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In Afghanistan, the West and allies fight a murky foe

After 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan, Western forces and their Afghan allies are finding no simple answer to a seemingly straightforward question: Who, exactly, is the enemy?

The pattern of recent insurgent attacks on prominent targets, even as Afghan forces gradually assume more responsibility for security, highlights long-standing confusion over the nature and motives of an often unseen foe.

To frontline soldiers — about 90,000 Americans, plus their Western and Afghan allies — the battle with the Taliban and other insurgents is a grimly visceral affair that plays out daily, one roadside bombing, nighttime raid or dangerous foot patrol at a time.

But for Afghan civilians, their shaky national government and Western diplomats seeking a way out of the conflict, there is perhaps less clarity than ever about the war’s chief actors and their ultimate aims. The Taliban movement and various splinter groups make contradictory statements. Alliances shift. And behind it all, more are seeing the hand of neighboring Pakistan.

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A group of Afghan political leaders summed up that uncertainty in a statement issued after a meeting in late September with President Hamid Karzai about the fading prospects for negotiations with the insurgents.

“Peace with whom?” they asked. “With which people?”

The Taliban movement is hardly alone in its battle with Western forces. Allied militias such as the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, remnants of Al Qaeda and an assortment of other factions can make it difficult to know who is fighting — and who is empowered to speak as a peacemaker.

Hopes for a political settlement with the Taliban suffered a potentially fatal blow with the grisly death of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, who was killed Sept. 20 by a suicide bomber posing as a Taliban envoy.

Karzai, who in the past had made frequent appeals to “disaffected brothers” among the Taliban, is now signaling a reluctance to engage them. The Afghan leader is well aware of the fury of Rabbani’s supporters over what they perceive as the president’s past naivete in dealing with the insurgents.

In days of street demonstrations, Rabbani’s backers have vented their anger at Karzai, who had urged the former president to hold the fateful meeting, and at Pakistan, long blamed for sheltering the insurgents.

Afghan’s intelligence service declared that the killing was plotted “outside the country,” its usual code for Afghanistan’s more powerful neighbor. A presidential commission set up to investigate the assassination said the attack was plotted in the Pakistani city of Quetta, the seat of the main Taliban leadership council. The bomber, it said Sunday, was a Pakistani man from the town of Chaman along the Afghan border.

Other Afghan officials have said they suspect Pakistani intelligence played a role, a charge that Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry rejected Sunday.

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Even before Rabbani’s death, the new U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, had said he doubted serious peace talks would occur any time soon, comments that appear to reflect a view among at least some Obama administration officials that punishing military losses are the only way to get the Taliban to the negotiating table.

As it starts its military withdrawal with the departure of about 10,000 troops by year’s end, the U.S. also remains focused on raids by special operations forces to kill or capture mid-level Taliban commanders — aiming to cut the link between the overall leaders of the insurgency and rank-and-file fighters.

Over the weekend, the NATO force disclosed that it had captured Haji Mali Khan, described as the senior Haqqani figure in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s entanglement with the Haqqani network, considered the most virulent and dangerous insurgent faction, has come under intensified scrutiny. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, outgoing head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outraged Pakistani officials by charging on Sept. 22 that the Haqqanis were a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI.

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The Obama administration subsequently softened that criticism somewhat, but tensions are running high over Pakistan’s status as a base for both the Taliban leadership council, known as the Quetta Shura, and the Haqqani network, whose home turf is the North Waziristan tribal agency.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said last week that the number of hostile attacks was rising in Afghanistan’s east, the Haqqanis’ main sphere of operations. A spokesman, German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, blamed the increase on “insurgent support emanating from Pakistan.”

Over a span of two weeks, both the Taliban and the Haqqanis have issued unusual denials that they take sanctuary in Pakistan. In a move probably meant to take the heat off the Islamabad government, Sirajuddin Haqqani, his syndicate’s day-to-day commander, told the Reuters news agency in a rare telephone interview in September that the group is well ensconced in Afghanistan, without the need of havens across the border.

The statements by the Taliban and the Haqqani network were widely interpreted as a sign that the Islamabad government is feeling pressure about its role, anticipating uncomfortable questions about state sponsorship of terrorism that could arise if the U.S. moves to put the entire Haqqani network on a list of terrorist groups.

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Pakistan’s key concern probably lies in influencing the outlines of any agreement reached with the insurgents.

“Pakistan is fundamental to these talks, and wants to make sure they only run through Islamabad,” said Reva Bhalla, director of analysis for the private intelligence firm Stratfor. “You can expect a number of spoiling attacks by a number of sub-factions. All these different actions are trying to shape their collective position.”

At times, the Taliban and the Haqqanis appear to operate in close concert. Taliban spokesmen routinely claim real-time responsibility for attacks later traced to the Haqqanis, such as last month’s assault on the U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul. And it was a Taliban spokesman, not the Haqqanis, who contested the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s claim to have captured the key Haqqani figure, Mali Khan.

In what appeared to be coordinated statements, the Taliban leadership also recently declared that the Haqqani network operates under its control, not Pakistan’s — echoing Sirajuddin’s assertion that the network would follow the Taliban’s lead on entering any talks.

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To some observers, any distinction between the groups is artificial.

“The Taliban and the Haqqanis are committing the same kind of terrorism,” said Afghan military analyst Atiqullah Amarkhail. “I don’t see a difference between them.”

laura.king@latimes.com


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