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
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
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
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
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[email protected]