March 25, 2010

COIN 101: Abdul Qayyum Zakir Returns

As US officials and analysts sell an improving Afghanistan a whole new controversy is set to explode. The Taliban’s strategy will likely be obstructed in the news cycle as a consequence, making it our job to stay focused on Afghanistan.

Not Guantánamo Bay.

After much speculation Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir has been appointed Mullah Omar’s top deputy and chief military commander, The New York Times reports. Believed to be in his mid-30’s, Zakir, “has a reputation as a tough fighter with few political skills.” He also spent six years in Guantánamo before being released after he testified of no links to al-Qaeda.

Zakir is actually some déjà vu, quickly ascending the Taliban’s ranks he was released from Afghan custody two years after being transferred home. The episode stirred a controversy last March, slowing President Obama’s Guantánamo closure, and this March will repeat now that Zakir has been crowned supreme Taliban general.

But while a new cloud fogs the White House, the choice of Zakir reveals insights into Taliban strategy and behavior. Most recently the Taliban’s commander in southern Afghanistan, Zakir was pulled back into Pakistan earlier this year to avoid the US military surge in Helmand and Kandahar.

Call it fear, or wisdom, but Taliban commanders are reportedly altering their behavior when traveling and gathering.

Waheed Muzhda, “a former Taliban official in Kabul who speaks regularly with Taliban officials,” (i.e. a Taliban official) says that the Quetta Shura feel too insecure to meet in large numbers. “Everyone is worried,” he says, and they should be.

But it’s apparent that the Taliban is adapting its behavior, refusing to sit around and let themselves be bombed indefinitely. Though Predators were active throughout the war 2008 and on spawned an unprecedented wave of Hellfire missiles. The Taliban, having witnessed the TTP’s fate and its own members captured, isn’t staying static.

Muzhda says of Taliban leadership, “they have disappeared.”

It would seem, then, that killing and especially capturing Taliban leaders will become more difficult over time as they adapt to 2010 technology and beyond. Muzhda claims Mullah Omar directly appointed Zakir as his deputy, without convening the leadership council, a sign of even greater authority than Omar once possessed.

And what of Zakir himself?

Though an experienced commander his youth is difficult to ignore given the current situation. The Taliban, to a point, expect their leaders to fall. What if Zakir is a substitute meant to conceal the real commander who will stay unknown? He looks like a poster boy, perfect for the role but not a permanent choice.

The TTP can vouch for this strategy. Though a public crisis developed when multiple commanders challenged for Baitullah Mehsud’s thrown, the reality is that Wali-ur-Rehman, South Waziristan commander, and other TTP commanders less affiliated with al-Qaeda couldn’t have been happier.

Hakimullah was a high profile loose cannon destined for death. Why not let him fill the void as long as possible? Furthermore the TTP appointed a temporary leader in Maulana Toofan, another stalling tactic. Clone tactics are evolving in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Survival presents its own set of problems too. What if Zakir manages to stay alive? Like the TTP, all that would follow a US arrest or kill is another hydra head. Hakimullah’s death has left several heads in charge - Rehman, North Waziristan chief Hafiz Gul Bahadur, and the elusive Faqir Mohammad.

All are more capable than Hakimullah, and lower key.

Zakir, if he proves a capable general, is the latest to undermine America’s “offshore theory,” which has been ratcheted up to enhance Obama’s military and civilian surge, not unlike steroids. More commanders are always rising up through the pipes. In a way this is survival of the fittest; the Taliban know they’re going to die and so are always preparing new commanders.

Killing them repeatedly may make them stronger in the long run.

Zakir also exudes confidence from the Taliban - a young general presumes a long war. Just because the Taliban are reacting to drones and spy planes doesn’t mean they’re truly afraid or on the run.

The New York Times reports, “American officials believe that the Taliban’s leadership is still brimming with confidence about their position inside Afghanistan, making it unlikely that the movement’s chieftains would be inclined to enter substantive negotiations in the near term.”

“The Taliban still believe they are winning and can wait us out,” said one senior US intelligence official. “They are not inclined to accept a bargain.”

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