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This article, by M K Bhadrakumar, was published in the Asia Times, November 9, 2009
Afghans do not like Britain's tutorial - not only on good governance but on any topic under the sun.
For a fleeting hour or two, a question hung in the rapidly chilling autumn air in the Hindu Kush: did British Prime Minister Gordon Brown speak last weekend at the behest of United States President Barack Obama or did he speak out of turn, as even experienced politicians are wont to? Then it went away. It really does not matter either way.
The damage has been done. Brown's speech on Afghanistan at the Royal College of Defense Studies in London on Friday was appalling in its content, timing and context. Perhaps, the indiscretion was deliberate. Politicians all over need to ventilate frustrations once in a while. Whenever cornered, they instinctively look for a scapegoat.
Things are not going well for the British troops deployed in Afghanistan. Ninety-three men have been killed this year - and, as Brown poignantly said, "That 93 is not just a number. Ninety-three families whose lives will never be the same again; 93 families without a dad, or a husband, a brother or son; 93 families this Christmas with a place at their table no one else will ever be able to fill."
A truly tragic situation, indeed. This tragedy was brought down on the British people by Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, who should not have so enthusiastically volunteered for the war in 2001 when the George W Bush administration was contemplating the invasion of Afghanistan as one of the options to mitigate the anguish and anger the American people felt after the September 11 attacks. Of all countries in Europe, Britain knows Afghanistan best, after all. It is not the Falklands.
The British government is under pressure to explain the meaning of this war to a baffled public opinion. At the same time, paradoxically, the British establishment is keeping its fingers crossed and hoping against hope that Obama doesn't waffle.
Hanging onto the American coat-tails and keeping an open-ended presence in the heart of Asia bordering Iran, Central Asia, Xinjiang and Kashmir is critically important for Britain strategically to sustain its residual standing as a "global power" at the present transformational period in the world order, when the US is increasingly turning its attention to the East.
However, all this play still does not justify Brown's speech. Simply put, Afghans do not like Britain's tutorial - not only on good governance but on any topic under the sun. There is a long history behind contemporary Anglo-Afghan relations, which Afghans haven't forgotten. Two, Brown could have avoided the use of undiplomatic language - "Cronies and warlords should have no place in the future of a democratic Afghanistan." That's old-fashioned imperial language.
Three, Brown went far too "personal" - finger-pointing at President Hamid Karzai repeatedly by name. You don't finger-point at the president of a sovereign country. Four, Brown butted into a "no-go" zone - Karzai's appointments of cabinet ministers and provincial governors in his new government, having been re-elected for a second five-year term.
These appointments are central to the political contract in Kabul and it is extremely doubtful if Karzai is in a position to oblige Britain or any foreign power. At any rate, it is a bad idea for outside powers to arbitrate between Afghan groups and personalities during a cabinet formation.
The efficiency bar is never applied to power brokers in this part of the world. Look at India, Bangladesh or Pakistan, the three biggest "democracies" in South Asia. Few technocrats or professionals hold ministerial posts in the governments in Delhi, Dhaka or Islamabad. There is a cultural context that cannot be overlooked. Ministerial positions are considered as sinecure positions in these countries. Often there is a need to ensure equilibrium between different interest groups by accommodating them in cabinet positions.
In this part of the world, no one asks uncomfortable questions as to whether the politicians holding ministerial posts are indeed worthy of their exalted status - whether they have had formal education or are intellectually endowed and can think through problems and issues or are professionally competent. It is simply assumed that they are where they are because of what they are as politicians.
Besides, according to the Afghan constitution, Karzai has to go to parliament and seek endorsements for his cabinet appointments - a criteria that is lacking in India or Bangladesh or Pakistan. There is a power calculus at work in Kabul, one that cannot be micromanaged by Karzai.
Therefore, what Karzai can be expected to do is to appoint efficient civil servants to assist the political figures - "cronies and warlords" - who sit in his cabinet. On the contrary, what Western countries are trying to do is to impose on Karzai an English-speaking cabinet. Such an approach can only have one outcome, that is, a government that pulls in a dozen or more directions with no one in charge. That will be a sure recipe for greater inefficiency and corruption.
