Fun With Names and Insurgencies

by Joshua Foust on 2/17/2010 · 13 comments

Newsweek reports:

Another leader of the Afghan Taliban has been captured by authorities in Pakistan working in partnership with U.S. intelligence officials. Taliban sources in the region and a counterterrorism officials in Washington have identified the detained insurgent leader as Mullah Abdul Salam, described as the Taliban movement’s “shadow governor” of Afghanistan’s Kunduz province.

Described by whom, I wonder? Long War Journal has the seeming definitive analysis of Kunduz and who Mullah Abdul Salam is (he’s been, apparently falsely, reported killed before). The trouble is, that’s the only place other than the Newsweek article I can find a reference to a Mullah Abdul Salam (or Salaam) before today. And even then, the only references concern the September air strike on those fuel tankers.Try for yourself—unless Google News has become seriously deficient (and it was never really that good, just an easy tool), it just isn’t there.

That, of course, doesn’t mean the man doesn’t exist. But it does make me wonder if we might have some names mixed up. After all, there is a Brigadier General Abdul Salam, who is in charge of the Border Police in Kunduz. We have a (I guess?) different Mullah Abdul Salam in Musa Qala, the site of my favorite “tribal engagement” boondoggle (cleverly arranged, let us not forget, by the inexplicably credible Michael Semple). In fact, there are Abdul Salams everywhere, including as the primary subject of my friends’ new book.

There are bits of the Newsweek story that don’t make any sense. Abdul Salam was supposedly captured in Faisalabad, which is in Punjab kind of near Lahore; they claim Taliban sources said he was on his way to meet Baradar, in Karachi, nearly 1,200 km away. Why would he travel from Kunduz all the way east to Faisalabad, only to then go south and west through most of Pakistan to meet Baradar? Something about that doesn’t add up.

In fact, there’s a lot to this sudden string of captures that just doesn’t make sense. I’ve done my best to avoid the more grandiose discussions of using Baradar’s capture as a prism for domestic politics, but when I hear that Abu Waqas, who led a group of Pakistani Taliban fighters in Bajaur, has also been captured (this time back in Karachi), I have to wonder: is this actually a sea change? Does none of this make sense because it is, in fact, a break from Pakistan’s recent past?

We should hold out before accepting such an idea. Assuming we have the right Abdul Salam from Kunduz, he almost certainly knows Mullah Baradar: Baradar commanded the Taliban in Kunduz during the earliest stages of Operation Enduring Freedom. Some of his men were suffocated to death in Abdul Rashid Dostum’s death camps in Mazar-i Sharif. Some of his men escaped from Kunduz to Pakistan during the infamous Airlift of Evil, which saw the Pakistani government rescuing, with American acquiescence, thousands of Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani ISI and Army officers, Al Qaeda volunteers and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan on airplanes departing from Kunduz (Baradar claims he flitted away on his friend Omar’s motorcycle). So it’s possible that Salam really was on his way to meet Baradar for some reason, and events broke America’s way and both got nabbed.

But still. Pakistan has a rather annoying habit of doing this—of grabbing certain senior men only after they have outlived their usefulness and touting their capture as evidence of their cooperation with America. The reality, normally, is quite the opposite. Senior figures even have a habit of going into and then magically falling out of custody, again depending on the whims of the personalities involved. It seems promising to get these men off the street, even knowing that doing so probably won’t affect the insurgency in any real way.

But we cannot declare this a game-changing event yet. Going after the rednecks in the Quetta Shura is one thing; but the Haqqanis are the real bellwether here. The ISI has, from the start, considered Jalaluddin Haqqani their man, and presumably they also consider Sirajuddin their man as well. They and their organization remain untouched within Pakistan. If the Pakistani establishment is really relinquishing its plans to use Taliban proxies in a post-American Afghanistan, then they will start arresting the Haqqanis. Until that happens, it’ll be a tough sell to thrown down a few figures, however senior, and claim major success against the insurgency.

Update: Dayfdd leaves a comment noting that Dawn is reporting Abdul Salam was captured in Balochistan. That’s at least more believable than his being captured in Faisalabad, but still: what the hell happened? I’m more confused than ever.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 13 comments }

Colin Cookman February 17, 2010 at 11:32 pm

This Der Spiegel piece from Sep 2008 profiled and briefly interviewed Mullah Salam, for what it’s worth.

anan February 18, 2010 at 1:45 am

Thoughtful piece.

