Northeastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, and Qari Zia Rahman. Map from the Asia Times; click to view.
A top Taliban and al Qaeda commander who operates on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border denied reports that he was killed during airstrikes in the Mohmand tribal agency and claimed that the overall leader of the Pakistani Taliban is also still alive.
Qari Zia Rahman, a commander who operates in Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal agency as well as in Afghanistan’s Nuristan and Kunar provinces, confirmed he was alive in a telephone call with a Pakistani newspaper.
“I think you would now believe that I am alive as I am personally speaking to you,” Qari Zia told a reporter from The News.
He mocked Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, who had claimed that Qari Zia and other senior Taliban commanders, including Bajaur Taliban leader Faqir Mohammed, Mohmand Taliban leader Umar Khalid, and Swat Taliban commander Fateh, were killed in a series of airstrikes in Mohmand on March 5. Malik had said he had proof that the four commanders were killed, but he did not share the evidence with the media.
“Ask Rehman Malik what he would do now when his statement proved false,” Qari Zia said.
Qari Zia also said he had been advised not to talk to the media about reports of his death, just as Hakeemullah was advised after the Pakistani military claimed he was killed on three separate dates after a US Predator strike in South Waziristan on Jan. 14. Several other top Taliban leaders have stated that Hakeemullah is alive, while no replacement for him has been named. [See LWJ report, “New rumors of the death of Pakistani Taliban leader emerge,” for more more information on conflicting reports of Hakeemullah’s death.]
“Like Hakeemullah Mehsud, they wanted me to keep silent over media reports about his death,” Qari Zai said. “I obeyed my Taliban colleagues for sometime but now I decided to approach media to deny my death as it could demoralize my fighters who don’t have direct contact with me.”
Qari Zia’s claim that he was advised not to talk to the media matches a statement made by Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq on Jan. 31. Tariq said Hakeemullah would no longer issue audio or video tapes to confirm he is alive as US and Pakistani intelligence would seek to use the information to track back to his location.
Qari Zia also said that he will continue to operate on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, but will concentrate his efforts in eastern Afghanistan for now.
“I will continue jihad on both sides of the border but my priority would be fighting against the occupation forces in Afghanistan,” he said.
His statement was made just one day before the International Security Assistance Force announced that it was withdrawing its forces from the Korengal Valley in Kunar Province as part of a “realignment with more populated areas in accordance with the ISAF counterinsurgency strategy,” according to an ISAF press release.
“This repositioning, in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces, responds to the requirements of the new population-centric counterinsurgency strategy,” Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, ISAF’s Joint Command commander, stated. “The move does not prevent forces from rapidly responding, as necessary, to crises there in Korengal and in other parts of the region, as well.”
Last year, the US conducted a similar withdrawal from rural valleys in the neighboring province of Nuristan. The Taliban took advantage of the pullback to score propaganda victories as well as to take full control of the once-contested regions. Taliban commanders and fighters were seen on videotapes at the former US combat outposts, posing with abandoned equipment and ammunition. Reports from the area indicate that the Taliban began openly governing in the abandoned areas, levying taxes on the local population and imposing sharia law.