US soldiers patrol the rugged mountains of Kunar, near Forward Operating Base Naray.
Preceding the spectacular arrest of Shah Mansoor Dadullah and his associates, several Afghan insurgents with ties to a Taliban splinter group, Hizb-i-Islami (Khalis faction), and foreign al Qaeda fighters, were arrested in separate raids in western Pakistan last week. The raids were conducted in Chakdara, located in the volatile Swat Valley, and Peshawar, with at least four Afghan nationals with links to al Qaeda being arrested in the Chakdara bust, according to the Pakistani Daily, The Nation.
One of those arrested has been identified as Mian Mohammad Agha, a top Afghan jihadi commander under the Younus Khalis faction of Hizb-i-Islami. The faction folded into the Afghan Taliban movement following the death of Younus Khalis in 2006. A Pajhwok Afghan News report described Mian Mohammad Agha as having “links to al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents.”
A separate raid in Peshawar netted an additional four Afghan nationals, including Naquibullah, an Afghan national from Kunar province who is suspected of facilitating suicide bomb attacks against Coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan. Sheikh Aminullah, another suspected insurgent hailing from Kunar province, was also captured in the Peshawar raid. Aminullah was the only one arrested to be granted bail and has since been released.
These arrests highlight the ongoing effort by US forces to monitor the movement of insurgents with Pakistani authorities, who occasionally arrest Taliban or al Qaeda members when faced with intense political pressure. Traditionally, insurgents held in Pakistani custody have stood a high chance of being freed, by sympathetic jailers, for bribes, or in prisoner exchanges that follow the occasional insurgent kidnappings of Pakistani forces for this purpose.
US forces secure the site of an IED attack against their patrol in Kunar province (Korengal Valley). Click to view.
Afghanistan’s troubled northeast
Although the US military has reported a 40 percent decrease in Taliban activity along Afghanistan’s porous border with Pakistan, the rugged mountain provinces of Nuristan and Kunar tucked away in northeastern Afghanistan have remained turbulent. Despite the frigid weather and heavy snowfall, insurgent activity in Afghanistan’s northeastern Kunar province has been particularly fierce. According to an Afghan security report obtained by the Long War Journal, Kunar suffered 963 attacks in 2007, making it the second most active province for insurgents, after Kandahar.
US forces have stepped up their presence in Kunar and neighboring Nuristan province since 2005, building remote outposts and bases along established smuggling routes used by insurgent forces. According to one regional report, the US recently finished construction on a vital outpost near the notorious Ghahki Pass, a narrow gorge connecting Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal agency with Kunar province. The Ghahki Pass has remained a vital insurgent infiltration route since the conflict began. In October 2001, more than 1,000 Pakistani jihadists flooded through the narrow canyon into Afghanistan and joined the Taliban in their fight against Coalition forces. Six years later, the local population remains openly hostile to both the Afghan government and US forces, making it an ideal area for insurgent activity to thrive.
Three major Pashtun tribes make up the nearly 600,000 residents of Bajaur, the Tarkalanri, the Mamoond, and the Utman Khel. The US military is reportedly pursuing talks with the Mamoonds, an influential tribe that dominates the southwestern villages of Bajaur and southeastern Kunar. The Mamoond are suspected of providing refuge for al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the past. Any reconciliation or alliance with the Mamoonds will have to contend with the tribe’s strict adherence to the Pukhtunwali tribal code, a set of social regulations that have been practiced for generations. A key element of Pukhtunwali is melmatsia, a form of hospitality that includes providing sanctuary for anyone who asks for it, including strangers, guests or even sworn enemies. Many of al Qaeda’s top leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, have exploited melmatsia to their advantage.
The situation in neighboring Bajaur is as perilous as Kunar. Bajaur is a strategic command and control hub for a long list of insurgent groups. Harkat ul-Mujahideen, the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Sharia led by Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami, and several Arab groups are known to plan and execute attacks from their sanctuary in Bajur. In January 2006, a US missile strike destroyed a compound in the Damadola village, Bajur agency, after intelligence sources indicated a high level meeting of senior al Qaeda leaders was taking place in the home of Maulvi Faqir Mohammed. The strike failed to kill the intended target, Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, but Pakistani authorities claimed five senior al Qaeda commanders and a group of villagers were killed in the strike. US officials debunked these claims in September 2007 saying only villagers perished in the attack.
Nine months after the Damadola strike, Pakistani forces launched a withering airstrike on a maddrassah in Bajaur, targeting Maulvi Faqir Mohammed, a key tribal ally of al Qaeda, narrowly missing him. Over 80 suspected Islamic insurgents were killed in the attack.
Pakistani police transport Taliban fighters they arrested during a raid. Getty Images. Click to view.
The arrests and surge in activity by Pakistani and US forces followed a statement made by an unnamed US official, who announced last week that top al Qaeda and Taliban leaders remain holed up in Pakistani territory. The source said Mullah Omar, the overall leader of the Taliban movement, is hiding in the southwestern city of Quetta.
“We believe that the Taliban’s Shura council leaders led by Mullah Omar reside in Quetta in Pakistan,” the source was quoted as saying. “The iconic leaders of Al Qaeda — Zawahiri, bin Laden and people like Abu Laith al Libi are in the tribal areas of Pakistan.” Abu Laith al Libi was killed in a missile strike on Jan. 29 as he and several other al Qaeda leaders attended a meeting in North Waziristan.
Shortly after the strike that killed Abu Laith, the director of US national intelligence said al Qaeda still has a “safe haven” in Pakistan’s western tribal areas, from which the group is able to launch attacks in conjunction with Taliban fighters.