Afghanistan at the Crossroads: Insights on the Conflict
Al Qaeda No. 2 Killed
Senior al Qaeda figure Atiyah Abd al-Rahman was reportedly killed in Pakistan's North Waziristan region Aug. 22, U.S. officials announced Aug. 27. That same day, an unmanned aerial vehicle reportedly struck a vehicle near Mir Ali. This may have been the incident in which al-Rahman was killed. A Libyan national, al-Rahman liaised with al Qaeda franchises and other Islamist-minded militant groups in Algeria, Iraq and Iran. He reportedly rose to the rank of second-in-command, in place of Ayman al-Zawahiri, long Osama bin Laden's top deputy and now his replacement, in what remains of the old al Qaeda prime leadership. Ultimately, his exact position in al Qaeda's chaotic post-bin Laden power structure is of limited importance. There is every indication that the U.S. campaign to kill senior al Qaeda leadership in the restive areas of northwestern Pakistan is making progress, and as STRATFOR has long argued, the operational — and increasingly, even ideological — leadership of the jihadist struggle has largely been taken up by franchise operations elsewhere, particularly by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The United States is usually more circumspect than Pakistan in reporting the deaths of senior militant figures, though Pakistan has not confirmed this claim. Al-Rahman's death, if true, would be a significant development. Coming shortly after the death of bin Laden, it would suggest that Washington has been able to keep pressure on the group's senior leadership. Killing top militant leaders keeps the organization off balance, busies its leadership with trying to stay alive and adds to mistrust within the group, which is left wondering whether their operational security has been penetrated. This all erodes the group's ability to plot attacks.
Meanwhile, the military struggle in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the fight against the various elements of the Taliban — continues apace. As many as 300 militants reportedly from the Swat, Dir and Bajaur agencies of the Pakistani Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but operating from sanctuaries in Afghanistan's Kunar and Nuristan provinces, conducted coordinated raids on seven Pakistani paramilitary border outposts Aug. 27. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attacks. Two outposts reportedly were attacked simultaneously and eventually overrun. As many as 60 Pakistani soldiers may have been killed, though Islamabad insists the number is closer to 30. Many were from the Chitral Scouts, a wing of the Frontier Corps responsible for security along the border. Some Pakistani personnel may have been captured. The isolation of these outposts makes them difficult to reinforce quickly, and they are often only lightly prepared positions. Some reports suggest that the Pakistani forces ran out of ammunition. Though there is certainly room for Pakistan to increase the strength of its border garrisons, its military is already spread thin and has not even begun a long-promised offensive in North Waziristan. Cross-border attacks emanating from both Pakistan and Afghanistan are commonplace, but the scale and coordination of these latest raids is noteworthy. Such activity is an inherent reality of the border, but a sustained increase in large-scale attacks would be an important shift at a time when the United States is seeking to lock down a negotiated understanding with the Taliban in Afghanistan — with both Kabul and Islamabad intending to be at the center of those negotiations. (click here to enlarge media)
Any comprehensive political accommodation with the Taliban will require the participation and support of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. Mullah Omar remained defiant in his message for Eid al-Fitr, a three-day holiday marking the end of Ramadan. He continued to insist that foreign troops leave the country. He asserted that official negotiations now under way did not include representation of "true" Afghans, and that even neighboring countries should not interfere in Afghan affairs. Nevertheless, the Afghan High Peace Council, the entity officially responsible for national reconciliation, expressed optimism over Mullah Omar's comments. The council claimed that Mullah Omar's message showed he was expressing a willingness to negotiate in principle. Any serious settlement will have profound consequences for the region. This means that the identity of the parties given a large say in what that settlement looks like will be critical. Now that the United States has begun its drawdown, the competition to exert central influence in any talks will only continue to intensify. Washington knows that any lasting solution must include Pakistan. However, the Afghan government may have demonstrated that it can play a spoiling role when it reportedly attempted to interrupt direct talks with Mullah Omar by leaking news of at least three clandestine U.S. meetings with a trusted intermediary. According to the report, that intermediary has now gone into hiding and the direct contact has stopped. Whatever the case, the accusation itself is a manifestation of the challenges involved in reaching a political accommodation with the Taliban while simultaneously maintaining relations with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai knows that any deal will entail integrating senior Taliban figures into the official Afghan government — an integration that will necessarily come at the expense of the political position and patronage network Karzai has spent a decade consolidating. The various parties involved in reaching a political deal in Afghanistan — the Afghan government, Pakistan, the Taliban and the United States — can be expected to continue attempting to halt or otherwise derail negotiations when they appear to take a turn toward one of the other parties' interests. This dynamic will remain problematic in the push for a deal that will allow the drawdown of American and allied forces to accelerate.