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    South Asia
     May 1, 2008
Push comes to shove in Afghanistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - In what has been described as "a good public relations exercise", Prince William, second in line to the British throne, has visited Afghanistan to meet British troops in Kandahar province.

The brief unannounced trip is indeed headline-grabbing, but it cannot disguise the fact that the Western coalition has a monumental battle on its hands against the Taliban-led insurgency, and the first round has already begun.

Surprise Taliban attacks from the northern Afghan province of Kapisa (the Tagab Valley) to the southern Helmand districts and from Kunar to Nangarhar provinces have conclusively engaged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in its biggest


operations since the deployment of its forces in Afghanistan in 2001.

In a telling development, several hundred US Marines this week engaged the Taliban in Helmand province near Garmser, the farthest south American troops have operated in that province.

The Taliban rule the countryside here all the way to the Pakistan border. The assault on Garmser was the first offensive by the 2,300 marines who arrived from the United States this month to bolster mainly British forces in the area.

This trend of deploying additional troops in direct confrontations is expected to continue, even at the risk of higher casualties, in provinces such as Nangarhar, Ghazni, Kunar, Helmand and Kandahar, where the Taliban have established strongholds.

This follows a recent NATO summit at which the member countries agreed to reconcile their differences over Afghanistan and commit more troops, especially to the south, where previously many NATO members were not prepared to send troops.

A new generation of warriors
The Taliban anticipated this "surge" a la the policy of troop reinforcements in Iraq and adjusted accordingly.

Having had several key commanders killed by NATO forces last year, the Taliban's fight has been supplemented by a new generation of warriors who are the sons of war legends dating to the resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. These leaders have autonomous command, but are allied with the Taliban.

Local warlords in northeastern Kapisa province belonging to veteran Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami have already started guerrilla operations against NATO troops. New commanders have emerged, though, including Anwar ul-Haq Mujahid in eastern Nangarhar province and Sirajuddin Haqqani in Ghazni, Kunar, Paktia, Paktika and Khost area. Kabul, too, as happened on Sunday, will come under increased attack - there was another shootout with militants in the capital on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, a group belonging to Anwar ul-Haq carried out a suicide attack on a pro-government tribal jirga (council) in the Khogiani district of Nangarhar province. Khogiani is the native town of Anwar ul-Haq's late father and mujahideen leader against the Soviets, Moulvi Younus Khalis. Khalis had announced his decision to battle against NATO forces in 2005, but he died a year later and his son has now taken over command. His main stronghold is the Tora Bora mountains and Khogiani. His group says it will spread the insurgency to the provincial capital of Jalalabad this year.

Sirajuddin Haqqani's network has already blown the starting whistle for the spring offensive with the brazen attack on the Afghan national day parade in Kabul on Sunday. Sirajuddin Haqqani is the son of famed mujahideen commander against the Soviets, Maualana Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Consolidation in the tribal areas
Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, based in the South Waziristan tribal area, has ended peace talks with the Islamabad government, just a week after ordering a ceasefire against security forces. A spokesman for Mehsud is reported to have said the talks broke down because the government refused to withdraw troops from the tribal areas, the strategic backyard of the Taliban's insurgency in Afghanistan.

Under a well-orchestrated program, the Taliban "switched off" their attacks on politically vulnerable Pakistan this month and they patiently allowed the Western-sponsored game of carrots and sticks involving tribal peace accords to play out, even letting anti-Taliban politicians into their region. For the Taliban, it was just a matter of buying time until the end of April to put the finishing touches to their spring campaign in Afghanistan.

For the past few weeks, the Taliban have been flexing their muscles against "vice" in Mohmand Agency and in Bajaur Agency. They have executed robbers and rescued two abducted Sikhs from gangs of criminals who were demanding ransom for their release. The abductors were then executed. Importantly, the Taliban have established parallel administrations which have undermined moves by secular political parties to activate local tribal networks against the Taliban.

In North Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a Taliban commander, supported the tribal security forces (Khasadar) on the issue of their salary and negotiated on their behalf with the political agent representing the central government.

Tribal elders, the Pakistani security forces and the political parties watched these developments with some surprise, compounded when the the Taliban suddenly set a deadline for the withdrawal of security forces from the area, and then announced the suspension of peace accords signed only a few days earlier.

The timing of this suspension coincides with talks between the dominant party in the ruling government coalition, the Pakistan People's Party, and another key party, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz group (PML-N), in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

These talks broke down on the issue of the judiciary: the PML-N wants judges dismissed last year by President Pervez Musharraf restored. It says if it does not get its way, it will pull its members from the cabinet.

The Taliban sense that political uncertainty in the capital will render the government incapable of pursuing military options in the tribal areas.

The young chief minister of North-West Frontier Province, Amir Haider Khan Hotti, who used his family's rapport with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to muster support behind the peace accords, besides the British Foreign Office, appealed in a state of shock with the Taliban not to take hasty decisions.

But the peace agreements and their breach are a part of the Taliban's broader regional designs.

From February to April, under the garb of various ceasefires, the Taliban have solidified their supply lines from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Hundreds of fresh recruits have been able to pass unimpeded from the cities to the tribal areas, where they received brief training before being launched into battle.

Hand-in-hand with the suspension of the peace accords, the Taliban are stepping up pressure on the government to withdraw all troops from the tribal areas. If this happens, and it is possible, the Taliban will have a free hand to expand their training camps for fresh recruits.

US President George W Bush could not have summed up the situation better. In comments on Tuesday, he admitted the United States faced a "long struggle" in Afghanistan against a "very resilient enemy" intent on bringing the Taliban back to power.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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