Therefore, Britain seems to be needlessly muddying the waters in the Afghan leader's difficult equations with the West, and this right on the eve of Obama's announcement of his new war strategy. What the calculation behind this could be is hard to tell. If any North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member country is singularly responsible for the deterioration of Karzai's equations with the West, it is Britain. And it all began as a scuffle over the appointment of provincial governors in Helmand and over the creation of the post of a viceroy for Lord Paddy Ashdown to browbeat Karzai, and it progressively widened into a rift that inveigled third parties.
The Afghan Foreign Ministry didn't even take a full day to rebuff the British leader's "instructions on the composition of Afghan governmental organs and the political policy of Afghanistan".
Now, what does London do? Is the British contingent in Helmand going to be withdrawn, which was precisely what Brown threatened he would do? Clearly, Karzai should be allowed to have a team of his choice in Kabul. He is entitled to it, just as is any occupant of No 10 Downing Street in London.
For argument's sake, what are Britain's choices today? If Karzai chooses his ways and policies and doesn't follow London's guidelines, will Britain remove him from power? Even assuming that Britain had such profound influence or clout, who would replace him? The three Afghan leaders in the succession chain would be Karzai's first and second vice presidents and the speaker of parliament. From the current lineup, Britain will have to settle for Mohammed Fahim, Karim Khalili or Younus Qanooni.
Thereby hangs a tale. It is yet to sink in that Karzai's victory signifies a turning point in Afghan politics. He rubbished the shenanigans in the Western political armory. Karzai's appearance on the victory rostrum in front of the Western media, flanked by Fahim and Khalili, said it all. If the West has not grasped the meaning of it, then it has lost its way completely.
Secondly, a splendid occasion is at hand to gracefully "legitimize" Karzai II, as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested last week in an interview with the New York Times. Kouchner pointed out that Western political experts who knew nothing about Afghanistan detected fraud by sampling ballots. "This is science. But politics is not science. It's the common touch," he said.
Kouchner obviously desires a good working relationship with Karzai's government. France has deployed a 3,000-strong contingent in Afghanistan. That is a sensible approach. Of all Western statesmen today who articulate on Afghanistan, Kouchner has a special claim to offer advice. He knows Afghanistan. He was a participant in the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, living and working inside Afghanistan as a young doctor assisting the mujahideen.
Equally, Kouchner underlined that NATO is in a virtual quagmire in Afghanistan. He asked with biting sarcasm, "What is the goal? What is the road? And in the name of what? Where are the Americans? It begins to be a problem. We [NATO] need to talk to one another as allies."
The West should propose to Karzai to seek help from all available quarters, especially from regional powers and other regional security bodies that are wiling to cooperate. At the present stage, as a reconciliation process with the Taliban is about to commence, the attempt should be to lend credence to Karzai's standing as far as possible, but at any rate not to discredit it for whatever reason. Karzai is not the enemy. He still prefers to be on the side of the Western alliance. Allow him to continue to the extent he can while navigating his way in a political arena of immense complexity.
It is not in the interests of Afghanistan's stabilization that a cabal of foreign countries - the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - continues to hold the strings of conflict-resolution. Clearly, this is not the time for Britain's "great game" maneuverings in pursuit of its lost glory as a world power. The best bet for NATO is to get behind Karzai as quickly as possible.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
This article, by Chris Hedges, was posted to Common Dreams.org, November 2, 2009
The warlords we champion in Afghanistan are as venal, as opposed to the rights of women and basic democratic freedoms, and as heavily involved in opium trafficking as the Taliban. The moral lines we draw between us and our adversaries are fictional. The uplifting narratives used to justify the war in Afghanistan are pathetic attempts to redeem acts of senseless brutality. War cannot be waged to instill any virtue, including democracy or the liberation of women. War always empowers those who have a penchant for violence and access to weapons. War turns the moral order upside down and abolishes all discussions of human rights. War banishes the just and the decent to the margins of society. And the weapons of war do not separate the innocent and the damned. An aerial drone is our version of an improvised explosive device. An iron fragmentation bomb is our answer to a suicide bomb. A burst from a belt-fed machine gun causes the same terror and bloodshed among civilians no matter who pulls the trigger.
"We need to tear the mask off of the fundamentalist warlords who after the tragedy of 9/11 replaced the Taliban," Malalai Joya, who was expelled from the Afghan parliament two years ago for denouncing government corruption and the Western occupation, told me during her visit to New York last week. "They used the mask of democracy to take power. They continue this deception. These warlords are mentally the same as the Taliban. The only change is physical. These warlords during the civil war in Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996 killed 65,000 innocent people. They have committed human rights violations, like the Taliban, against women and many others."