Hmmm. Something fundamentally shifted in Pakistan in the spring of 2009. This hasn’t happened since 1947. You could sense it in the body language of PM Singh during the one year anniversary of 26/11/2008 (British date.) In his press conference in Washington PM Singh was clear that India saw the Pakistani Taliban as a threat to India and supported the Pakistani government and people against them.

Baradar’s capture in Sindh reflects a profound shift. I don’t know how much of the Pakistani Army, ISI, and establishment is fully committed to defeat all the extremists of all stripes; but the mere fact that a large fraction of them are is historic and encouraging. For the first time in generations; potential paths to a victory against global extremism seem achievable. This said, it is far from clear “EXACTLY” what has shifted and “HOW” it has shifted. Which particular components of the Pakistani establishment helped capture Baradar and Abdul Salam and why?

Good catch on how “Abdul Salam” is a lot like “Joe Smith” in its ubiquity. Hope they caught the right “Abdul Salam” :LOL:

Baildog February 18, 2010 at 6:51 am

The more I think about it, the more I think that the U.S has been played by the ISI once again (surprise!). It looks like Barader was the main conduit for reconciliation negotiations, and the likelihood is that they rolled him up not to disrupt TB ops, but to prevent him from negotiating with ISAF and GIRoA.

It explains neatly why they chose now to roll him up. Keeping him in their hands ensures that he cannot negotiate directly with ISAF/GIRoA, cutting PAK out of the picture. Serves to remind all of the player who really is the kingmaker here.

Plus, undoubtedly they extracted some price for conducting a “joint op” to “help the Americans catch this wanted terrorist.”

Michael Collins February 18, 2010 at 3:06 am

And then there’s Interior Minister Malik denying that Baradar was captured in a “joint operation,” implying that Pakistan grabbed him alone and the NYT story on the “joint capture” was propaganda. What’s that about?

Pakistani public opinion turned sharply on “islamic extremists” shortly before the Swat attacks and it’s become more adamant against extremism given the bombings and more than 3,000 dead as a result in 2009. Who is behind these terrorist bombings in Pakistan? which forces? I’m new to this blog (which looks excellent) so I’ll look around but it’s an important question that I’ve not seen answered.

Jakob February 18, 2010 at 5:37 am

Apart from the fact that Malik is a puppet of everyone (Zardari and the US both have their arms up his spine), and a poor one too, his reaction is very logical and the fact that the West always seems pissed at Pakistan’s reactions only stems from our ignorance to the fact that it’s a country that foremost has to manage itself and the war on terror is not it’s major concern and can’t be. More than 170 mio inhabitants care more about which menu is on at the local McDonalds, how to bring in the next harvest and sell it at a reasonable price on the international market or at least about national politics (NRO …) and not whether to capture Baradar-Who or not.

NYT suddenly coming up with the story that US agents are obviously skimming through the country doesnt make (NYT reading = middle class = media people) Pakistanis very happy – but their anger doesnt go against the West directly but against their own government which seems to let the Americans do what they want (“internal imperialism”/ I tried to explain that here). Now Malik tries to keep up his integrity. He has failed with his assurance that no Blackwater/US army is in Pakistan, and failed again. But that’s not so obvious when you only have the local papers to read – so he can keep going with his assurances that are blatant lies and prolong his post a little longer before after some time the whole thing wil topple again and Nawaz Sharif will take over. But us trying to see Pakistan as a country that should just follow our lead and ignore the opinions of local Pakistanis (who may generally be anti-Taliban and anti-Extremism but that’s not a synonym for US-army-on-our-soil-yeaah) is leading us on a path to nowhere.

Jakob February 18, 2010 at 3:17 am

>>Abdul Salam was supposedly captured in Faisalabad, which is in Punjab kind of near Lahore; they claim Taliban sources said he was on his way to meet Baradar, in Karachi, nearly 1,200 km away. Why would he travel from Kunduz all the way east to Faisalabad, only to then go south and west through most of Pakistan to meet Baradar? Something about that doesn’t add up.<<

I agree with the essence of the post, just to be a smartass on Taleban movement in Pakistan:

Lahore/Faisalabad/Sarghoda area in Punjab is the LeJ/SeS/Punjabi-Taliban stronghold area, especially Sarghoda and Faisalabad are favourite places for top Talibs to settle. Hakimullah Mehsud allegedly died peacefully in Multan, close. So travelling through there, from Kunduz to Lahore on GT, makes sense – he would have people along the way making sure he doesnt get pinned down. The other two options are flying (difficult I guess with his identity) or the SpinBoldak-Quetta-Khi way which is currently under close army surveillance and has a bottelneck (Sibi-Jacobabad).

