War in Afghanistan 2007, Week Five
What can we say but "We told you so."
What was looking like a relatively uneventful week in Afghanistan turned on a dime at week's end as the peace deal that was becoming the model for NATO collapsed faster than you can say "sham."
An estimated 300 Taliban insurgents took over the village of Musa Qala (pop. 2000) Thursday, brushing aside the elders and local police who were supposed to be keeping combatants out.
Back in October, the British withdrew their troops from Musa Qala, claiming they had a deal with the local villagers who would take over security duties once NATO and Taliban forces stopped fighting and withdrew from the region.
Taliban fighters were banned from living within 5 kilometres of the town. NATO troops could monitor the area but could not enter the district.
"The idea was that it would be the elders that would try to negotiate, if you like, with the Taliban and say, 'No, we're in charge here, we're in control, we will run the district of Musa Qala ourselves,' without [ISAF] influence," British Squadron leader Kevin Parker told Radio Free Europe. "Now if you think of the future for Afghanistan, you know [that] at some time in the future, we will leave. And it will be, 'Afganistan is for the Afghan people.' So, if you like, you can think of this as a sort of test bed."
Despite grave misgivings from the Americans, the French (don't laugh, they had 200 commandos in the region), the British general commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the Karzai government, the British proclaimed the peace deal a rousing success. Well, for 142 days anyway.
Last week (Black Rod, War in Afghanistan 2007, Week Four) we reported how a NATO spokesman said similar peace deals were being worked out in the rest of Helmand province, as well as in Kandahar province, where Canadian troops are stationed. Our red flag went way up.
be fair we reported: "Reconstruction projects are under way in Musa Qala; schools are open, and buildings damaged by fighting are being rebuilt." Then we read that a NATO source noted that the rebuilding effort so far was limited to the rebuilding of four mosques. Another red flag went up.
Everyone could see the Musa Qala peace deal was just a fig leaf for the retreat of beleagured British forces. The Taliban could come and go as they pleased, the Brits didn't have to worry about more casualties, and the politicians could proclaim the were smarter than the generals. So what there not to like? Other than the fact the Taliban had a place to rest and re-arm in peace before going out to kill NATO soldiers at their leisure.
The scary thing is that NATO commanders began to believe their own bafflegab.
Last month when Canadian troops marched launched Operation Baaz Tsuka to take villages in Kandahar province, they were preceeded by the distribution of 88,000 pamplets which essentially said: "Hey, bad guys. We're coming. You better not be there when we get there. Okay?"
Major Kirsty McQuade, the "top Nato psy-ops officer in southern Afghanistan", told the London Times that planners, as the reporter put it, "preyed on the insurgents' worst fears - such as being captured - to make them abandon strategic positions."
Said Maj. McQuade: "We exploit psychological vulnerabilities. Being captured is a big fear for the Taleban. Most of them want to live to fight another day. But they would rather die than be captured."
Or, when you warn your enemy you're coming, he hides. But, then, we're not military officers or anything, so what do we know. The Times reporter, however, seemed a mite sceptical as well."
A day after the leaflet drops Canadian forces took control of Howz-e Madad, a former Taleban-held village, without firing a shot. However, analysts suspect that many fighters fled to Pakistan to prepare for a spring offensive."
We warned that the test of the peace deals would come in the spring offensive which is a month to six weeks away and could bring a bloody surprise for Canadian forces. We were obviously too optimistic. The test came almost immediately, and the peace deal melted faster than the snow.
So what happened? The details are just trickling in, but here's what we've gathered so far.
NATO launched an air strike on a Taliban command post outside of Musa Qala Jan. 25. They said later a militant leader and some of his deputies were killed. It turns out the leader was the brother of a local commander, Mullah Ghafoor, one of three senior Taliban commanders in the Musa Qala area.
The raid may have been ordered after elders asked Mullah Ghafoor to leave town, but he refused. He was apparently the target, but left the compound only minutes before the bombs landed. Another news story says he was ordered out of town after the airstrike to preserve the peace deal.
