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Friday, February 16, 2007

War in Afghanistan 2007 Week Seven

Three overlapping wars swept Afghanistan this week, at least two of them affecting Kandahar, the southern province where Canadian forces are stationed.

The struggle for control of Afghanistan during Week Seven of 2007 could be divided into the Ground War, the Air War, and the Poppy War.

The Ground War

Taliban forces have held the village of Musa Qala in Helmand province, next to Kandahar, for two weeks, the longest they've controlled any territory since the overthrow of their government in 2001. This week they overran Washir, another small village in a remote desert area 35 km southwest of Musa Qala. They captured 33 police officers. They fled after one day. The fate of the policemen is unknown.

In Musa Qala the Taliban knocked down a main government building with bulldozers and has spent the fortnight preparing defences for an expected assault by NATO to retake the village.

There's been some probing by Coalition forces but no full scale fighting. RAF Harriers provided close air support for troops in contact with Taliban fighters Tuesday and a U.S. Navy F-18 Hornet fired a guided bomb into a cave after fleeing enemy fighters, killing about seven. An Air Force B-1 Lancer flew over the village giving what's known officially as "a show of force".

Fighting was light but not insignificant elsewhere in the country.

Kandahar, which had been the scene of heavy suicide bomber activity (see Week Six) recently, was quiet except for a rocket attack last Sunday on Kandahar Airport. Two rockets landed, and one soldier was treated when gravel was kicked up into his face. It was the first attack in a month and hasn't been repeated.

A factor in the quiet may be that February is rain month in Kandahar and its been raining steadily, making roads impassable and causing flash floods.

In Uruzgan, where Dutch soldiers are stationed, Taliban forces fought a five hour battle with NATO forces near Dutch headquarters at Tirin Kowt, losing six killed and 12 arrested. Three Afghan police were killed in the fighting. Navy F-18 Hornets provided close-air support.

Helmand province remains the cauldron of the country, and the Kajaki Dam has become the front line. The British has sent 300 soldiers to protect the dam as it is repaired and refurbished. Insurgents are determined to prevent that from happening. The governor of the province said this week that 700 Taliban fighters had infiltrated from Pakistan for the battle, including recruits from Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Chechnya.

British forces killed 11 insurgents Sunday and another 15 on Monday. But a flurry of 12 rockets on Tuesday forced work on the dam to stop. Two engineers, an American and an Australian, fled on the first helicopter out.

"The two expats had gone in to assess the facilities in Kajaki and found that the airconditioning and plumbing was not working. They came out to assess how to get those things fixed. To complicate matters, there was also a rocket attack which blew out windows from their compound." said an official with USAid, which is funding the dam project among others.

The contractor insisted on a security zone 6 km in radius around the dam before work could be restarted. About 50 Chinese engineers are expected before the end of February to begin installing a third turbine.

Eleven Taliban were killed near the village of Gereshk (which is close to Kajaki) in Helmand, during an operation by NATO forces which had been stalking a senior Taliban commander "with ties to Mullah Omar." It turns out the target was Mullah Abdul Hanan. Pakistani press accounts said the attack was based on "substantial information provided about a Taliban senior leader operating in the neighbouring province of Kandahar," information which may be immensely significant as we'll explain later.

The Air War

The coalition kept the heat on Tuesday when a Predator fired a Hellfire missile at fleeing enemy forces near Gereshk. Mullah Hanan was presumably the target again.

The Predator attack was just one of a series of air strikes against high-value targets all week. NATO has made targeted assassinations a priority in their new strategy of separating so-called Tier One Taliban, the religious fanatics motivated to kill and be killed in Jihad, from the Tier-Two fighters, locals hired or conscripted by the Jidadists.

A B-1 Lancer destroyed a building in a compound between Musa Qala and Kajaki early Wednesday morning, killing an important Taliban commander, Mullah Manan. He was the commander behind the forces holding Musa Qala and those attacking Kajaki. NATO said it had been tracking him for weeks. Manan is less of a tactical commander than a major fundraiser for the Taliban. His loss will hurt.

U.S. Special Forces also captured another commander in Khost province. He was the former chief of the vice and virtue police in the region.

The round-up and killing of Taliban commanders has spooked the insurgents. The news today is that they have killed three "spies" for allegedly tipping off American and NATO forces to where the insurgents are hiding. Moreover they don't know how much information NATO got from Taliban spokesman Mohammed Hanif who was captured in early January.What It MeansHere's where it gets interesting.

NATO appears in no hurry to clear out Musa Qala despite the immense propaganda victory the occupation is giving the Taliban.

The reason may lie in the targeted assassinations we've been seeing all week long.

Is Musa Qala being used as a honeytrap, to lure Taliban commanders into the open. Coalition forces have now killed at least three commanders in air strikes in and around Musa Qala. Each time, another commander has to be sent in to take charge, and he becomes the next target, which has to be greatly demoralizing to the insurgents.

But it gets better. And Kandahar, with its Canadian contingent, is at the very heart.Top Taliban commanders have made no bones about their plans to seize Kandahar in 2007. The plans include extensive negotiations with local tribesmen for the logistics necessary for a major battle-food and shelter for the fighters, safe houses for the commanders, ammunition dumps, and the treatment and evacuation of wounded insurgents.

And, say the reports based on discussions by sympathetic reporters in Pakistan with Taliban commanders, the battle will be led by the famed one-legged Taliban leader Mullay Dadullah himself.

Just by coincidence, the rumours are flying that Dadullah is already somewhere in Helmand province. A week ago the Globe and Mail reported that a Taliban commander reached by mobile phone in Helmand said Mullah Dadullah made the decision to break the peace deal with the British and take control of Musa Qala.

Don't forget how NATO forces around Gereshk were focussing on a major target connected to Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban. Was Dadullah the real target of the Hellfire missile?

Or is the emphasis on Kajaki Dam an attempt by Dadullah to tie down British forces and give Taliban fighters a freer hand in Kandahar in March?

And speaking of Mullay Omar, have you noticed the complete absence of Osama Bin Laden in any official commications from the Taliban lately? Dead or incapacitated?

The Poppy War

No, we didn't forget. The third war sweeping at least southern Afghanistan involves the government's plans to eradicate a large swath of poppy fields in Helmand province. One Taliban commander told a reporter that insurgents have been ordered to defend farmers whose poppy crops are threatened. Another said he's heard that Dadullah himself will lead the fight against eradication.

Is this another diversion of British forces to weaken the defences of Kandahar? Or is the loss of steady financing from drug lords behind the Taliban's decision to stand and fight the eradication teams?

The eradication campaign is a week old. Already one team has been blown up by a roadside bomb. We'll be watching how this war unfolds in the weeks to come.


For our regular readers:
The Driskell Inquiry report was released Friday.
The usual pack journalists have given their reports.
The report is 323 pages long, and The Black Rod intends to read each page, not just the summaries, conclusions and recommendations at the end. We'll have our report as soon as possible.

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