"In eight years less than 2,000 Talib have been killed and more than 8,000 innocent civilians has been killed," she went on. "We believe that this is not war on terror. This is war on innocent civilians. Look at the massacres carried out by NATO forces in Afghanistan. Look what they did in May in the Farah province, where more than 150 civilians were killed, most of them women and children. They used white phosphorus and cluster bombs. There were 200 civilians on 9th of September killed in the Kunduz province, again most of them women and children. You can see the Web site of professor Marc Herold, this democratic man, to know better the war crimes in Afghanistan imposed on our people. The United States and NATO eight years ago occupied my country under the banner of woman's rights and democracy. But they have only pushed us from the frying pan into the fire. They put into power men who are photocopies of the Taliban."
Afghanistan's boom in the trade in opium, used to produce heroin, over the past eight years of occupation has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to the Taliban, al-Qaida, local warlords, criminal gangs, kidnappers, private armies, drug traffickers and many of the senior figures in the government of Hamid Karzai. The New York Times reported that the brother of President Karzai, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has been collecting money from the CIA although he is a major player in the illegal opium business. Afghanistan produces 92 percent of the world's opium in a trade that is worth some $65 billion, the United Nations estimates. This opium feeds some 15 million addicts worldwide and kills around 100,000 people annually. These fatalities should be added to the rolls of war dead.
Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said that the drug trade has permitted the Taliban to thrive and expand despite the presence of 100,000 NATO troops.
"The Taliban's direct involvement in the opium trade allows them to fund a war machine that is becoming technologically more complex and increasingly widespread," said Costa.
The UNODC estimates the Taliban earned $90 million to $160 million a year from taxing the production and smuggling of opium and heroin between 2005 and 2009, as much as double the amount it earned annually while it was in power nearly a decade ago. And Costa described the Afghan-Pakistani border as "the world's largest free trade zone in anything and everything that is illicit," an area blighted by drugs, weapons and illegal immigration. The "perfect storm of drugs and terrorism" may be on the move along drug trafficking routes through Central Asia, he warned. Profits made from opium are being pumped into militant groups in Central Asia and "a big part of the region could be engulfed in large-scale terrorism, endangering its massive energy resources," Costa said.
"Afghanistan, after eight years of occupation, has become a world center for drugs," Joya told me. "The drug lords are the only ones with power. How can you expect these people to stop the planting of opium and halt the drug trade? How is it that the Taliban when they were in power destroyed the opium production and a superpower not only cannot destroy the opium production but allows it to increase? And while all this goes on, those who support the war talk to you about women's rights. We do not have human rights now in most provinces. It is as easy to kill a woman in my country as it is to kill a bird. In some big cities like Kabul some women have access to jobs and education, but in most of the country the situation for women is hell. Rape, kidnapping and domestic violence are increasing. These fundamentalists during the so-called free elections made a misogynist law against Shia women in Afghanistan. This law has even been signed by Hamid Karzai. All these crimes are happening under the name of democracy."
Thousands of Afghan civilians have died from insurgent and foreign military violence. And American and NATO forces are responsible for almost half the civilian deaths in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have also died from displacement, starvation, disease, exposure, lack of medical treatment, crime and lawlessness resulting from the war.
Joya argues that Karzai and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who has withdrawn from the Nov. 7 runoff election, will do nothing to halt the transformation of Afghanistan into a narco-state. She said that NATO, by choosing sides in a battle between two corrupt and brutal opponents, has lost all its legitimacy in the country.
The recent resignation of a high-level U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh, was in part tied to the drug problem. Hoh wrote in his resignation letter that Karzi's government is filled with "glaring corruption and unabashed graft." Karzi, he wrote, is a president "whose confidants and chief advisers comprise drug lords and war crimes villains who mock our own rule of law and counter-narcotics effort."
Joya said, "Where do you think the $36 billion of money poured into country by the international community have gone? This money went into the pockets of the drug lords and the warlords. There are 18 million people in Afghanistan who live on less than $2 a day while these warlords get rich. The Taliban and warlords together contribute to this fascism while the occupation forces are bombing and killing innocent civilians. When we do not have security how can we even talk about human rights or women's rights?"
