Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | February 19, 2010

Taliban Roll-Up: The Other Connections

The Taliban roll-ups continue in Pakistan, and as AllahPundit and others observe, the scope of this thing begins to look bigger than the interests of tribal mullahs in Pakistan, or even of the Zardari government in Islamabad.  Although I think the Pakistanis are, indeed, acting to curtail independent negotiating activity by the Afghan Taliban with Karzai and NATO, they’re not the only ones who have that interest.  They share it with another significant party.

The timing and acceleration of this roll-up may be related to that dynamic, which we’ll get to in a minute.  But its coincidence with an emerging push in other areas, to get internecine business done in the world of Islamist extremism, makes me wonder if there is something else in play.  A lot of things are happening at the same time:  the resurgence of the Iran-backed Madhi Army in Iraq, and Iranian interference with Iraqi candidate vetting; the murder of Hamas bigwig al-Mabhouh in Dubai, with the cartoonishly obvious “Mossad” sign hung on it by the perpetrators (have any hit men ever left such a trail of pointed clues?) ; the Russian crackdown on Islamist insurgents in Chechnya, which last week saw the demise of the founder of Al Qaeda in the Caucasus.  Now the Pakistanis, necessarily with the approval of the Taliban’s patrons inside the official government structure, are culling the ranks of Taliban leadership.

Some of the conditions for this may have been created by the basically quiescent posture of the Obama administration.  A number of the factions may perceive that now is the time to make moves, eliminate their rivals, and gain ascendancy.  After all, we’re drawing down in Iraq, our influence with both the Palestinians and Israelis is at a low ebb, our significance is waning rapidly in the Caucasus, and we’ve invited everyone in Asia in to join in negotiating a peace in Afghanistan.  But that quiescence is a condition: the sudden scramble manifesting itself across the Middle East and Southwest Asia suggests precipitating factors.

One such factor may be Iran closing in on a working bomb.  The closer we get to that day, the harder they’ll all scramble.  The events of the last few weeks could be a foretaste of the energy to come.  The other might well be something the Pakistanis would probably know before anyone else did:  Osama bin Laden could finally be dead, and for good this time.  The internecine roll-ups and high-level hit jobs are the kind of gangland phenomena associated with the loss of an iconic syndicate leader.

But some level of scramble is inevitable in any case, because of that significant third party that shares Pakistan’s concern about an independently negotiating Taliban.  The party, of course, is Russia.  Russia has a tremendous interest in averting the Taliban’s establishment of a separate power base for negotiating reconciliation – particularly one that would have the de facto imprimatur of the UN, the US, and NATO.  Theory aside, there are two threads in Russia’s post-Cold War history to remind her of what a bad idea – from her perspective – this would be.

One is, of course, Moscow’s problem with Islamist rebels in Chechnya (and with Central Asian Islamists in general).  There are differing views as to how closely integrated the Taliban and the Chechen insurgents have truly been, from an operational standpoint, but no question about the avowed commonality of their objectives.  The Taliban government of Afghanistan became, in January 2000, the only one to ever recognize the independent nation declared by Chechen separatists.  The Taliban’s control of Afghanistan did not result so much in Taliban fighters themselves operating in Chechnya, as in facilitation of Al Qaeda support to the Chechen rebels.  Both the Chechen Islamists and the Taliban have close ties to Al Qaeda.

Chechen fighters have been among those detained in anti-Taliban campaigns, as recently as late 2009 in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Chechnya’s shadow “Islamic caliphate” leadership also celebrates Taliban “victories” in AfPak.  A regional expert at the University of Indiana, South Bend, put it this way in 2007:

Russian and Central Asian leaders continue to be concerned with the spread of Islamic extremism in Central Asia and the Caucasus… they clearly see a connection between these Islamists and those in Afghanistan. Indeed, Chechen Internet sites almost regularly publish glowing accounts of the Taliban and their successful fight against American and NATO forces. Uzbek extremists are also actively engaged in fighting in Afghanistan. The collapse of the Karzai government and the “Talibanization” of Afghanistan would be not just a huge blow for U.S. global prestige but an even more severe blow for the Central Asian states and Russia.

The other thread is Moscow’s long and bitter dissatisfaction with the US handling of Serbia, Balkan Muslims, and the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.  A US push to privilege the Taliban – essentially to make some of them protected partners in negotiation, and give them insider status – would look to the Russians too much like the Balkans dynamic, in which they have always perceived that the US and NATO have privileged the Muslims and taken sides against the Slavic Serbs.  Centuries of invasion and counter-invasion lie behind these perceptions; Russia has experienced Islam as an imperial threat in a way the most Western of powers – the US, the EU-3 – have not.  In Moscow’s eyes, the long series of events in former Yugoslavia, including Western recognition of an independent Kosovo in 2008, is a US-run process that has utterly ignored Russian claims and concerns.

