I am following up on earlier posts here - the subject is worth investigating, right?
For starters today, here is a link to an absolute must-read on the fate of some ninety Arab fighters who took part in combat around Kandahar when the Americans came in. And the rather interesting developments that impact their legacy there. Why start with this? Well, just because, partly. This is an interesting story. But it also underlines the enormous respect that there is in some places, for Arab fighters, who "have come even before the Taliban" as one Kandahari man says in the video embedded in Christian Bleuer's post.
Now, what I want to do, with that added to our perspective, is to bring in a key quote from Olivier Roy and Mariam Abou Zahab, to present an example of the narrative that a revision of AQ's importance in Afghanistan should (but in my view cannot) defeat.
It comes from this book, from pages 48-49:
"The encounter between Bin Laden and the Taliban changed the rules. The Taliban entrusted Bin Laden control of the non-Pakistani militants (...) During this period Bin Laden brought the Arabs under his control and isolated them from the Afghan population. The leaders were installed in what amounted to residential complexes near Kandahar and Jalalabad, while the ordinary fighters were grouped together in cantonments in Kabul and Kunduz. At the same time a third echelon was established made up of militants from Western countries who were being trained to return home and carry out terrorist activities. A select group functioned in Afghanistan under the leadership of Abu Zubayda; this Palestinian from Gaza, born in the Saudi capital Riyadh in 1971 and holding an Egyptian passport, was a former member of Islamic Jihad and resident in Afghanistan."
Regarding the combat role of al-Qaida volunteers, they have this to say (on page 51):
"They fought bravely, as their resistance to the joint attacks of the Americans and the Northern Alliance in 2001 proved, but their separation from the population and their ignorance of the local language and society made them vulnerable and unfit for guerrilla warfare. However, their methods of combat, which were completely distinct from the Afghan tradition and included the suicide attack on Massoud on 9 September and the uprising of the prisoners of Qala-i-Jangi on 25 November 2001, demonstrated that they could overturn the traditional order."
Mention of Massoud's assassination is itself highly relevant to the subject. That was no small contribution by al-Qaida to the Taliban's campaign... Well, for the span of the entire two days until it became clear why they did this huge "favour." The favour that brought in U.S. special forces with abundant air support...
(As to the Qala-i-Jangi uprising, of course the people involved in that were not only al-Qaida volunteers of, for example, John Walker Lindh's kind. One of my sharpest memories about the uprising is from a video documentary, part of which was shot before the uprising, in which a Pakistani man looks in astonishment at the reporter, when asked of why they had surrendered, repeatedly saying "No. We not surrender...")
Roy and Abou Zahab then go on to describe also the key link that developed between the Taliban's and al-Qaida's top leadership, with the latter increasingly influencing the former, and how this was reflected in the increasing radicalisation of the Taliban's policies, manifesting for example in the eventual decision to destroy the Buddha statues in Bamiyan (see page 52). This is something that Roy Gutman, with his archival and interview-based research, also elaborates on in detail, in his book How we missed the story. I may still get back to this issue later on. On page 58 of Roy and Abou Zahab's book there is one more sentence I would quote here: "(on the top level which is implied here - P.M.) the transnational links between the Pakistani Islamists and the Taliban and al-Qaida do not appear to have an organisational base. In reality everything rests on personal connections, the connections of the madrasas, and chance meetings in training camps and community of interest." Yes, that doesn't sound like love.
As to the exact chain of command (anything resembling that) in this pseudo-organisation, Vahid Brown directed my attention to a discussion here, where many key individuals are named in connection with the Ansar/55th brigade. For a starter, for those who research this, here are the combatant status review documents regarding these individuals from the NYT's Guantanamo Docket.
Al-Atabi fought till captured by Dostum's forces (Dostum's Uzbeks weren't fighting an Uzbek civil war with Ansars made up only of IMU fighters as one could mistakenly deduce from certain sources*). Abdul Rahman Uthman Ahmed was another fighter who ended up surrendering to Dostum's forces. Just like al-Zahrani, too, who is alleged to have seen combat earlier on at "the Bilal Position," with what presumably was "the Bilal unit" as such - this could as well be a hint regarding the so-called brigade's organisation (ironically, it seems to have mirrored the SFs' embed system in 2001).
Seeming to confirm just this, I have dug up this article on the 55th brigade from the past. An article in Time Magazine, in 2001, soberly describes the unit not as one that would have been organised according to a Euro-centric conception of what a "brigade" is:
"Despite the name, the 55th isn't a brigade in the traditional sense. Rather than deploying as one unit backed up by a range of artillery, members fan out in small groups to help reinforce their Afghan brothers, often taking the forward positions. By threat or persuasion, the 55th tries to instill its sense of fearlessness, and discipline, in the Afghan rank-and-file--and goes so far as to shoot those daring to retreat. Even among all the notorious players in Afghanistan, the brigade enjoys a particularly brutal reputation for butchering opposition forces."
Finally, here is this Jamestown piece by Brian Glyn Williams which mentions the brigade as the International Islamic Brigade. Now that is a better name for this unit from every stakeholders' perspective (I was wondering about a (geo)politically correct name like this in a comment to my previous post on the issue). How many times one can actually find it mentioned in the discourse of those concerned, in retrospect, should also be interesting for research (though I don't think one will find this used with anything like consistency, and Ansars is still the most likely hit in my view). Anyway here is the relevant bit of the article: "Afghan watchers were quite familiar with the Taliban's increasing reliance on the al Qaeda's "International Islamic Brigade" (that is, the 055 Brigade, a shock unit made up of Uzbek extremists from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Arab jihadis, and Pakistani militants)."
* Leah Farrall writes in a post on her blog: "I asked him (Abu Walid al-Masri - P.M.) about the foreign mujahideen stationed in Kabul under the authority of the IMU (who are often mistakenly called the 055 brigade and labelled an al Qaeda strike force)."