"This election under the shade of Afghan war-lordism, drug-lordism, corruption and occupation forces has no legitimacy at all," she said. "The result will be like the same donkey but with new saddles. It is not important who is voting. It is important who is counting. And this is our problem. Many of those who go with the Taliban do not support the Taliban, but they are fed up with these warlords and this injustice and they go with the Taliban to take revenge. I do not agree with them, but I understand them. Most of my people are against the Taliban and the warlords, which is why millions did not take part in this tragic drama of an election."
"The U.S. wastes taxpayers' money and the blood of their soldiers by supporting such a mafia corrupt system of Hamid Karzai," said Joya, who changes houses in Kabul frequently because of the numerous death threats made against her. "Eight years is long enough to learn about Karzai and Abdullah. They chained my country to the center of drugs. If Obama was really honest he would support the democratic-minded people of my country. We have a lot [of those people]. But he does not support the democratic-minded people of my country. He is going to start war in Pakistan by attacking in the border area of Pakistan. More civilians have been killed in the Obama period than even during the criminal Bush."
"My people are sandwiched between two powerful enemies," she lamented. "The occupation forces from the sky bomb and kill innocent civilians. On the ground, Taliban and these warlords deliver fascism. As NATO kills more civilians the resistance to the foreign troops increases. If the U.S. government and NATO do not leave voluntarily my people will give to them the same lesson they gave to Russia and to the English who three times tried to occupy Afghanistan. It is easier for us to fight against one enemy rather than two."
Time to replace the Pentagon with the Peace Corps. It accomplishes far more with far less.
This article, by Greg Grant, was posted to Military.com, October 26, 2009
It was all things Afghanistan and Pakistan at the House Armed Services Committee with lawmakers weighing the viability of a counterterrorism approach versus population centric counterinsurgency and Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s new strategy. An interesting aspect of this debate is the level of knowledge shown by some members of Congress on everything from the proper troop to civilian ratio called for in classic counterinsurgency doctrine to the intricacies of the Tajik versus Pashtun balance in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration has taken some serious heat in recent days for what former Vice President Dick Cheney called "dithering" over the decision to escalate in Afghanistan or not. The reliably hawkish Tom Donnelly of AEI, part of the escalate often and everywhere crowd, even provided an exhaustive timeline of the Obama administration’s "long road to indecision" that can be found here.
Two prominent retired generals Barry McCaffrey and David Barno, testifying before the HASC Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on Thursday, both said it was important the administration take some time on this one. McCaffrey pointed to what he called one of the most "shameful" episodes in recent history when former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld claimed he was never asked for his viewpoint on invading Iraq before the war. It is important that the senior Obama administration officials take their time and think through the various options because once they decide, "they will own the decision."
While urging full deliberation, both generals were pretty clear how they want that decision to ultimately turn out. For his part, McCaffrey favors escalation and called the over-the-horizon counterterrorism approach a "silly option." He suggests sending 100,000 more troops, not just the 40,000 reportedly wanted by McChrystal. Promises have been made, he said, and not just at the national level when the Bush administration said the U.S. would lead an effort to rebuild Afghanistan. Young American troops on the ground in Afghanistan, waging a war for the will of the Afghan people, make promises every day that the U.S. will be there for them and protect them if they take sides against the Taliban.
McCaffrey said a tribal and ethnic war is underway for control of both Afghanistan and Pakistan and the security implications of Islamic extremists seizing power in either location are too serious not to escalate the U.S. military commitment to the region. Because of the inability of non-governmental and aid organizations to function in Afghanistan due to the security concerns, he recommended sending at least two engineering brigades and a slew of Army Corps of Engineer folks to work on large development projects.
If the military effort stumbles in Afghanistan and the U.S. were to seriously draw down there, it would likely spell the end of NATO as a military alliance, said Barno. To declare success and pull out now, would simply mean the U.S. military would be forced to re-invade the country at some future date when Islamic radicals take power in Kabul and re-establish a terrorist sanctuary there. Barno also favors an escalation of the troop commitment in Afghanistan along the lines of McChrystal’s rumored 40,000 troop request.
Many Afghans have been forced to choose a side in this war, and they have sided with the U.S. and NATO against the Taliban, said Beth Ellen Cole, of the United States Institute of Peace. A Taliban takeover could condemn many of them to a very bleak future, she said, "we have a lot of exposed people on the ground right now." She pointed to efforts at reconstruction and peacekeeping in both Rwanda and Sierra Leone as examples that the international community can in fact improve the lot of war torn countries.
