Taliban raid showcases new battle tactics
By Mohammad Ilyas Dayee
LASHKAR GAH, Helmand - Officials in Helmand province say they had warning of a
day-long rebel attack on the town of Lashkar Gah last week, leading some
residents to ask why it was allowed to happen and to last so long.
Fighting with heavy and light weaponry echoed around the provincial capital on
January 29, centered on the Hajji Azizullah market, about 200 meters north of
the governor's compound. By 6pm, when it ended, the market lay in ruins, the
seven attackers, who apparently posed as policemen, were all dead, and at least
eight civilians were wounded.
The provincial head of counter-terrorism, Khan Almas, told
reporters that the police had received information in the days before the
attack that the Taliban would make a run on Lashkar Gah. He said they even knew
the target - the market building, which was still under construction.
"There are seven suicide attackers inside," he said while the fighting was in
progress. "They have some very bad weapons with them, but we will not let them
Police and troops poured into the town, setting up checkpoints and controlling
road intersections. Security forces surrounded the market and North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO) helicopters flew over, firing rockets down at the
attackers. The attackers inside the market fired rockets at the governor's
office and residence, the Bost Hotel.
Residents were shocked because nothing like this had happened since a Taliban
raid on Lashkar Gah in October 2008.
"I told my mother that we have to get out of town," said Abdul Jabar, a young
boy who had raced home from school. "The Taliban are attacking and things are
The deputy governor of Helmand, Abdul Satar Mirzakwal, confirmed at a news
conference that evening that the government had been warned of the attack.
"We knew three days ago that an armed group was planning an attack inside the
town," he said. "We even had information about the market building. We talked
to the owner ... a few times, and told him to ensure security or to let us do
Hajji Azizullah, the owner, was distressed at the damage to his property, and
blamed the government.
"My building has suffered a lot of damage," he said. "Why did the government
not stop the attack earlier? They told me several times that the building might
come under attack. I told them they should ensure security. This is a
The amount of his loss is as yet unclear, but Hajji Azizullah said that the
building's colored glass windows alone cost US$30,000.
The deputy governor said that they would create a commission and may reimburse
Hajji Azizullah for some of the damage. However, he insisted that Azizullah was
himself to blame for not handing the building over to the security forces.
The market owner rejects this. "I am a civilian," he said. "I could not secure
the market myself, and the government did not protect it. I would go to my
market every day, and I would see some individuals wearing police uniforms.
They would go into my market, smoke hashish and then leave. How was I supposed
to know they were the opposition?"
An official from the national security directorate maintained that the market
had been under surveillance because of the intelligence reports that it would
"We had been informed that there would be an attack on this building," he said.
"We would go there and patrol every day, but the suicide attackers got there
before us today."
He insisted that the police action had been a success, and had thwarted an even
"The Taliban had planned to stay there and attack at night," he said. "They
wanted to attack the Bost Hotel and other important locations. But due to our
hard work we found them."
Some residents of the provincial capital also asked why the government was not
capable of stopping the attack, since it apparently had adequate warning. But
most were relieved that the fighting ended without too many civilian or police
Mir Ahmad Dost, who sells bananas and oranges from a cart in the center of the
town, was not concerned until the fighting dragged on.
"Things were okay until noontime," he said. "Nobody was too worried. But when
it got towards evening people got upset. It should have ended earlier. There
are thousands of local and foreign forces, and the foreigners have all kinds of
equipment. Why could they not stop it in the morning?"
But security officials in Helmand say that since the attack was inside the
town, they had to be cautious in order to protect lives and property.
"[The counter-attack] took a long time because there were civilian houses near
the market," said Helmand security chief Assadullah Sherzad. "We had to move
slowly to avoid civilian casualties. But we knew we could finish the operation
by night time so that our citizens could sleep safely."
Once the attack was over, security forces squabbled about who had deserved
credit for neutralizing the insurgent operation.
"The police had the building surrounded, but then 200 special forces arrived at
3pm," said Colonel Shirin Shah, commander of the Third Brigade, Special Forces.
"We started our operations late in the day. We killed two armed men and a
Eyewitnesses living close to the market say that the police fought valiantly,
and that no other forces were present.
"I saw everything," said one man who gave his name as Wadud. "The suicide
attackers fought very seriously. They had heavy weapons. There were no national
army or foreign forces with the police. They would try and enter the building
but sometimes they were forced to retreat."
Sherzad, the security chief, told a news conference that his police were
"I am happy that our nation's enemies were unable to hurt civilians and my
brave men stopped this attack," he said. "I assure the citizens of Lashkar Gah
that I will prevent any other attacks in the city."
But a nurse in the emergency hospital in Lashkar Gah, speaking on condition of
anonymity, told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting that they had
received eight injured civilians during the day.
"One of the eight died," the nurse said. "Five others were discharged after
treatment. Two are still in the hospital."
The government denies that any civilians were injured or killed.
The evening of the attack, reporters were allowed inside the market to view the
aftermath of the attack. Spent shells were everywhere and most of the inside of
what had been an attractive building was destroyed.
Three dead bodies inside the market were all wearing police uniforms. One of
them still wore an unexploded suicide vest.
There is some disagreement about the number of attackers. The Taliban say there
were six, the police report seven. Two had blown themselves up in the morning,
and three were inside the market. It is not clear what happened to the others,
but police said that all of the attackers were killed.
A reliable source from the national security directorate said that after the
attack they found 31 rockets stored in the market. In addition, the security
officials found grenades, AK47 assault rifles and heavy weapons.
"Since the market is under construction, the police were probably unable to
notice all of this equipment," he said.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, accepted responsibility for the
attack just half an hour after it had started. He sent a message to the press,
claiming that six suicide attackers had killed 20 Afghan and foreign soldiers,
and had surrounded the Bost Hotel and the United Nations office in the area.
These claims did not match reports from witnesses that the attackers never left
the market area, and according to the governor's office, no police or security
forces were killed or injured. There are also no reports of foreign soldiers
being involved in the attack other than in giving air support.
It was the second such attack by the Taliban this month. On January 18, seven
insurgents struck in downtown Kabul, killing five police and one child,
according to official tallies. The ensuing battle resulted in significant
damage to the downtown area, including one shopping center that was burned to
In a telephone interview, Qari Yusuf said the Taliban had been forced to change
their tactics because the number of foreign forces had increased.
"We are continuing our jihad against the infidels," he said. "We have to choose
a way that we think will succeed. Government officials lie. Our attack in Kabul
killed dozens of government and foreign forces. We conducted a successful
operation in Lashkar Gah and showed our power."
The Taliban spokesman said that civilian casualties were a price to be paid for
"We have the right to drive the infidels out of the country in disgrace," he
said. "We will not pay damages to the owner of the hotel, but we will pray for
him so that God will consider him a partner in our jihad."
Mohammad Ilyas Dayee is an IWPR reporter in Helmand.