Divide and conquer: The British strategy against the Taliban

Matt Dupee looks at the turning of a Taliban commander in Musa Qala and the British divide and conquer tactics in Afghanistan.

Mullah Mohammad Is’haq Nizami. Click to view.

The British have engaged in various negotiations with the Taliban throughout their tenure in Afghanistan’s Helmand province claiming their actions are part of a “divide and conquer” strategy aimed at exploiting the discord present throughout the Taliban leadership and the rank and file. The Times reported Britain spent $3 million in 2007 trying to bribe Taliban fighters into surrendering their firearms. The bribes tried to exploit the low morale among insurgents following the Coalition’s high-profile slayings of top Taliban commanders Mullah Akhtar Osmani and Mullah Dadullah, calling it the “Dadullah-effect.”

British officials believed it was possible to split the less ideologically driven insurgents from the more hardened radicals following the cataclysmic assassination of Mullah Dadullah. Recent communications between the Afghan government, whose liaison is a high-profile Taliban defector named Mullah Mohammad Is’haq Nizami, and the Taliban’s Quetta Shura, implies President Hamid Karzai’s administration is also trying its hand at divide and conquer tactics.

On Dec. 26, 2007, Britain’s Daily Telegraph exposed the occurrence of several clandestine meetings between Britain’s Secret Intelligence Services, known as MI6, and the Taliban this past summer. Afghan and British officials, guarded by heavily armed British soldiers, partook in at least six of these high-level meetings with Taliban commanders who sought to defect to the government. The chain of events that led to these secret meetings spawned from Britain’s previous attempts at negotiations nearly a full year prior in a dusty Afghan backwater called Musa Qala.

Controversial beginning

In October 2006, the undersized British and Danish contingent stationed in Musa Qala handed security responsibilities over to local elders in exchange for making it a “neutral zone” where foreign forces and Taliban fighters were prohibited from operating. The decision to cut such a deal resulted from a summer-long offensive by the insurgents who bombarded the small British outpost on a near daily occurrence.

The plan drew heavy criticism from the US and others who saw the move as a concession to the Taliban. In early February 2007, US General Dan McNeil replaced the outgoing British commander in charge of NATO’s Afghan mission. Fundamentally opposed to such an agreement with the Taliban, McNeil quickly ordered airstrikes in Musa Qala that succeeded in killing two local Taliban commanders and immediately ended the fragile peace deal. The Taliban responded by overrunning the district center and consolidated their iron grip over the town that would last for the next 10 months. The Afghan government refused to launch a counterattack on the district, fearing heavy civilian casualties, and allowed the stalemate to drag on throughout the summer.

British troops during operations in Helmand province. Click to view.

Coalition and Afghan forces began probing attacks on Taliban positions in September 2007 and continued late into November to soften the Taliban’s defenses throughout the district’s southern fringes. Meanwhile, Afghan officials initiated negotiations with Mullah Abdul Salaam Alizai, a powerful and influential tribal leader, who was holed up in Musa Qala with thousands of his followers.

British officials expressed optimism in the deal and maneuvered security measures to help ensure the deal went through. Salaam’s defection materialized under the radar but coincided with the launch of Operation Snake Pit on Dec. 5. Thousands of Coalition and Afghan troops participated in the operation that succeeded in wresting Musa Qala from the clutches of its Taliban occupiers.

Despite the anticipation of recapturing Afghanistan’s “Fallujah,” the battle only lasted a week and many Taliban fled north dressed as civilians. An after battle report written by the Afghan Ministry of Defense, put the Taliban’s casualties at a 200 killed, including 17 of their local commanders. Prebattle estimates put the number of Taliban in Musa Qala over 2,000, a figure given by the Taliban and disputed by the British military. In either case, it is apparent that Salaam’s defection played a pivotal role in the battle’s outcome. His agreement not to fight left most of the city’s infrastructure and civilians, albeit limited, safe from the impending aerial and artillery bombardment that was awaiting them.

“Helmand-gate”

In the midst of the Afghan government’s deal with Salaam and his Alizais, another British attempt at winning over the Taliban in Helmand was exposed. This deal involved “buying” a cease-fire agreement from regional Taliban commanders and reportedly occurred without the presence Afghan officials.

British reports claimed the two European diplomats expelled for allegedly engaging in back-door talks with the Taliban were in fact meeting with Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, the Taliban’s southern zone commander, in an attempt to “bribe” him and his followers into surrendering. Michael Semple and Mervyn Patterson were arrested by Afghan authorities in Musa Qala in late December 2007 with $150,000 in cash and laptop computers with documents indicating previous payments of the same amount were handed over to Helmand-based Taliban commanders, now thought to be “Tier-one” Taliban commander Mansoor and his inner circle.

Helmand Governor Assadullah Wafa. Click to view.

Afghan officials, including Helmand Governor Assadullah Wafa and President Karzai, were unaware of the British pair’s “fact-finding” mission until local authorities reported the foreigners’ activities to a National Intelligence officer, who in turn quickly intervened and arrested them both.