This article, by Syed Saleem Shahzad, was published by the Asia Times Online, October 15, 2009
ANGORADA, South Waziristan, at the crossroads with Afghanistan - A high-level meeting on October 9 at the presidential palace between Pakistan's civil and military leaders endorsed a military operation against the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda in the South Waziristan tribal area - termed by analysts as the mother of all regional conflicts.
At the same time, al-Qaeda is implementing its game plan in the South Asian war theater as a part of its broader campaign against American global hegemony that began with the attacks in the United States of September 11, 2001.
Al-Qaeda's target remains the United States and its allies, such as Europe, Israel and India, and it does not envisage diluting this strategy by embracing Muslim resistances on narrow parameters. In this context, militant activity in Pakistan is seen as a complexity rather than as a part of al-Qaeda's strategy.
Militants have been particularly active over the past few days. Last Thursday, a car loaded with explosives rammed into the compound wall of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, killing at least 17 people. Then on Saturday, militants staged an audacious attack on the the Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi, the twin city of the capital, Islamabad. On Monday, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb in market town in the Swat Valley region, killing 41 people and injuring 45 others.
Pakistan is at critical juncture, with the armed forces gathered in their largest-ever numbers (almost a corps, as many as 60,000 troops) around South Waziristan to flush out the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Taliban (PTT), al-Qaeda and their allies from the Pakistani tribal areas.
In these tense times, Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, an al-Qaeda leader who, according to American intelligence is al-Qaeda's head of military operations and whose death they wrongly confirmed in a recent US Predator drone attack in North Waziristan, spoke to Asia Times Online.
He invited this correspondent to a secret hideout in the South Waziristan-Afghanistan border area, where drones regularly fly overhead.
This is Ilyas' first-ever media interaction since he joined al-Qaeda in 2005. He is a veteran commander from the struggle with India over divided Kashmir.
In the past few months, the militants have appeared to be on the back foot. A number of leading figures have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan, including Osama al-Kini, a Kenyan national and al-Qaeda's external operations chief; Khalid Habib, the commander of the Lashkar al-Zil or the Shadow Army, al-Qaeda's fighting force; Tahir Yuldashev, leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; PTT leader Baitullah Mehsud, and several others.
The Pakistani Taliban have also been given a bloody nose by the military in tribal and urban areas. Negotiations were also underway to strike peace deals with some Taliban commanders in various Afghan provinces.
Then last week at least nine US troops along with several dozen Afghan National Army (ANA) personnel were killed in a raid on an outpost in Nuristan province, besides the abduction of over 30 ANA officers and soldiers by the Taliban.
This attack was complemented by a series of other attacks on North Atlantic Treaty Organization bases across the southeastern provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika, forcing top US General Stanley McChrystal to pull out all troops from isolated posts in remote areas in these provinces to relocate them in population centers.
This created immense space for the Taliban to operate freely, meaning that if Pakistan conducted operations in South Waziristan, the militants could easily move across the border to find sanctuary.
The attacks over the past few days have also shown that the militants are still capable of striking important targets almost at will. They also mean a redesign of the war theater in which Pakistan will have to relocate its troops from the eastern front (India) to the western front (Afghanistan), as the Taliban are now the number one enemy.
Washington plans to send at least another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan while India will complement these efforts with its intelligence and military expertise against the common enemy - Muslim militant groups. The upcoming battle
Ilyas Kashmiri gave his views on what the upcoming battle will look like, what its targets will be, and how it will impact the West in relation to the destabilization of a Muslim state such as Pakistan.
The contact with Asia Times Online began with a call from the militants on October 6, inviting this correspondent to the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan. No reason was given. The next day, I traveled to Mir Ali, a town that has been heavily attacked by drones over the past year. After over seven hours of continuous traveling, I was received by a group of armed men who transferred me to a house belonging to a local tribesman.
"The commander [Ilyas Kashmiri] is alive. You know that the commander has never spoken to the media before, but since everybody is sure of his death as a result of a drone attack [in September], al-Qaeda's shura [council] decided to make a denial of this news through an interview by him to an independent newspaper, and therefore the shura agreed on you," a person whom I knew as the key person in Ilyas' famous 313 Brigade told me as soon as I reached the safe house. The brigade, a collection of jihadi groups, fought for many years against India in India-administered Kashmir.