Obama’s appointment of Richard Holbrooke, the Russians’ nemesis in the Balkans during the Clinton years, as his AfPak Czar, cannot have been reassuring.  Recent headlines like this one look, to Russian eyes, like déjà-vu all over again.  With Barack Obama making it clear that he prefers negotiated solutions and accommodation with the Taliban, his administration has at one stroke defined a threat for Russia, and removed any incentive for Russia to remain on the sidelines.  When we were out to destroy the Taliban, Russia could cheer quietly from off the field.  Now that Obama is emphasizing the mainstreaming and political domestication of the Taliban, Russia (a) must do something, and (b) knows the field is clear, because Obama won’t.

Asian commentators have remarked a rapprochement between Pakistan and Russia in the last year.  A fresh avowal of commitment to bilateral ties at the June 2009 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) may have sounded like diplomatic boilerplate – but it was followed with noteworthy rapidity (that is, the very next week) by the unusual visit of Pakistan’s top military chief to Moscow.  As this Indian analyst pointed out, the visit could not be predicated on longstanding military ties, since there haven’t been any.  Pakistan’s arms purchases and military-to-military exchanges have involved the US and China.

With a thousand new bilateral relationships blooming around the planet in the last year or so – every week sees new best buddies proclaiming cooperation and everlasting friendship – it would be easy to downplay the significance of this one.  (In no event would we have expected collusion between Moscow and Islamabad to be trumpeted in detail; the absence of public disclosures in this regard means nothing.)

But Russia is the other Asian nation with much the same interest as Pakistan in denying the Afghan Taliban a dangerous independence – and an independent posture oriented on a nexus with the US and Western powers, to boot. Russia also has a particular interest in the future of Al Qaeda, and in which Islamic factions control other nations in the region.  Russia being on the move – covertly, and through proxies – would help explain Iran’s energized push in Iraq, which I assess is intended to enlarge the mullahs’ power base and secure the western border.  One effect of that would be improving Tehran’s bargaining position with Moscow.

But why Russia is on the move just now, along with Pakistan and very likely the Saudi backers of the various Al Qaeda organizations (who may have been involved in the hit in Dubai) – the explanations here may all lie in the same set of causes.  If your head hurts, remember:  shadowy, Byzantine moves are the way these Asian actors traditionally work.  There’s a broad-scale maneuvering for position underway.  Significant players perceive that conditions have changed.  This is what the world looks and acts like when the US is just one of the guys.

Cross-posted at Hot Air’s Greenroom.


  1. “Significant players perceive that conditions have changed. This is what the world looks and acts like when the US is just one of the guys.”

    “One such factor may be Iran closing in on a working bomb. The closer we get to that day, the harder they’ll all scramble.”

    As you correctly identify J.E., Iran’s ‘closing in on the bomb’ indicates that various ‘players’ in the region realize the situation is about to change and is also a reaction to Obama’s retreat from boots-on-the-ground confrontation and the clear signals from the administration that it wishes to disengage from conflict. They correctly perceive this to be weakness and are obviously scrambling for positions that they may leverage to their advantage.

    Iran clearly wants regional dominance. Its motivations are the most transparent in the region. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt will not long tolerate Iran’s ascendancy without trying to equal it. The other players will align themselves with whatever faction most coincides with its governments interests.

    Russia is maneuvering in the region for the reduction of US regional influence. Which it may well achieve but it is kidding itself, if it believes that it shall ever wield great influence within the region. Its influence will always be limited to cooperation toward mutually beneficial goals.

    China also welcomes a reduction in American influence and wishes to ensure unhindered access to the regions oil but I suspect has little interest beyond that.

    Were it not for the nuclear proliferation Iran’s obtaining nuclear capability will bring, I would take the position that our interest in the region will always be limited as well.

  2. […] colleague JE Dyer has now written two pieces – The Pakistan Connection and Taliban Roll-Up: The Other Connections – further exploring  the Baradar capture and subsequent events – mazy complexities […]

  3. “the murder of Hamas bigwig al-Mabhouh in Dubai, with the cartoonishly obvious “Mossad” sign hung on it by the perpetrators (have any hit men ever left such a trail of pointed clues?)”

    “..the Saudi backers of the various Al Qaeda organizations (who may have been involved in the hit in Dubai)”

    I take it that you think the Hamas hit in Dubai wasn’t perpetrated by the Mossad. It never occurred to me that Israel wasn’t behind it. I guess I need to learn a little more about what’s going on!

    Very comprehensive article you’ve written here J.E. It’s hard to believe how complex these events can be. It’s not so hard to believe that when the US recedes into the background that bad actors try to fill the void. I wonder how long it will take to undo the damage from the fecklessness of the Obama administration.

