18 January 2010

Unity of Command: Who is Calling the Shots in Afghanistan/Pakistan

The attack on FOB Chapman proves just how intertwined the multitude of terrorist organizations truely are in the Afghanistan, Pakistan region (AfPak). How did a Pakistani focused Taliban groups (TTP) get in contact with a Jordanian double agent, cook up a story about having information on Ayman al-Zawahiri (AQ), and conduct an operation in the Haqqani network's (HQN) front yard? I can't think of a better time to analyze the relationships between the prominant groups operating in the AfPak region in an attempt to understand how their relationships will affect our COIN/CT operations. I hope this post will generate some arguments that will allow all of us to walk away with an accurate assessment of how the different factions interact with one another. First, I want to cover a very BRIEF overview of the groups who's relationships we will analyze.

Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) is the original Taliban faction that was established with the help of the Pakistani ISI. The ISI likes to create organizations that operate along the boarder regions with Afghanistan and India. The Taliban's control of Southeastern Afghanistan pre-9/11 was Pakistan's way of providing a buffer West of their boarder. Mullah Omar is the overall leader of the QST. The QST home base is Quetta Pakistan with their primary area of operation in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Mullah Omar is currently a figurehead in the QST while Mullah Barader runs the day to day operations.

Al Qaeda senior leadership chose to establish a base of operations in Afghanistan with the approval of Mullah Omar. Following the Tora Bora battle, AQ senior leadership moved into Pakistan with the support of the tribal elders in the FATA/NWFP. Al Qaeda has two focuses; 1) Maintain a permissive environment in the AfPak region that will allow them to execute focus # two, 2) Conduct worldwide terror operations that will facilitate the eventual establishment of the Islamic Caliphate.

The Haqqani Network (HQN) is one of the many Taliban movements and currently operates along the AfPak boarder. Their home base is in Miram Shah, North Waziristan. Their offensive operations are focused in Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Ghazni, Logar, Wardak, and Kabul. The Pakistani ISI is in active contact with the HQN and even coordinated an attack on the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan using HQN fighters. The HQN provides essential services in North Waziristan while maintaining a capability to attack targets in Afghanistan, which means they will most likely never be targeted by the Pakistani military or ISI.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is a Taliban movement that focuses their operations inside of Pakistan. Their late leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was responsible for a wave of terrorist attacks to include the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Their home base is in the Pakistani FATA region and is an organizational umbrella for up to 13 Pakistani Taliban groups. The TTP continue to target Pakistani population centers in an attempt to erode public support for the military advances in the NWFP/FATA.

Hezb-e-Islami Glubuddin is a insurgent faction that operates in the Nuristan and Kunar Provinces of Afghanistan. They opposed the Taliban and lost their control over Kabul in 1996, at the hands of Mullah Omar's Taliban. The group is currently aligned with the Taliban because of their mutual relationship with Osama bin Laden and their common desire to expel the western invaders. This post will not analyze the relationship between HIG and the rest of the groups because I believe their relationship is superficial and will likely change once the common desire to expel the ISAF is removed.