"You will have to stay in this room until we inform you of the next plan. You can hear the voices of drones above your head, therefore you will not leave the room. The area is full of Taliban, but also of informers whose information on the presence of strangers in a house could lead to a drone attack," the man said.
The next day, I was transferred to another house at an unknown location, about three hours away. During this time I was accompanied at all times by an armed escort. I was not allowed to speak to them, and they could not communicate with me. This is al-Qaeda's internal world. Finally, in the early morning of October 9, a few armed men arrived in a white car.
"Please leave all your electronic gadgets here. No cell phone, no camera, nothing. We will provide you pen and paper to write the interview," I was instructed. After several hours of a very uncomfortable journey, passing down muddy tracks and through mountain passes, we reached a room where Ilyas was supposed to meet us.
After a couple of hours, suddenly the sound of a powerful vehicle broke the silence. My escort and the men already present in the room rapidly took up positions. They all wore bullet pouches and carried AK-47s.
Ilyas made his entrance. He cut a striking figure, about six feet tall (1.83 meters), wearing a cream-colored turban and white qameez shalwar (traditional shirt and pants), carrying an AK-47 on his shoulder and a wooden stick in one hand, and flanked by commandos of his famous diehard 313 Brigade.
Ilyas now sports a long white beard dyed with reddish henna. At the age of 45 he remains strongly built, although he carries the scars of war - he has lost an eye and an index figure. When we shook hands, his grip was powerful.
The host immediately served lunch, and we sat on the floor to eat.
"So, you have survived a third drone strike ... why is the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] sniffing around you so much? I asked.
The question was somewhat rhetorical. He is one of the most high-profile al-Qaeda commanders, with a Pakistani bounty of 50 million rupees (US$600,000) on his head. His position is defined differently by various intelligence and media organizations. Some say he is commander-in-chief of al-Qaeda's global operations, while others say he is chief of al-Qaeda's military wing.
If today al-Qaeda is divided into three spheres, Osama bin Laden is undoubtedly the symbol of the movement and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri defines al-Qaeda's ideology and broader strategic vision. Ilyas, with his unmatched guerrilla expertise, turns the strategic vision into reality, provides the resources and gets targets achieved, but he chooses to remain in the background and very low key.
His bases and activities have always remained shrouded in secrecy. However, the arrest of five of his men in Pakistan earlier this year and their subsequent grilling helped lift the veil. Their information resulted in CIA drone strikes against him, the first in May and then again on September 7, when he was pronounced dead by Pakistani intelligence, and finally on September 14, after which the CIA said he was dead and called it a great success in the "war on terror".
"They are right in their pursuit. They know their enemy well. They know what I am really up to," Ilyas proudly replied.
Born in Bimbur (old Mirpur) in the Samhani Valley of Pakistan-administered Kashmir on February 10, 1964, Ilyas passed the first year of a mass communication degree at Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad. He did not continue due to his heavy involvement in jihadi activities.
The Kashmir Freedom Movement was his first exposure in the field of militancy, then the Harkat-ul Jihad-i-Islami (HUJI) and ultimately his legendary 313 Brigade. This grew into the most powerful group in South Asia and its network is strongly knitted in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. According to some CIA dispatches, the footprints of 313 Brigade are now in Europe and capable of the type of attack that saw a handful of militants terrorize the Indian city of Mumbai last November.
Little is documented of Ilyas' life, and what has been reported is often contradictory. However, he is invariably described, certainly by world intelligence agencies, as the most effective, dangerous and successful guerrilla leader in the world.
He left the Kashmir region in 2005 after his second release from detention by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and headed for North Waziristan. He had previously been arrested by Indian forces, but he broke out of jail and escaped. He was then detained by the ISI as the suspected mastermind of an attack on then-president Pervez Musharraf, in 2003, but was cleared and released. The ISI then picked Ilyas up again in 2005 after he refused to close down his operations in Kashmir.
His relocation to the troubled border areas sent a chill down spines in Washington as they realized that with his vast experience, he could turn unsophisticated battle patterns in Afghanistan into audacious modern guerrilla warfare.