Within hours of their arrest and learning the nature of their trip, the two diplomats were expelled from the country on orders from Karzai, who called them a direct threat to national security. Karzai’s action raised the ire of the international community, particularly from UN and European Union delegates’ based in Kabul, who insisted the incident was a “misunderstanding.”

Both men have distinguished histories working in Afghanistan and are known for their ability to speak fluent Dari. Their penchant for dressing in local garb and sporting scruffy beards allowed them to move easily among rural areas and helped forge crucial political ties throughout the country. Nevertheless, Karzai stood firm and expelled them on Dec. 25, which played out well among Afghans weary of foreign involvement in Afghanistan’s internal politics. Local Afghan media dubbed the scandal “Helmand-gate”, and it once again exposed Britain’s willingness to engage in back-door deals with the Taliban at any cost.

Mullah Omar, circled. Click to view.

Shortly after the political flap between the two expelled diplomats and the Afghan government ensued, Supreme Taliban commander Mullah Omar publicly dismissed Mansoor as head of the southern zone. A letter written by Omar soon appeared on Voice of Jihad, a well-trafficked jihadi Internet forum, explaining Mansoor’s removal for failure to obey orders, meaning Mansoor was not supposed to be negotiating with the “enemy.”

A new governor and a new opportunity

After the success of Operation Snake Pit and having seemingly come out on top of the Helmand-gate scandal, the Karzai administration confidently announced the appointment of Salaam as the new governor of Musa Qala on Jan. 7, 2008. Salaam’s sway over the thousands of Alizais in the district and the relinquishment of his Taliban status is no doubt a short-term tactical victory for the Afghan government, whose influence in the district has been nonexistent for the past several years. The risk and uncertainty of his appointment lies in the fact that his Alizai tribe, Helmand’s largest Pashtun tribe, is intimately involved in the illicit drug trade and the trafficking of narcotics. A previous governor of Helmand province, Sher Muhammad Akhunzada, also an Alizai, was fired in July 2005 by Karzai at the insistence of British officials after 9 metric tons of opium were confiscated from his provincial headquarters by US Drug Enforcement officers.

The success story in Musa Qala is still playing out, and whether Salaam can provide the much needed security in the district is yet to be determined. There are very few Taliban defectors aside from a scant handful, and most remain under house arrest, serving as an example for other Taliban commanders to follow orders. The previous role model for Taliban defectors was Mullah Abdul Samad Khaksar, a former deputy interior minister under the Taliban regime, who provided critical intelligence regarding the Taliban’s shadow cabinet and helped create profiles of top Taliban officials before Taliban assassins shot him to death in January 2006.

The British are hedging their bets that Salaam will serve as the new model for future bribing endeavors, and his complicity may have prompted the overzealous operation last month to court Shah Mansoor Dadullah. Much to the chagrin of Coalition partners and regional neighbors such as Iran and India, talking to the Taliban remains a high priority for British and Afghan officials. Although “Helmand-gate” strained political relations between the two countries, their overriding desire for peace talks and negotiating with the Taliban are unlikely to change.

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5 Comments

  • anand says:

    Well written Matt Dupee!!! These subtlies matter, but are seldom covered in the depth that they deserve.

  • URB says:

    We are fighting an enemy like none we have encountered in the past, any tactic that lowers their numbers should be welcome. Divide and conquer has always worked in the past let us remember this lesson.

  • Neo says:

    The divide and conquer tactic won’t work in Afghanistan, at least not now. Not as long as the Taliban are seeing the sort of success in Pakistan that they have had this year. There are two parts to this story, what is going on in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. Our efforts to frustrate them in Afghanistan have largely worked, but the expansion of Islamist power in Pakistan has more than offset any setbacks the Taliban has had in Afghanistan. If it weren’t for the deteriorating situation on the Pakistani side of the boarder the war in Afghanistan would be more or less over. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are currently trying to reignite efforts in Afghanistan. There is little hope in isolating and frustrating any one group of extremists while they are so easily replenished and replaced from the Pakistani side of the boarder.
    Our objective should be to thwart all efforts of the Taliban to reestablish themselves in Afghanistan and try to keep the local population out of their hands. That will at least keep the insurgency at bay while things in Pakistan sort themselves out.
    There’s no doubt the outcome of this fight will be decided on the Pakistani side. Military operations in Afghanistan are largely untenable once Pakistan has fallen. Unfortunately, we cannot directly intervene in Pakistan without stirring up a nationalist backlash amongst the population, so any thought of direct intervention is out. The fight will have to be carried by the Pakistani’s, we can only aid and advise. Pakistan is still fairly early in the process of figuring out who their real enemies are. (Must read from News bar on right side: “Militants Escape Control of Pakistan, Officials Say”

  • Marlin says:

    Matt –
    Thanks for a very informative article. There is a very good article at the Combined Joint Task Force – 82 website today that complements your article very well.
    CJTF-82: “Hope of the Nation” Reports the Taliban Falling Apart

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