  4. Yeah, RE, I figured it was Mossad too at first, but when I looked into it, it just didn’t look right. Identities stolen for the hit team from live citizens of EU countries AND of Israel — that’s not even in the playbook. Too much blowback: it angers a bunch of nations and people for no good reason, because it paints targets on the backs of innocent civilians.

    Mossad just doesn’t have a history of being that stupid. Then there’s the fact that virtually everything was caught on security cameras at the hotel in Dubai. Give me a break. One of the chief photos in all the news coverage this past week showed three of the perps walking through the lobby, casual as you please, practically daring the camera to catch them: face-on to it, in full-body view and living color.

    Ridiculous. Basic prep work for something like this is knowing where all the cameras are. Unless this was planned and executed by the Mossad Youth Brigade (have your own secret decoder ring, just like the real spies!), I doubt Mossad had anything to do with it.

    The hit was hilariously designed to draw attention to itself, and the trail leads in the directions most likely to embarrass Israel and get other countries angry with her. The angry reactions are now kicking in like clockwork.

    Of course Israel isn’t denying it. They never confirm or deny anything like this, and they won’t here. One other point: Israel has had shot after shot at al-Mabhouh for years, and no one has advanced any theory, plausible or otherwise, for why he would be killed now. Nothing about this computes.

    GB — I agree that Iran and Russia are engaged in an elaborate game of maneuvers here, each having identified the other as the opponent to weaken, coopt, or defeat. China, however, has shown more than a neutral interest in oil as regards this region.

    China maneuvers differently from Russia, coming at things more obliquely and taking a longer view. But it’s intolerable to China for Russia to be the de facto hegemon of the Middle Eastern region; that would give Moscow a major advantage in their eternal Asian rivalry. So China will continue to give Iran alternatives for patronage, which Iran will continue to want, so she can keep her own freedom of action.

    All three nations are jockeying to stay in the game of Middle East hegemony. Iran and Russia both want it, directly, and soon. Russia has had visionary leaders who’ve wanted it for centuries, and Putin is one of them.

    China for the moment envisions mainly preventing Russia from achieving hegemony in the Middle East. That work has been done for her by the US for the last 60 years. But in the long run, China has a recurring sense of destiny that the Middle Kingdom will be the last hegemon standing, and the “Great Crossroads” of the Middle East will fall under her control as a natural outcome. Getting to that day doesn’t mean putting armies in the Middle East; for now, it just mean staying in the game and building up a presence both in the region and around it.

  5. Thanks for the assessment J.E. That’s why I’m here – to get smart! You seem quite confident that Mossad isn’t behind the assassination, and I buy what you’re selling. Some of your cohorts at Contentions are defending Israel for the assassination though. Do they need a stern talking to?? Or perhaps they are just being coy….

    Anyway, thanks for breaking these things down for a layman like me. It’s nice to know that at least one person understands that I have a “right” to this sort of information…. (haha!).

  6. Leave it to the Obama administration, to bring Holbrooke, the last player in the Diem coup, to the table, now since Putin is a czar in all but title, and not one of the nice ones, I foresee another adventure in the Khyber like those of the 1840s and 1880s. The hypocrisy with Russia via Zandarbichev in Doha, vis a vis, purportedly Israel with Mamdouh
    is a little tough to take

  7. You’re welcome, RE. We may never know what really happened with the hit in Dubai.

    The editorial perspective at contentions is more to discuss the moral and political aspects of things than to analyze them for an assessment of what actually happened. I think they’d say there that whether this was a Mossad hit or not, it remains the case that hits like this produce much less collateral damage than military raids on hideouts in Gaza, where women and children are used as foils.

    It still smells all wrong to me. There’s no obvious motive for Mossad to leave all the 800-pound breadcrumbs lying around, with the neon sign at the end of the trail pointing to Israel. Nor is Mossad that hapless and incompetent.

    On the other hand, Iran and Saudi Arabia are in a proxy fight for principal influence over the Palestinian Arab insurgents. (See the last segment of my “Next Phase of WWIV” series from last year for more on that.)

    Hamas has been big-time cozy with Iran in the last few years, and a higher-up like al-Mabhouh who deals with the Iranians regularly would be a high-payoff target for a rival network. It’s hard to put a name on that network, which probably operates indirectly through intermediaries rather than involving the Saudi government directly. Some level of AQ involvement is possible, although the likelihood of that wanes the closer you get to the government in Riyadh.

    The motive to leave a set of absurdly obvious clues about the hit, all of them pointing to Israel, is strong for Islamists knocking each other off. Still doesn’t make sense for Mossad to have pulled it off in such a Keystone Kops manner.

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