Ilyas' track record spoke for itself. In 1994, he launched the al-Hadid operation in the Indian capital, New Delhi, to get some of his jihadi comrades released. His group of 25 people included Sheikh Omar Saeed (the abductor of US reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002) as his deputy. The group abducted several foreigners, including American, Israeli and British tourists and took them to Ghaziabad near Delhi. They then demanded that the Indian authorities release their colleagues, but instead they attacked the hideout. Sheikh Omar was injured and arrested. (He was later released in a swap for the passengers of a hijacked Indian aircraft). Ilyas escaped unhurt.
On February 25, 2000, the Indian army killed 14 civilians in Lonjot village in Pakistan-administered Kashmir after commandos had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) that separates the two Kashmirs. They returned to the Indian side with abducted Pakistani girls, and threw the severed heads of three of them at Pakistani soldiers.
The very next day, Ilyas conducted a guerilla operation against the Indian army in Nakyal sector after crossing the LoC with 25 fighters of 313 Brigade. They kidnapped an Indian army officer who was later beheaded - his head was paraded in the bazaars of Kotli back in Pakistani territory.
However, the most significant operation of Ilyas was in Aknor cantonment in Indian-administered Kashmir against the Indian armed forces following the massacre of Muslims in the Indian city of Gujarat in 2002. In cleverly planned attacks involving 313 Brigade divided into two groups, Indian generals, brigadiers and other senior officials were lured to the scene of the first attack. Two generals were injured (the Pakistan army could not injure a single Indian general in three wars) and several brigadiers and colonels were killed. This was one of the most telling setbacks for India in the long-running Kashmiri insurgency.
Despite what some reports claim, Ilyas was never a part of Pakistan's special forces, nor even of the army. Nearly 30 years ago when he joined the Afghan jihad against the Soviets from the platform of the HUJI, he developed expertise in guerrilla warfare and explosives.
Within just months of arriving in the Afghan war theater in 2005, Kashmiri redefined the Taliban-led insurgency based on legendary Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap's three-pronged guerrilla warfare strategy. For the Taliban, the main emphasis was to be placed on cutting NATO's supply lines from all four sides of Afghanistan, and carrying out special operations similar to the Mumbai attack in Afghanistan.
Over the years, Ilyas has deliberately adopted a low key presence in the militants' hierarchy. His attacks are just the opposite, although he never issues statements or claims responsibility for any operation.
His 313 Brigade is believed to be the main catalyst of high-profile operations such as the one in Mumbai and others in Afghanistan, as well as al-Qaeda's operations in Somalia and to some extent in Iraq.
"Do you believe that the upcoming South Waziristan operation will be the 'mother of all operations' in the region, as some analysts say," I asked after we had finished lunch and I was alone with Ilyas and his trusted confidant.
"I don't know how to play with words during an interview," Ilyas responded. "I have always been a field commander and I know the language of battlefields. I will try to answer your questions in the language I am familiar with. (Ilyas spoke mostly in Urdu, mixed with some Punjabi.)
"Saleem! I will draw your attention to the basics of the present war theater and use that to explain the whole strategy of the upcoming battles. Those who planned this battle actually aimed to bring the world's biggest Satan [US] and its allies into this trap and swamp [Afghanistan]. Afghanistan is a unique place in the world where the hunter has all sorts of traps to choose from.
"It might be deserts, rivers, mountains and the urban centers as well. This was the thinking of the planners of this war who were sick and tired of the great Satan's global intrigues and they aim for its demise to make this world a place of peace and justice. However, the great Satan was full of arrogance of its superiority and thought of Afghans as helpless statues who would be hit from all four sides by its war machines, and they would not have the power and capacity to retaliate.
"This was the illusion on which a great alliance of world powers came to Afghanistan, but due to their misplaced conceptions they gradually became trapped in Afghanistan. Today, NATO does not have any significance or relevance. They have lost the war in Afghanistan. Now, when they realized their defeat, they developed an emphasis that this entire battle is being fought from outside of Afghanistan, that is, the two Waziristans. To me, this military thesis is a mirage which has created a complex situation in the region and created reactions and counter-reactions. I would not like to go into the details, to me that was nothing but deviation. As a military commander, the reality is that the trap of Afghanistan is successful and the basic military targets on the ground have been achieved," Ilyas said.
I responded that the relocation of 313 Brigade from Kashmir was itself proof that foreign hands were involved in Afghanistan.
