KANDAHAR – Unable to counter deadly Taliban attacks despite full support of US coalition forces in Afghanistan, Kabul has been secretly helping a breakaway Taliban faction that has become a de facto ally of the government.
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The New York Times, in a shocking report Monday, narrated the details of a particularly bitter fight in the heavily contested district of Gereshk in Helmand province.
In recent months, the Ashraf Ghani government quietly provided the breakaway faction – popularly known as the Renouncers – with weapons, safe passage and intelligence support in their fight against the mainstream Taliban.
“When it was over, at least 21 people were dead on both sides – and all of them were members of the Taliban,” the NYT reported.
Infighting among the Taliban is nothing new. But Afghan officials have now chosen sides, with a policy that amounts to “If you can’t beat them, at least help their enemies do so.”
Interestingly, not to mention the deadly consequences of using militant groups against one another, the result has been a series of successes in areas where the government has otherwise suffered repeated defeats, particularly in Helmand, a southern province where the mainstream Taliban still control 90 per cent of the territory.
According to NYT report, the Renouncers are followers of Mullah Mohammad Rasoul, who split with the main Taliban group after revelations in 2015 that the former Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, had long been dead. Mullah Rasoul and his followers were angered that Mullah Omar’s replacement, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, had kept the death a secret.
“After Mullah Mansour was killed in an American airstrike last year, his successor, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, antagonized the Rasoul faction even more, especially by choosing a hard-line member of the Taliban’s Haqqani wing, Sirajuddin Haqqani, as deputy leader in charge of military operations.”
Last week, the mainstream Taliban attacked a Renouncer base in Gereshk, one of the few areas outside Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, that are not under Taliban control. The base, near an Afghan Army base, was struck by a pickup truck loaded with explosives and driven by a suicide bomber, killing 11 of their fighters, according to Hamidullah Afghan, a local police official was quoted by NYT as saying.
He added the authorities helped evacuate those Renouncers who were wounded to a hospital in Lashkar Gah.
In retaliation, the Renouncers began their own suicide attack against the Taliban at a bazaar in the district, according to Abdul Salam Afghan, a spokesman for the Helmand police. In all, 11 of the Renouncers and 10 of the mainstream Taliban were killed in the fighting, which was still flaring this week in the area of the bazaar, in Seminar Dasht village.
‘NDS training terrorists’
According to the NYT report, the Renouncers were being trained by Afghanistan’s premier spy agency.
Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, the spokesman for the mainstream Taliban in southern Afghanistan, said the group they had attacked in Gereshk was a unit trained and equipped by the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency. He said it had no affiliation with the Taliban.
However, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, the spokesman for the Renouncer faction, denied that the group was government-supported, saying that it was a popular movement spurred by resentment toward the mainstream Taliban.
Government officials in Helmand publicly deny any support for the Renouncer faction. But several police officials, according to the New York Times, said that the government had helped transfer wounded Renouncers to the hospital after the fighting last week. And a border police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that among the units guarding the entrances to Lashkar Gah is a Renouncer unit trained and equipped by the National Directorate of Security.
According to a border police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the NDS pays the fighters salaries equivalent to $150 to $300 a month, as well as supplying food, weapons and vehicles.
Militant groups in Afghanistan
In several parts of the country, the Taliban also have to contend against the Islamic State in Khorasan, followers of the extremists in Iraq and Syria. The group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is particularly strong in parts of eastern Nangarhar Province, but it also has had a presence in Ghor, Farah and other areas. Most of those elements began as Taliban factions that turned against the mainstream group.
Last week, the Islamic State scored a symbolic victory against the Taliban by taking control of the Tora Bora cave and tunnel complex, once used by Osama bin Laden as a hideout. The Afghan military said on Sunday that it was in the process of ousting the militants from the area.