Al Qaeda and all of the Taliban factions swore an oath of loyalty to Mullah Omar himself. When Osama bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in the 1990's, Mullah Omar was the most influential leader of the Taliban. Omar's rise to prominence occurred after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Mullah Omar was a brave fighter for the Mujahideen; however, the catalyst for his rise to power was his actions against a local war lord who kidnapped girls for sex. Mullah Omar's rise to prominence is a powerful narrative and I believe that Osama bin Laden chose to align with Mullah Omar because of his magnetic narrative. A strategic alliance with Mullah Omar would not only provide AQ with a place to build up their operational capacity, but also a possible pool of future fighters if OBL became the true dominant personality in the area. It is obvious that Mullah Omar did not completely understand OBL's global aspirations, and he was just as shocked with the rest of the World when the World Trade Center collapsed. OBL assassinated Ahmed Shah Masoud, Mullah Omar's greatest threat, one day prior to 9/11 for two possible reasons. 1) Since OBL did not get permission from Mullah Omar to launch attacks against the US, he might have needed to do a good deed to counter balance his unauthorized strike. 2) OBL knew that if 9/11 was successful, America would enlist the support of the Northern Alliance, so removal of their charismatic leader was a prudent move. Mullah Omar's Taliban was ousted from Afghanistan in 2002 because of OBL's attack. This fact probably would have caused a rift between OBL and Mullah Omar if they didn't need to remain united in order to survive. I believe the ISAF operational focus on the Helmand province is causing the QST to loose some of its control over the remainder of the Taliban factions. I think perceived weakness provides space for more powerful leaders to fill the voids. To sum up the assessment on Mullah Omar; he is a figurehead running the QST that is solely focused on their control over the Helmand and Kandahar provinces, with minor influence over the actions of the TTP or HQN.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) has the unique distinction being that the Pakistani ISI did not have a hand in their creation or control. This is why we see the TTP heavily involved in targeting the Pakistani government. They are the most effective Pakistani Taliban organization that conducts terrorist attacks deep into Pakistan's population centers. To me the interesting part of the relationship between the TTP and other groups came out of the death of Baitullah Mehsud. The TTP 22 man Shura Council met to vote on the next leader of the TTP. The meeting was held in the Arakazi agency and lasted two days until they unanimously decided to appoint Hakeemullah Mehsud as the new leader. Faqir Mohammad was the interium leader and is now Hakeemullah's Deputy. The critical part to understanding the relationship piece to AQ, HQN, and QST is that Siraj Haqqani blessed off on Hakeemullah's appointment through his two deputy Taliban commanders Mullah Nazir (North Wazirstan) and Hafiz Gul Bahadar (South Waziristan). We can deduce that this information alludes to Hakeemullah's role as operationally focused in Pakistan but that Siraj Haqqani has some command authority over him and the TTP.

Siraj Haqqani has the closest ties to AQ and controls the most effective branch of the Taliban, the Haqqani Network. The Kagan's provide some great bullet points describing Al Qaeda's relationship with the QST and HQN. Osama bin Laden had close ties with Jalalhuddin Haqqani when they crossed paths in Saudi Arabia fundraising for the Mujahideen in the 1980's. Jalalhuddin invited OBL to establish some training camps in the Paktia, Paktika, and Khost region (P2K) in the 1990's. Also in the 1990's, Jalaluddin had a deputy style relationship with Mullah Omar. Like Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin has more of a figurehead role now, while his son Sirajuddin runs the day to day operations. Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported that Siraj Haqqani voices loyalty to Mullah Omar even though the HQN secretly sent a letter asking the QST to remove Mullah Omar. This is an important fact because it shows that the HQN most likely runs their own operations with little regard to what the QST is doing in Southern Afghanistan. Another indication that the HQN is assuming a larger command role over other Taliban groups (minus QST), was Siraj's ability to bring together Hakeemullah, Mullah Nazir, and Hafiz Gul Bahadar for a face to face meeting in the region of Khost. One of the reason for the meeting was to restart the initiative that Baitullah Mehsud started in an attempt to keep the multitude of tribes within the Taliban from continuing local feuds. Mullah Omar and OBL provided Baitullah with guidance concerning easing the feudal tensions between factions. Siraj Haqqani is AQ's conduit for providing guidance and intent to the Pakistani Taliban movements. Because of Siraj's unifying ability and his father's relationship with OBL, he most likely earned a spot on the AQ Shura Council. In a rare interview, Siraj Haqqani denied ever meeting Al Qaeda's senior leadership and simply stated that he supports what they are doing.