Last Friday, Mullah Ghafoor brought a small force of fighters into the village, saying the airstrike was a violation of the agreement. Local police and elders insisted he leave in order to maintain the peace.
The governor of Helmand province told reporters the insurgents returned on Wednesday and disarmed the police. They came back Thursday with a tractor they used to knock down the walls of the district centre which housed the police and the district chief. Local sources said that Mullah Ghafoor gathered additonal fighters from around the town of Sangin and, some said, from Pakistan.
One resident of Musa Qala said tribal elders who supported the agreement with the government have been put in jail." NATO officials don't know if they are being held hostage. Afghan interior ministry officials said that fighting is continuing in the town, with tribal elders loyal to the government and police still resisting the Taliban.
Taliban fighters were digging trenches in key positions to prepare for an attempt by NATO forces to regain control of the town. The Taliban fighters are parading through Musa Qala and proclaiming control of the entire district. Just as predicted. The raid ruins the departure of British General David Richards who transfers control of NATO forces to American four-star General Dan McNeill this weekend.
Richards was apparently unhappy with the peace deal when it was proclaimed in October by Brigadier Edward Butler, the commander of British forces in Helmand, who negotiated the agreement just before he left Afghanstan. He isn't any happier today as the peace deal has blown up in his face the day before his own leave-taking.
Until this seismic shift in the military situation, the biggest news from Afghanistan all week was on the diplomatic front.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have agreed to a peace jirga, an assembly of tribal elders who talk things out and, hopefully, reach a consensus on a problem. In this case, President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf have agreed on a jirga involving tribal representatives from both sides of the border to be held in Kabul the second week of February.
The goal is to address the movement of Taliban fighters across the border, an issue that's caused a deadlock in diplomatic relations between the countries.
If it's successful, the impact on the security situation in Afghanistan could be as great as the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001.
But there's a risk, not just of failure, but of such a spectacular failure that it sparks a tribal war that would consume the region in fire and blood, with NATO forces swept aside and relegated to the role of spectators at a disaster they can't prevent.
The Globe and Mail carried a story (Afghan elders speak of war, not peace, Graeme Smith, Jan. 29, 2007) about one of eight local meetings being held to explain the coming peace jirga. Hundreds of tribal elders gathered in Kandahar, wrote Smith.
"...shouting, fist-waving and bitter words revealed the huge difficulties the process faces."
"If his peace jirga fails, all tribes must sit together, gather their soldiers, and take an oath to fight against Pakistan," declared one elder, putting an ominous tone to the sitdown.
The second biggest story of the week may well be an interview with a Taliban spokesman published on a hardcore Islamic website which may tell significantly more than was intended. If so, it's good news for NATO and the elected Afghan government.
The interview was conducted by a Pakistani "sister" from behind a curtain in keeping with the hardline Islamic belief in separation of the sexes. She is not identifed, and the "Taliban Mujahid" she interviews is called Talib Brother Maulvi ****ur Rahman, with his name obscured "for security purposes."
What's said is so interesting (unintentionally) that we thought at first it may be a U.S. plant. But it appears on Jihad Unspun, an Islamic terrorist propaganda site, and the interview was distributed by Al-Hesbah, which Newsweek once called one of the "five major Islamist Web sites in the world.
Jihad UnspunPakistani Sister Interviews Taliban Mujahid
"Out Here We Are Winning The War"
Jan 31, 2007
Sister XYZ: What is the role of sisters in Jihad these days in Afghanistan? And how can they help the Mujahideen?
The answers she gets reveal a Taliban harried to distraction, desparate for money, betrayed at every turn, and hurting by constant disruption from the Pakistani government.
Talib Maulvi: Sister, when there was Jihad with Russia everything was open. We had training camps everywhere and the government provided us with the ammunition. But now everything is hidden and so we have to carry out everything in a very cautious manner.
