What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Back to Vahid Brown and the al-Qaida/Taliban relationship

Vahid Brown commented on a post here yesterday. I reacted, he reacted, and at one point he said there never was an 055 brigade or a 55th Arab Brigade among the Taliban's forces, this is a myth, and the Taliban never needed al-Qaida or even Arab fighters all that much. This is quite revolutionary to me, I must say, so I need to ask if this is fair enough for an interpretation of what he said? No, it can still be fairer. I will paste the relevant part of Brown's comment here:
"There was no 055 Brigade - this is a totally unsubstantiated myth. Multiple insider primary sources from both the Taliban and the foreign jihadi side confirm that Bin Ladin had no interest in sending his followers to the Taliban's front lines. The large numbers of Arab muj volunteers there were independent of Bin Ladin and were not members of al-Qa'ida."
This fundamentally contradicts with the view held by many sources. And if you ask me, I for one also think it is wrong.
Now, many sources can be quoted here. But firstly let's just go for a source that I think has the chance to clarify a lot of things. And then for some more quotes, for further elaboration. And then for some finishing comments. And then it's over to everyone else who wants a piece of the action and has something to offer for further clarification.
Huh. Deep breath. So here is the first quote, over to John Walker Lindh:

"WALKER: The Taliban have suffered much in the army, and they have the Afghans, and they have the non-Afghans. I was with the separate branch of the non-Afghans.
PELTON: And what is the non-Afghani branch called?
WALKER: It's called Ansar. It means the helpers.
PELTON: Is that the same as the 055 brigade and the...
WALKER: I'm not familiar with that.

PELTON: That's the term -- I was with the Taliban in 1995, and they were explaining, they had the 055 brigade, and then the...
WALKER: It has -- they have a number name. I don't remember the number."

Might it have been that for the simple organisation of this battlefield formation, all its foot soldiers were really required to know is they were Ansars? Would they have needed to believe that they were also a "55th Arab Brigade" of a larger organisation, which, hey, sounds just like being subservient to a national army, which is, like, possibly blasphemous in light of what God Almighty might expect from the umma, in certain interpretations?
Here is a quote from Brian Glyn Williams then, to shed more light on the use of the term Ansars, from his defence of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, "bin Laden's (Yemeni) driver" (quoting pages 6-7):
"These fighters formed an elite Al Qaeda support army for the Taliban known as the 055 Brigade, or more colloquially as the Ansars. This unit had thousands of Egyptians, Yemenis, Uzbeks, Uighurs, Saudis, Algerians, Sudanese, and even one American named Johnny Walker Lindh (the socalled “American Taliban”) in its ranks.
The 055 Brigade was deployed primarily against Northern Alliance opposition in north-eastern Afghanistan. There its soldiers fought under a black banner known as the rayah. They were armed with light artillery, outdated Soviet T-62 tanks, multiple rocket launcher systems, and light infantry weapons (AK-47s and -74s, PK machine guns, RPG-7s etc). The Taliban prisoners told me that the foreign fighters had better weapons, better training and discipline (many had served in the armies of the home countries), and even uniforms (of a sort, this was Afghanistan after all). Their uniforms consisted of black turbans or Arab keffiyeh headscarves, camouflage jackets and pants, and Western style boots or sneakers (a rarity in Afghanistan where men wore robe-like shalwar kameez and sandals). They also had a well organized command structure.
The 055 fighters were in a class of their own in Afghanistan and were known as the cutting edge of the Taliban sword. My Uzbek Northern Alliance hosts told me of numerous occasions when the Ansars stormed their positions as shock troops for the Taliban. When the US invaded, these foreign foot-soldiers were deployed against Coalition forces."
Seems like "Ansar" was the term that the other side, the Northern Alliance fighters, in this case Dostum's fighters came to use, too.
The Taliban's use of the Ansars only grew over time. Roy Gutman covers, in his book, How we missed the story, quite well how the Taliban became more and more dependent. Bin Laden's former body guard, Abu Jandal is quoted on page 98 as having said that "The blood of the Arabs and the Afghans was spilled at the Afghan fronts and this was an important factor in strengthening the relationship and bolstering links between the Al-Qaeda Organization and the Taliban Movement and their leaderships." Which is part of the reason why people like Phyllis Oakley were referring to Afghanistan by 1999 as a "hijacked" state (see p. 161).
And it was more than just the men that the Taliban could use. Everyone seems fixated on the Ansars/55'ers, whoever, but hey, money flow was a major concern in those days (also). Abdul Salam Zaeef, in his book, doesn't describe the Taliban defence ministry's working budget as exactly huge; he says it was insufficient (on page 85 he says the weekly budget in September 1998 was 300,000 dollars). Which is why many of their men were fighting in sandals, by the way. The presence of bin Laden's men meant access to rather generous donations which they couldn't have done without. Like I said in a comment myself yesterday, in the 1990s combat environment, or political economy, of Afghanistan, even the relatively modest Stinger buyback program was an injection of critical resources to many, earlier on. Which is why people in the CIA referred to Afghanistan by 1998 as a "terrorist-sponsored state" (p. 164. in Gutman's book).
As to post-9/11, the Arab fighters by that stage were absolutely vital for the Taliban. Here is a quote from the Pentagon military historians' volume, A Different Kind of War. It is from the chapter Collapse of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, p. 80.
"Of the foreign troops, those associated with al-Qaida had received the best training and displayed the most zeal in combat against Coalition and NA forces. Stephen Biddle, an analyst at the US Army Strategic Studies Institute, has pointed out that the Taliban recognized the superiority of the foreign elements and relied greatly on them in the fall of 2001."
So. The circle has come full. That's where/when Lindh was captured.
Getting back to yesterday's post of mine, this wasn't "al-Qaida being subservient to the Taliban." No strawman ever thought that. It was strategic cooperation. It was a deal. D-E-A-L. Ansars at the local front, bases for the global front. Pretty simple, right? (I think it's more simple than to assume that all those exotic creatures on Pandora are mystically bound by cultural rules, and matters of survival and strategy do not affect their behaviour all that much.)
And telling us that HuJI and other "Kashmiris," other Pakistanis, the IMU and so many others were also involved in this mix is not new - and this mix is something that continues to this day. Neither is this something that would contradict the notion that bin Laden was very important, even if we do not up till today understand exactly how, in every aspect.
So what I would want to see more from people like Vahid Brown is to become better at sourcing (like, more extensively and critically addressing the exact profile of some of the people they extensively quote), to face some basic facts (e.g. that discourse analysis will be skewed in a generally information-starved environment, when there is much motivation on the part of those quoted to deceive, much potential also to have been manipulated themselves, while many others who should have a say are... well... kind of illiterate you know?); and to open more towards political economy/strategic interpretations of events, to address their abstract logic better, also. Otherwise, I am ready to accept their truly precious opinion when I see it sufficiently backed up. I am generally open to reinterpretations, and what I described above is just the method by the use of which people with good language skills can find as opposed to make a difference.


