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    South Asia
     Jun 20, 2008
Taliban raise a storm in Kandahar
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - The battle for Kandahar, the city in the southern province of the same name where the Taliban rose to power in the 1990s before taking control of the rest of Afghanistan, has begun.

And while Afghan and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces are massed in the area around Arghandab, 20 kilometers north of Kandahar, the Taliban have their sights firmly set on the provincial capital.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmedi told Asia Times Online that a faction of the Taliban known as the Khalid bin Waleed group had entered Kandahar to carry out suicide attacks on strategic positions in the city. The Taliban are banking that, once


the Taliban march into Kandahar, large sections of the Afghan National Army will defect and join hands with them.

However, a former Taliban foreign minister, Ahmad Wakil Muttawakil, told Asia Times Online he believed the present aim of the Taliban was only to create terror, and not the fall of Kandahar city.

"Taliban militants are now fighting with much resolve. They may not have the ability to hold the area, but they are using terror. Using terror on the local people. Now you can see that the Taliban militants are trying to force their will on the people and government in these parts of Kandahar," said Muttawakil.

After the Northern Alliance accompanied by US and British forces ousted the Taliban regime in 2001, Muttawakil surrendered in Kandahar to government troops and was detained. He was released some years later and remains in Kandahar.

Whatever the ultimate goal, the fact is that within a week of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's threat to send Afghan troops inside Pakistan to eliminate the Pakistani Taliban leadership, the Taliban have launched a serious challenge to the writ of the Afghan government and NATO troops in the heart of the country's second-largest city and home town of Karzai.

Around the town of Arghandab, meanwhile, NATO forces backed by helicopter gunships for the second day running on Thursday attacked suspected positions of Taliban fighters, who are believed the have gathered in large numbers in area.

Afghan officials described it as a "clean-up" operation sparked by a mass jailbreak in Kandahar after a Taliban attack on the facility at the weekend. NATO said 35 Taliban and two Afghan troops had been killed in the offensive to date. US ambassador to Kabul William Wood commented that "the Taliban can raise a lot of dust at any given moment and a given point, but they can't stay".

Three days ago, like in last year's spring offensive, the Taliban occupied the Arghandab district. However, this year the plan had changed.

First they rattled the Afghan administration's nerve by carrying out the sophisticated raid on the jail in Kandahar, setting free hundreds of Taliban captives who were then taken to the Arghandab district.

Significantly, Taliban loyalists within the Afghan security forces either assisted in or turned a blind eye to this operation, which came as a shock to coalition forces as they are increasingly relying on Afghan forces.

A state of emergency was declared in Kandahar city and a night-time curfew imposed. Ahmed Wali Karzai, a brother of the president and a top official in Kandahar, claimed that his home and the offices of the Afghan security forces and administration were under threat.

All high-profile pro-government officials immediately went underground, and once this phase of "shock and awe" in the city was completed, the Taliban captured the Arghandab district, destroying bridges and roads and also reportedly laying mines.

The action forced the Canadian contingent in the International Security Assistance Force, which has largely been confined to patrol duties in the area, to engage in hard combat.

Earlier this year, the NATO command claimed that the Taliban would be unable to carry out any offensives and their attacks would be restricted to random sorties.

Asia Times Online has reported, however, after discussions with Taliban commanders, that this year the Taliban would carry out specific planned operations all across Afghanistan. This is in contrast to previous years when cadre flocked to southern Afghanistan in their thousands and were killed in the hundreds. That is, the Taliban have reverted to a calculated guerrilla war rather than trying and take on NATO's numbers.

The Arghandab operation can be seen in this context. Even if the Taliban do succeed in overrunning Kandahar, they are certain, at this stage, not to attempt to retain it for too long, even a few hours would send a very powerful message to NATO and the Karzai administration.

The activity around Arghandab has also had the effect of turning NATO's focus away from the eastern provinces of Kunar and Nooristan, where land and air operations are in full swing, apparently in search of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. These extend across the border into Pakistan's Mohmand and Bajaur tribal agencies.

Taliban contacts tell Asia Times Online that once the Taliban take the Kandahar operation to a climax, whatever form it might take, they will open up another surprise front in eastern Afghanistan in an attempt to spread NATO as thin as possible.

The Taliban initiative this year began with moves to choke NATO's supply lines in Khyber Agency in Pakistan, and to force the Pakistani government to sign peace agreements with militants in the tribal areas to allow the free flow of men and supplies into Afghanistan to fuel the insurgency there. The latter objective was achieved in full, the former to a lesser extent.

The US military did say on Wednesday though that four of its helicopter engines worth US$13.2 million had gone missing in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. The engines were being shipped by a Pakistani haulage company from the main US base at Bagram near the capital Kabul. (In Peshawar's Karkhano market in Pakistan, this correspondent has seen NATO tactical maps and military equipment on sale - obviously looted from supply trucks.)

Meanwhile, beyond the Taliban's battlefield, they have started discussions with the strongman of northern Afghanistan, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani. He leads warlord factions loyal to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the slain leader of the Northern Alliance which bitterly opposed Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001.

The military and political impact of these talks, if any, will only emerge in the next few months, but the possibility of some form of Taliban and Northern Alliance cooperation will have NATO and Karzai sweating.

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

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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