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Afghanistan: Taleban Show Renewed Strength
Is sudden surge in insurgent attacks a short-term push to disrupt September elections, or a real sign the Islamic militia is reviving?
By Wahidullah Amani in Kabul (ARR No. 179, 22-Jul-05)
With nearly daily reports of clashes and bloodshed, no one disputes the fact that there has been a dramatic surge in violence in Afghanistan in recent months. But opinion is divided on whether this is the last gasp of the Taleban, or the start of a new aggressive phase of warfare.
For the remnants of the Taleban regime, which was ousted from power in late 2001 by United States troops and their Afghan allies, these attacks are proof that their fighters have successfully regrouped and are now capable of launching attacks anywhere in the country.
The government of President Hamed Karzai and the US-led Coalition see the renewed violence as a desperate attempt by the insurgents to achieve a short-term objective - disrupting the parliamentary and provincial elections scheduled for September 18.
In a telephone interview with IWPR, Taleban spokesman Mufti Abdul Latif Hakimi described some of the insurgent attacks carried out during the past two months.
He reeled off a list of what he said the guerrillas had achieved, including "the seizure of Mian Nishin district in Kandahar province and the capture of more than 30 men at the district [police] headquarters; the Taleban's control of some areas in Helmand province; and the face-to-face fighting by Taleban fighters against government and US troops in Urozgan and Kunar provinces".
Both sides agree that in late June, the militants took control of part of Mian Nishin, sparking an offensive by US and Afghan troops. They differ, however, on the casualty count from the fighting. Interior ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal said US and Afghan troops killed more than 100 Taleban fighters and arrested 16 in the clashes. News reports quoted the US military as saying five Americans were wounded.
Hakimi says the Islamist group lost just eight men in the fighting. He also claimed that they captured 31 policemen and put them on trial, adding that 23 of the officers were found not guilty and released but that eight others were convicted and “executed”.
Independent reports confirm that the bodies of eight police officers had been recovered. The men had been hanged. There has been no independent confirmation of casualty figures in the fighting.
On June 1, a bomb in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taleban, killed 20 people, including Kabul police chief Mohammad Akram, who were attending a memorial service for Maulavi Abdullah Fayaz, a pro-government cleric who had been assassinated a week earlier. The Taleban have denied responsibility for the bombing but many still consider the group to be behind the attack.
Both sides also agree that in late June, the Taleban shot down an American Chinook helicopter carrying commandos sent to rescue a contingent of US troops battling the Islamist fighters in Kunar province. Everyone aboard was killed. The Taleban said 35 people died in the crash, while the US military put the death toll at 16.
The Taleban insist these attacks are part of their long-term strategy to overthrow the current government and drive US forces from the country.
“Whether the elections are held or not, we will continue our jihad [holy war] until we force the Americans to pull out of Afghanistan,” said Hakimi.
“We want a pure Islamic system in Afghanistan and we will realise our hopes."
Defence ministry official General Mohammad Azim Mujahid dismisses the Taleban as a long-term threat. He says they tried but failed to disrupt last year's presidential poll, and now they want to derail the parliamentary election.
“The government is now ready – our national army is being strengthened day by day, and the national police, ISAF and Coalition forces are cooperating with us,” said Mujahid, referring both to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force of 8,300 troops and the US-led forces, with a strength of some 18,000.
US and British military are training the new Afghan National Army, which is being created from former militia fighters who handed in their weapons under the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme. Around 21,000 men have been trained so far, with a target of a 70,000-strong army by the end of 2006.
“We are now able to neutralise enemy attacks in any part of the country,” said General Mujahed.
For Gul Khan, 35, sitting on bare earth in his new home, the claim rings hollow. He was forced by the violence to flee his home in the southern province of Zabul and now lives in a tumbledown hovel in the village of Sadeq Khil, in the safer environment of the central province of Wardak.
"I worked as a labourer for the Americans, but the Taleban was always warning my parents that if they didn't stop me working with them they would kill me," he said, explaining why he fled his Zabul home in May.
"The government was in charge only in the centre of Zabul province, in Qalat city, but outside the city the government was not in control."
Ahmad Jan, 60, who also relocated his family from Zabul to Wardak, said he fled after the Taleban threatened to kill his sons.
"I destroyed my house and left my farm because I was constantly being threatened by the Taleban through letters left at night telling me to prevent my sons from working for the government and to join them [the Taleban] in a jihad against the government and the Americans," said Ahmad Jan.
While both Taleban and government officials suggested that insurgent forces appear to be acquiring more modern military equipment, neither side provided details on how the guerrillas were being supplied.
Local reports said a rocket-propelled grenade rather than a more sophisticated missile may have brought the Chinook helicopter down, although the US military has not confirmed this.
Colonel James Younts, a US military spokesman in Kabul, acknowledged that Taleban attacks have increased, and told IWPR that "there are indications that some of these attacks could be funded by or supported by outside agencies or other movements outside of Afghanistan”.
He added, "As the parliamentary elections are important for both Afghanistan and the international community, the terrorists also know the importance of the elections and they want to prove their presence by doing these things.”
The interior ministry’s Mashal said the Taleban was unable to take on government troops directly and was instead hitting soft targets like schools, mosques and other public places to try to deter people from taking part in the elections.
As proof, Marshal noted that five girls' schools have been set ablaze recently in Wardak and Logar provinces; vehicles have been hit by rockets; five parliamentary candidates have been killed in various parts of the country and the homes of others set ablaze. And in the past month, at least four pro-government clerics have been shot dead.
Hakimi acknowledged the Taleban had set houses ablaze in Wardak and had rocketed trucks there, but said he had no information about the burning down of the girls' schools.
In the countdown to the elections, ISAF troop numbers are being boosted.
The chief of France’s defence staff, General Henri Bentegeat, who visited Kabul on June 27, said, “The French government will send some 1,000 soldiers to Afghanistan in order to secure the parliamentary elections and these troops will continue their operations until the end of the elections.”
Nearly 1,000 French troops are already serving with ISAF and Coalition forces.
Meanwhile, the US reported that it was sending an additional 700 soldiers to join in the hunt for Taleban forces in the southern part of the country. Australia will also send 150 elite troops to join the 1,500 it already has in Afghanistan.
Colonel Younts told IWPR that there could well be more terrorist attacks. But the Afghan and US governments, the Coalition and ISAF would fight those responsible, to ensure that "the Afghan people will vote in September".
Taleban spokesman Hakimi sounded unconcerned, saying, "Our mujahedin are well trained – they are successful in fighting the Americans. These wine-swigging Americans can’t resist us and will leave Afghanistan very soon."
Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul. Abdul Baseer Saeed, an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul, also contributed to this report.