"The entire basis of your argument is wrong, that this war is being fought from outside of Afghanistan. This is just an out-of-context understanding of the whole situation. If you discuss myself and 313 Brigade, I decided to join the Afghan resistance as an individual and I had quite a reason for that. Everybody knows that only a decade ago I was fighting a war of liberation for my homeland Kashmir.
"However, I realized that decades of armed and political struggles could not help to inch forward a resolution of this issue. Nevertheless, East Timor's issue was resolved without losing much time. Why? Because the entire game was in the hands of the great Satan, the USA. Organs like the UN and countries like India and Israel were simply the extension of its resources and that's why there was a failure to resolve the Palestinian issue, the Kashmir issue and the plight of Afghanistan.
"So I and many people all across the world realized that analyzing the situation in any narrow regional political perspective was an incorrect approach. This is a different ball game altogether for which a unified strategy is compulsory. The defeat of American global hegemony is a must if I want the liberation of my homeland Kashmir, and therefore it provided the reasoning for my presence in this war theater.
Ilyas continued, "When I came here I found my step justified; how the world regional powers operate under the umbrella of the great Satan and how they are supportive of its great plans. This can be seen here in Afghanistan." He added that al-Qaeda's regional war strategy, in which they have hit Indian targets, is actually to chop off American strength.
"The RAW [India's Research and Analysis Wing] has detachment command centers in the Afghan provinces of Kunar, Jalalabad, Khost, Argun, Helmand and Kandahar. The cover operations are road construction companies. For instance, the road construction contract from Khost city to the Tanai tribe area is handled by a contractor who is actually a current Indian army colonel. In Gardez, telecommunication companies are the cover for Indian intelligence operations. Mostly, their men operate with Muslim names, but actually the employees are Hindus."
"So should the world expect more Mumbai-like attacks?" I asked.
"That was nothing compared to what has already been planned for the future," Ilyas replied.
"Even against Israel and the USA?" I asked.
"Saleem, I am not a traditional jihadi cleric who is involved in sloganeering. As a military commander, I would say every target has a specific time and reasons, and the responses will be forthcoming accordingly," Ilyas said.
As I noted Kashmiri's answers, I thought of how several years back he was the darling of the Pakistani armed forces, their pride. The highest military officers were proud to meet him at his base in Kashmir, they spent time with him and listened to the legends of his war games. Today, I had a different person in front of me - a man condemned as a terrorist by the Pakistani military establishment and their biggest wish is his death.
"What impressed you to join al-Qaeda?" I asked.
"We were both victims of the same tyrant. Today, the entire Muslim world is sick of Americans and that's why they are agreeing with Sheikh Osama. If all of the Muslim world is asked to elect their leader, their choice would be either [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar or Sheikh Osama," Ilyas said.
"If it is so, why are a section of militants bent on war on Muslim states like Pakistan? Do you think this is correct?"
"Our battle cannot be against Muslims and believers. As I have mentioned earlier, what is happening at the moment in the Muslim world is a complexity due to American power games which have resulted into reactions and counter-reactions. This is a totally different debate and might deviate me from the real topic. The real game is the fight against the great Satan and its adherents," Ilyas said.
"What turned you from the most-beloved friend to the most-hated foe in the eyes of the Pakistani military establishment?" I asked.
"Pakistan is my beloved country and the people who live there are our brothers, sisters and relatives. I cannot even think of going against its interests. It was never the Pakistan army that was against me, but certain elements who branded me as an enemy to cover up their weaknesses and to appease their masters," Ilyas said.
"What is 313 Brigade?" I asked.
"I cannot tell you, except war is all tactics and this is all 313 Brigade is about; reading the enemy's mind and reacting accordingly. The world thought that Prophet Mohammad only left women behind. They forgot there were real men also who did not know what defeat was all about. The world is only familiar with those so-called Muslims who only follow the direction of the air and who don't have their own will. They do not have their own minds or dimensions of their own. The world has yet to see real Muslims. They have so far only seen Osama and Mullah Omar, while there are thousands of others. Wolves only respect a lion's iron slap; lions do not impress with the logic of a sheep," Ilyas said.
As the shadows of darkness emerged, the conversation ended. The next day, a curfew was to be imposed in North Waziristan in preparation for the grand operation in the region, and I had to leave the area. Ilyas also needed to move to a new destination, as he does on a regular basis to hide from the eyes of Predator drones.