The southern Afghanistan insurgency IS the insurgency…
(Reuters) – Insurgency in the most violent part of Afghanistan is being led by a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, set free by the Afghan government in a botched attempt at reconciliation with tribes, a NATO official said on Saturday.
The man, known by the names Mullah Abdul Qayyum and Mullah Zakir, was arrested in 2001 and held in the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until 2007, when the administration of President George W. Bush turned him over to Afghan custody.
He is now the commander of Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan — including Helmand province, where U.S. and British forces launched the war’s biggest offensive last month — and a leading candidate to take over as Taliban number two and overall military commander, said the NATO official.
Qayyum was transferred to a prison in Kabul in 2007. Afghan Deputy Attorney General Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar confirmed that he was freed by the Afghan authorities in 2008 under a reconciliation programme.
The NATO official, asking not to be identified while discussing intelligence, said president Hamid Karzai appeared to have authorized the release in an effort to reconcile with Pashtun tribes involved in the insurgency.
“When we sort of started to clean out Cuba … it really was under the understanding he would stay locked up here,” the official said.
“He (Karzai) was the one who authorized the release, and I don’t think we were very pleased about it.”
The official said Qayyum took up his position as commander of the insurgency in the south shortly after his release.
Qayyum, believed to be in his early 30s, is now one of two top figures thought likely to replace Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban number two leader whose arrest in Pakistan was announced last month, the NATO official said.
The other likely candidate would be the commander of the insurgency in the east of the country, Mullah Mansour, he said.
The arrest of Baradar, one of the most senior Taliban figures ever brought into custody, was seen as a major coup for Pakistani and U.S. agents, but has raised questions about its impact on the insurgency at a time when Karzai is pushing for peace talks.
The militants have so far not confirmed that Baradar was arrested and refuse to discuss his replacement. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said there could be no talk of any replacement for Baradar in the absence of any proof he was being held.
“They claim that they arrested Baradar, so why don’t they show him to the public?” he told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
However, a Taliban commander in the south, Mullah Hayat Khan, told Reuters Qayyum was likely to emerge as Baradar’s successor, and would be more aggressive than Baradar.
“The Taliban movement will be very strong with Mullah Qayyum in place of Mullah Baradar,” he said.
Afghanistan has asked Pakistan to turn Baradar over to its custody, but a Pakistani court has ruled he cannot be extradited.
Questions have been raised about exactly why Pakistan arrested Baradar now, after years of having little success in dismantling Afghan Taliban networks on its soil.
Some have suggested that the Taliban without Baradar could grow even more radical and hostile to negotiations.
Despite years leading the insurgency and ordering suicide and bomb attacks against the government, Baradar is from the same Pashtun tribe as Karzai and has been seen as someone that might eventually be willing to accept Karzai’s invitation to talks.
Qayyum, by contrast, is a tribal kinsman of the Taliban’s mercurial leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, said in an interview this week with Reuters and the New York Times that Baradar’s arrest may have been the result of an internal feud and purge within the Taliban leadership, although he stressed this was only one possible explanation.
The NATO official said there was no firm evidence to suggest that Qayyum had played a role in ousting Baradar.
Baradar, the official said, had been “extremely competent as a military leader,” and the insurgency would suffer without him. But Qayyum would also be a tough enemy if he emerges as Baradar’s replacement.
“This guy’s no angel and we’d certainly like him to come back and stay with us again,” he said.