Adger February 18, 2010 at 4:19 am

By using Google.de a bunch of references to Mr. Salam all over the net come up.

Dafydd February 18, 2010 at 8:54 am

Dawn.com reckons Abdul Salam (and Mir Mohammed) both shadow governors were captured in Balochistan.

a href=”http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/04-two-taliban-arrested-pakistan-qs-07″>see here

ON another point, support for terrorism in general, and suicide attacks in particular varies accross Muslim majority nations.

There is a very strong inverse correlation with the number of suicide attacks occuring and that support. This means majority muslim nations with few suicide attacks happening have stronger support than those where the attacks are more frequent. The fall in support in Pakistan is a prime example.

Is anyone really surprised by this?

anan February 18, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Is there yet confirmation that Mir Mohammed (shadow governor of Baghlan province) and Abdul Salam (shadow governor of Kunduz province) have been captured?

Dafydd February 18, 2010 at 8:55 am
greg February 18, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Isn’t it just more of the same puppet show? Some of the background ‘actors’ get changed occassionally when fallguys are needed, but the main plotline continues to be played on stage. American interests seem to have taken over most of the British interests after WW2, when they could no longer afford the price of imperial conquests, so they let their cousins in the USA carry on the grand scheme instead with their ‘new friends’ in Israel as the false flag op players we are used to throughout history. It seems the show must go on, no matter the names of the actors onstage, they are only puppets afterall and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, no matter how much noise they make, they only serve as distractions in this theatre of the absurd, as all empires turn out to be. As for the locals? Well, haven’t the ‘people’ always been considered pawns or mere background actors anyway and subject to the whim of their ‘leaders’? It seems all the usual players are up on stage from the mercenaries to the king-makers, only the names have changed with the times. Didn’t Caesar also have problems initially getting the people used to the title of emperor and Rome as an empire? I, for one, don’t see any change in the script that has played out throughout history from the little that remains from all the imperial book burnings. But very few ever read these commentaries anyway, as they have been ‘carefully taught’, as Hammerstein put it in South Pacific. It always comes back to that classic ‘good’ vs ‘evil’ doesn’t it? The thread of history has each republic being tested with the temptation of empire that few can resist and for those that can, their neighbors will be encouraged to test the limits of their restraint. Life on Planet Earth isn’t called Purgatory for nothing. You don’t have to be in the Middle East to feel the stress as the new world empire emerges from the closet of history. Isn’t that what we are witnessing? We are reaching the point of no return in which soon there won’t be much difference between here and there. Only the conditioning is more covert here in the West as usual. Same script just different names.

Toryalay Shirzay February 19, 2010 at 12:52 am

This war is a continuation of the Great Game which has been played for 300 years now and those who now call themselves the Pakistani establishment were part of India and they have been a major player.By contrast,the Americans have been playing this game for only 35 years,meaning they have a lot of catching up to do.Watch how the Pakistanis will checkmate the Americans!!With Pakistan having more nuclear weapons than India(see Scientific American.Jan 2010)thanks to the Company,the control of Afghanistan and a few of Central Asian States is the biggest chess game of the first half of the 21th century.

Dafydd February 19, 2010 at 5:37 am

Looks like you may have your wish (at least Partly) granted.

One of the Haqqani brothers is reported killed by a drone strike.

(Dawn.com again)

The BBC sums up the confusion over this quite nicely, reporting that

1) Mullah Abdul Salam and Mullah Mir Mohammad are reported seized (about two weeks ago)
2) On Thursday, Pakistan’s army spokesman told the BBC that he was not aware of any such arrests
3) Taliban spokesman have denied the reports
4) On location, they cite three separate places, Balochistan, Karachi & NWFP (did he escape, only to be rearrested, twice??)

Don’t know if there is a possibility that this ties in with the Haqqani thing – “The New York Times says the two leaders were picked up from the town of Akora Khattak in the North West Frontier Province, the location of a major seminary, Darul Uloom Haqqania, where many senior Taliban leaders have studied”

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