaeda attempted to sink the American destroyer USS Cole in Aden by a suicide attack, killing seventeen U.S. sailors and wounding thirty-nine others.
United States attempted another form of international pressure in the form of UN resolutions, such as the 1999 UN Security Council Resolution 1267, which demanded extradition of Bin Laden and guarantees for not providing sanctuary to terrorists from the Taliban state of Afghanistan. The December 2000 UN Resolution 1333 asked for an arms ban on the Taliban and closure of training camps, besides asking for seizure of their foreign assets. Another resolution was passed on July 30, 2001, Security Council Resolution 1363, which put a monitoring system in place along Afghanistan’s borders to ensure a UN administered arms embargo. All these resolutions came to naught. In retaliation, the Taliban destroyed the two giant eighteen-hundred-year-old-statues of Buddha in Bamiyan Valley, and enforced stringent laws on UN and aid agencies, effectively curbing their operations. Meanwhile, the Northern Alliance reorganized themselves more effectively in 2001 against the Taliban, simultaneously coming to an agreement with aging King Zahir Shah to hold an emergency Loya Jirga to elect a new government for Afghanistan. Al Qaeda could not let this go unchecked, and brought to fruition their most important assassination to date- that of Ahmed Shah Masud, who was killed on September 9, 2001 in northern Afghanistan while granting an interview to two purportedly Tunisian television journalists carrying Belgian passports who were actually Al Qaeda assassins. Then, on September 11, 2001 the twin towers were struck by planes; a blitzkrieg by missiles was ruled out in favour of an aerial bombing campaign, since al Qaeda was deemed to have abandoned their camps. The invasion of Afghanistan and the first withdrawal of US would usher in the evolution of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan; it remains to be seen what the withdrawal from the second engagement would usher.