Vahid said...

I'm not going to reinvent the wheel on the myth of the 055 Brigade as a "component of al-Qaeda" (as Gunaratna puts it), as Leah Farrall has researched this and will present the relevant evidence in her forthcoming thesis. An intesesting back-and-forth on this question can be found in the comments to a blog post of hers, here: http://allthingsct.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/long-war-journal-recycles-tajikistan%e2%80%99s-finest-rumors-%c2%ab-ghosts-of-alexander/

Péter MARTON said...

Thanks for pointing me to that discussion. Leah Farrall's blog is up there on my blogroll, just like Jihadica. But I missed the comments to this post.

The point right at the beginning by Adam Sadik offers some chance for further clarification, compatible with what I said above.

No, the 55th brigade is not a myth. But its name as an "Arab Brigade" is worth addressing. There clearly weren't just Arabs in it, in fact, Pakistanis may easily have been the majority.

That is an excellent starting point. Now, who might that have come from? Arabs were not enthusiastic about being referred to as an ethnic unit of the "national" army of the Taliban. So I don't think the emergence of this term is a sign of reputation-building by them. Their propaganda functioned quite well without something like this; "Ansar" was a term suiting their needs much better.

What about the Taliban? They wanted to keep count of their forces' structures, the order of battle in other words. Even if units were actually behaving somewhat randomly and (very) far from the organised manner that some would speculate on the basis of a reference to brigades etc.

So let's see, what alternatives were there to the Taliban? Calling this unit the "Non-Afghan brigade"?

Oops, that may not be the way to go into battle for Afghanistan. Very bad for their propaganda purposes. Not to mention that Pakistani Pakhtuns absolutely cannot be called NON-AFGHANS...

So should the unit have been called a Pakistani Brigade...? Oops, someone in Islamabad is already shouting "NO! DON'T YOU DARE!"

Or a Pakistani-Arab or Pakistani-Arab-Uzbek Brigade? Whichever one would use, the guy in Islamabad is still shouting.

Just for the fun of it, let us pose and ponder the possibility of a reference to UZBEK SHOCK BRIGADES. That would be Ahmed Rashid's nightmare. But it wouldn't have been very inspiring perhaps, either.

Also, Arabs have a rather special standing in Afghanistan, partly for historical reasons, partly because of Islam, so that's more comfortable in general, to refer to this unit, the Ansar unit, as "Arab."

Meanwhile, probably even the Taliban used the term "Ansars" a lot, anyway.

Now, having put this down, I really hope no one will have "conniptions" or "shriek at the computer" because of seeing some speculative analysis like this, that one may bother to address with something other than a shriek.

Péter MARTON said...

To add to one of the points above, a "Pakistani Brigade" would not have been so conducive to popularity in a battle for Afghanistan, either.