Talib Maulvi: The Americans have blocked our accounts and the banking system is not used. People give money from abroad or other places by passing it through other people or you can say sources. Everything is done very secretly; you can't give money in banks so it's like you give money to your friend and send it to her account but then your friend sends it to me by any means.
Talib Maulvi: We live in the mountains and the terrains are very difficult to navigate and conquer.
Talib Maulvi: ... you need a teacher for that and it's difficult to provide teachers in such critical situations. We have no training courses... there was one in Swat but it got raided.
Talib Maulvi: My own Mujahid nephew was wounded and was ill... He was taken to the Bajawarh (a village ) hospital. The doctor over there was a Munafiq and gave his name to the government! The men came and tried to arrest him. He said, "stay away from me I am a Muslim, but the man didn't stop and he shot him and then another came and martyred my nephew!
It's no wonder that NATO officials sound more confident of the conflict expected once the winter snows melt.
"What we have done is to keep up the pressure on the Taliban over the winter," said Colonel Ian Huntley is the deputy British commander with the ISAF provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. "There are signs that they are in trouble. How much they can regenerate in the spring I think is difficult to say. There is talk of an uprising; I personally don't think that's likely."
"We do not believe that there will be a spring offensive by the Taliban," NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Richard Nugee said. "By looking at preparations that the Taliban aren't making we do not believe that there will be a spring offensive by the Taliban..."
Nugee said there was little evidence of logistic re-supply by the militants over the winter, and the ISAF was ready to "pre-empt" their plans and disrupt them as they get ready. "We plan to take the fight to the enemy. We plan to fight them in their heartland, in their sanctuaries. We plan to allow them no chance to organise, no chance to re-supply themselves, no chance to recruit in this country whilst we've got them on the back foot."
Taliban commanders, meanwhile, repeat a theme.
Mullah Hayat Khan, a senior Taliban commander says the Taliban have 2000 martyrdom bombers ready to attack and promised NATO troops "their bloodiest year" in 2007.
Baitullah Mehsud, a pro-Taliban Pakistani militant, has said this year's spring offensive in Afghanistan will be even "bloodier" than last year.
Given as how most of the blood shed last year was in the Taliban ranks, this isn't such a great threat.
Mehsud, however, also articulated what the Taliban and its supporters are really fighting for, which should be required reading by Jack Layton and the other appeasers.
"Allah on 480 occasions in the Holy Koran extols Muslims to wage jihad. We only fulfil God's orders. Only jihad can bring peace to the world," he said. "We will continue our struggle until foreign troops are thrown out. Then we will attack them in the US and Britain until they either accept Islam or agree to pay jazia (a tax in Islam for non-Muslims living in an Islamic state)."
The fighting in Afghanistan during Week Five was mainly low-level skirmishes.Paktika province in the east had the most action.
* Wednesday morning, Insurgents raided a checkpoint in the Bermal district, killing three soldiers and wounding another three.
* During the day a rocket was fired into Paktika, killing three police.
* Wednesday night, Taliban fighters ambushed Afghan soldiers, but immediate NATO air support left eight insurgents dead.
* Friday morning a coalition patrol came across a group setting up to fire rockets. They called in aircraft which dropped two bombs. Two Taliban were killed and given the blood trails leading away, another five likely died.There were only two suicide bombings, a definite decrease from the week before.
* A suicide car bomb exploded next to an Afghan army bus in a convoy near the airport. Ten soldiers and two civilians were wounded.
* A suicide bomber on foot blew himself up in Nangarhar province near the border with Pakistan. He went to pieces. Nobody else was hurt.Details of two earlier suicide bombing incidents were released.
Two weeks ago, police in Kandahar province arrested four people as they crossed from Pakistan. In their car they found a suicide vest and four remote-controlled bombs. Interrogation of the men lead police to a madrassa in Kandahar where two Pakistani men preparing to become suicide bombers were arrested.
And the suicide bomb attack in Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand province, last week was aimed at the offices of an aid agency (unidentified), according to government sources. The explosion set parked cars on fire and seriously wounded the security guard who shot the bomber before he could reach his target.
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