I have arrived at several conclusions about the command relationships after compiling and analyzing the multitude of reports located on the LWJ and ISW, including this great report I found about 90% of the way though my research.
1) AQ senior leadership will provide guidance to the Taliban factions they live with, in order to increase AQ's capacity to facilitate global operations. Currently they are concentrating on the protection of their permissive environment. OBL's strategic goal of establishing the Caliphate will in no way challenge any of the Taliban factions' local initiatives. This will ensure a unified front between Osama bin Laden and the Taliban movements that support him. In return for Taliban safe haven, AQ provides the Taliban with a very effective fighting element, the "Shadow Army", that the Taliban can join with for major offensive operations.
2) Mullah Omar still carries enough respect to allow his guidance and intent to reach groups like the TTP and HQN. I believe the QST is not as dynamic in their aspirations and current operations as the HQN or the TTP. This could have future implications on Mullah Omar's aura of leadership. As the QST looses ground in Afghanistan, I think groups like AQ, HQN, and the TTP will be less likely to follow Mullah Omar's QST after a possible victory over the ISAF.
3) Siraj Haqqani is the most prolific day to day operational commander the US military faces. The Pakistani government will not openly challenge the HQN and the ISI maintain ties that allow them to use the HQN for offensive operations. I believe that the HQN is growing stronger and will possibly over take Mullah Omar's role after he dies of old age under the protection of the Pakistani ISI.
4) The TTP is the only major Taliban network that does not enjoy any collusion with the Pakistani government. This creates a strange predicament between the ISI, HQN, and the TTP. The HQN has some degree of control over Hakeemullah Mehsud who is targeting the Pakistani military and government. The ISI has a working relationship with the HQN. There are no open source reports of the ISI attempting to rein in the TTP through the HQN that I can find. This means that either the ISI doesn't have a solid handle on the HQN, or the HQN can't control the focus of the TTP's actions. I believe that since Siraj Haqqani played a role in Hakeemullah's ascension to power and brought the TTP in with the Waziristan Taliban factions, that it proves the ISI can't or won't convince the HQN to rein in the TTP.

Taking another look at the groups associated with the FOB Chapman attack, it now appears that Siraj Haqqani was the possible link between Al Qaeda's Jordanian and Hakeemullah Mehsud. There is something about Hakeemullah Mehsud's propaganda tape with al-Balawi that still seems out of place to me. After Baitullah Mehsud's death, the majority of predator drone attacks were focused on Al Qaeda and the HQN. I think it is possible that AQ and HQN wanted to shift the focus of our drone program to Hakeemullah's TTP, so they did all the leg work for the attack while Hakeemullah gets the credit. This conveniently helps the ISI because the full weight of our program is targeting the primary Taliban group conducting terror attacks in Pakistan.

OBL's grand vision doesn't conflict with the QST, HQN or TTP, thus making AQ the leading faction because of their global aspirations, Mullah Omar is the current leader of all Taliban groups but his power may not transfer to his deputy after his passing, because the HQN is the rising power and will someday direct the majority of the Taliban factions.

I used The Long War Journal and the Institute for the Study of War as my sources of information because both sites offer convenient search capabilities to their expert analysis. My hope is that readers can bring their personal experience and/or other puzzle pieces of information to help us create an accurate working model of the command relationships of our enemies in the AfPak region.


  1. JD,

    Nice analysis. Yet, it is incomplete without considering it within the framework of Pakistan's military-jihadi complex.

    Each jihadi faction is not only a product of a particular Islamic political formation (which are again representations of ethnic/sectarian groups) but is aligned to, and a surrogate of, one or more factions with the Pakistani military establishment.

    The military establishment itself has serving and retired officers, and ISI and non-ISI elements.

    It's a more complex web and you'll have to trace individual threads.

    For instance, it is likely that HQN is the primary proxy of the Pakistan army led by Gen Kayani. He would be using certain factions within the military establishment to manage HQN (and the QST).

    But which faction handles the TTP? And the Lashkar-e-Taiba? Demands greater analysis.

  2. Nitin,

    Great response, I agree we need to expand the post looking at the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, I guess I know what my next major research project will be.

    You bring up a good point. I left out the fact that Gen. Kayani was once overheard calling the Haqqani Network an "Asset" to Pakistan. It is also widely known that Gen. Kayani refuses to put pressure on the HQN in North Waziristan siting his army is bogged down fighting the TTP in South Waziristan. I would never rule out any connections between the Pakistani Army and the HQN; however, it seems that the ISI get more attention for the puppet master role. Let me know if I am missing any stories about Gen. Kayani directing HQN actions, I have just recently focused my attention toward the HQN.

    As for your last comment, I wrote a post not too long ago, attempting to land the point that governments who play with fire by allowing terror organizations to take root in their backyards will be burned. I think that by allowing groups like QST and HQN to grow unchecked, it creates conditions for unwanted groups like the TTP to form. LeT needs its own post, which is on my to do list.

    Thanks again,