Upcoming presidential elections are giving Afghan rebels a new focus, drawing disparate groups and Taliban factions back into communication and cooperation. The strategy is to peel off Pashtun support for the Oct. 9 ballot in order to divide them from the central government.
As the campaigning officially kicked off last week, insurgent commanders and militants have been holding secret meetings in Afghanistan's Pashtun-dominated south and east. Included in the talks are the Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami, warlord Yunus Khalis, and a new group emerging on the scene - Jaish-e-Muslamin.
"We are busy forming the alliance to [disrupt] the farcical elections," says Syed Akbar Agha, chief of Jaish-e-Muslamin, from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. "[We] are meeting to delegate responsibilities and form a joint platform for activities against infidel forces and their slave Afghan government."
In a new videotape aired on Al Jazeera Thursday, Osama bin Laden's deputy claimed that mujahideen, or holy fighters, have already taken control of parts of Afghanistan. "Southern and eastern Afghanistan have completely become an open field for the mujahideen," said Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The newest group to emerge, Jaish-e- Muslamin, claims to have 75 groups of five fighters each in Kandahar Province, 13 groups of four to five guerrillas each in Kabul, and 60 to 70 fighters outside Kabul. That size force is too small to supplant the Taliban as the primary rebel group, say analysts. But the new group appears to be trying to broaden the rebellion's appeal and coordination.
"Our effort is to attract mujahideen who were reluctant to join the Taliban. Our aim is to fight for a common cause to liberate Afghanistan from foreign forces," says Jaish's military commander, Maulvi Mansoor Ishaq.
Jaish has been also enlisting Afghan clerics to its cause, including Mullah Abdullah Zakiri, who attended one of the recent rebel summits. On the eve of the US invasion, Mullah Zakiri chaired the congregation of clerics who advised the Taliban not to hand over Osama bin Laden.
As antigovernment forces rally, President Hamid Karzai is embroiled in a power struggle with one of the top warlords in his government. Mr. Karzai ordered the removal of the governor of Herat, Ismail Khan, sparking violent reactions from supporters who attacked a UN compound and stoned US soldiers. About a dozen people were injured in the violence.
Like Mr. Kahn and many of the country's other warlords, the Jaish-e-Muslamin militants are mostly former mujahideen. They claim to have merged into Mullah Omar's Taliban movement in 1994 and several of them held important positions during the Taliban's regime.
Analysts say the Jaish group is too small to accomplish the enormous task of uniting all militant factions, particularly the most powerful militia of the Taliban.
"The Taliban had been ruling Afghanistan exclusively, and they are not yet prepared to share what they perceive is their exclusive right to rule with other resistance groups like Jaish or former mujahideen or Hikmatyar," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based expert on Afghan affairs.
Since their ouster, the Taliban have carried out numerous attacks against US forces, Afghan police, and aid workers, including the bombing at the Kabul offices of Dyncorps, an American firm that provides security for President Karzai.
They have also begun distributing hundreds of pamphlets urging people to stay away from the ballot. The Taliban want low turnout to prove that elections are being held without Pashtun representation, deepening the alienation that prevails among those who believe they don't have a share in the mainly Northern Alliance-dominated central government.
Jaish's emergence and calls for unity seem to lend credence to recent reports that have suggested the Taliban has begun to weaken, or even splinter. Only Sunday, Maj. Scott Nelson told a news briefing in Kabul that some rebel leaders have been seeking out a way to come in from the cold.
"We have seen Taliban, low-level, mid-level, and high-level individuals contacting both the government and the [US-led military] coalition to talk about reconciliation," said Major Nelson. He added that Taliban militants don't have the ability to "significantly impact security and stability in Afghanistan," and were concentrating on soft civilian targets instead.
But several observers discount the notion that the Taliban movement is weakening or breaking up.
"Initially [the Taliban] may have been bringing extremists from [Pakistan's] tribal region, but now they are finding new recruits from the villages of Afghanistan," says analyst Mohammad Riaz. "With constant guerrilla attacks against the US-allied forces ... the Taliban have created doubts among the minds of Afghans about the final success of America in Afghanistan."
Janullah Hashimzadah, a Peshawar-based journalist, says that "there are differences between the leaders of the Taliban, but [these are] not surfacing because they believe it would benefit the US [and] Karzai and disillusion their supporters."
Since Omar has been forced into hiding by a US manhunt, the command of the organization has been turned over to a 10-member shura, or council. "It lacks central command," says Mr. Hashmizadah.
Despite pressures on Taliban leaders to remove Omar as their chief, they are prevented by an oath of allegiance says Behrouz Khan, a Peshawar-based analyst. According to custom, such an oath can only be broken by death. "Even if they break the oath, then common Afghans will view them with dislike," says Mr. Khan. "They cannot survive politically, and that is why none of these small splinters has been a success."