The Black Rod

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

The War in Afghanistan 2007 Week 10

More than two weeks into the British-led Operation Achilles in Helmand Province and the news blackout is tighter than ever. The sliver of news we compiled last week is a veritable feast compared to what's leaked out of the battle zone since. Still, undaunted, we've corralled what wee bits of information we could track down to provide you with the best glimpses we could of what's being billed as NATO's biggest offensive on Afghanistan yet.

But first...

if it's not one thing, it's another...

Another wheel has falled off the Taliban war wagon and Taliban leader Mullah Dadullah (love the name), has had to send a mechanic to fix it so that he can finally launch the damn Feared Taliban Spring Offensive.

Taliban insurgents and their allies have been killing each other by the score all week in the South Waziristan tribal region of Pakistan. Instead of crossing the border into Afghanistan to support the expected spring offensive, they're expending their terrorist instincts on internecine battles. Go to it boys.

That is great news for Afghan civilians, NATO forces and especially the Canadian troops newly arrived in country who are still adjusting to the war zone in Kandahar province.

The story, as patched together from intelligence sources in Pakistan and reporters close to the Taliban, is this:

Last year, up to 1000 Uzbeks moved into Waziristan to escape a crackdown in Uzbekistan. They were given sancturary by Al-Qaeda supporting tribes. This group brought a holier-than-thou attitude to the region. Literally. They see themselves as the vanguard of the Brave New Muslim World, and as a result they justify killing anyone who opposes shariah law and overthrowing any government that disagrees, including the government of Pakistan.

Two weeks ago, the Uzbeks tried to kill a pro-government (Pakistan) tribal elder, as he walked through a bazaar. It was the second time in three days they had tried to assassinate him. The assassins missed him, but the attack killed his brother and a passerby. Their target got his tribal posse together and the war was on. More than a dozen Uzbeks--and three tribesmen--were killed before a truce was brokered by the local Taliban.

Then on Monday, the body of Saiful Adil, an Arab linked to Al Qaeda, was found on the outskirts of Wana, the capital of South Waziristan. One of the most powerful local Taliban leaders, Maulavi Nazir, blamed the Uzbeks and launched a drive to disarm them and drive them out. But the Uzbeks have their own supporters, look for the names Noor Islam and Maulavi Abbas to come up, and the war was on a second time.

So far at least 160 have died, including about 130 Uzbeks and Chechen fighters, 25 local insurgents, and 10 civilians. Three children were killed when a grenade hit a school bus. More than 80 foreign fighters have been captured and tribal fighters were looking for another 200 scattered throughout the mountains. The fighting has spread to six villages along the Afghan border. There was a brief truce Wednesday so the sides could bury their dead, but hostilities are back on. Hooray.

The Pakistani press has reported rumours that "a very senior Taleban leader" has come from Afghanistan to try to arrange another ceasefire. Who this is depends on your source of rumours.

The Asia Times says:
Well-placed sources maintain that the chief commander of the Taliban in South Wazirstan, Baitullah Mehsud, was in Afghanistan's Helmand province when the fighting, in which scores have died this week, erupted. He immediately rushed to South Waziristan on the orders of Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah.

The newspaper Dawn says:
"The sources said Siraj Haqqani, the son of a veteran Afghan mujahid and Taliban leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and his aide, Bakhta Jan, had reached Wana to intervene and persuade the combatants to stop fighting and settle the issue through dialogue." Jalaluddin Haqqani is the military commander of the Afghan Taliban.

Jihad Unspun says:
Mujaid Mullah Dadallah has also been reported to have arrived in the area to stop the fighting but this has not been confirmed.

We say: Who cares? Keep fighting. Don't listen to any mediators. Tying up more than a thousand fighters in Afghanistan is a good thing.

A Pakistan government official said Friday Uzbeks in the neighbouring tribal region of North Waziristan were trying to come to Wana to support their brethren but authorities would try to stop them. We say: nah. Let 'em go. The more the merrier.

An intriguing question is whether the outbreak of fighting in Waziristan is an American psy-ops success. Don't laugh. Consider the evidence.

Since taking over NATO operations in southern Afghanistan, U.S, General Dan McNeill has switched gears from his Dutch predecessor and is now aggressively taking the fight to the enemy. To the surprise of the Taliban, this has included seizing Taliban leaders right under the noses of their troops in Pakistani villages.

On March 7, the day after Operation Achilles was launched, two military helicopters landed in a village next to Paktika province, and special forces personnel snatched captured Hakimullah Mehsud, a close friend of Baitullah Mehsud (see above).

The same week, a shepherd who was in the wrong place at the wrong time was seized on the Pakistan side and flown to Afghanistan for questioning. On March 17, coalition ground forces raided four buildings "near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border" and detained six men. There's never been an explanation of who these men were, so we're guessing the raid was on the Pakistan side of the border.

All these kidnappings, on the heels of targetted assassinations of Taliban leaders since December, has made them antsy. As Neil Young sang, Paranoia strikes deep. This eventually erupted in a wave of murders of suspected spies.

And finally, to the Tinted Window showdown.

In mid-February, Taliban tribal militiants banned tinted windows in vehicles in Waziristan.

It was getting hard to check vehicles for spies and American agents if you couldn't see in. Uzbeks complained that the new rule was aimed at them and a number of ugly confrontations took place.

Was this the origin of the eventual all-out war between the local tribes and Uzbeks? We can only hope.

Let's turn now to the British-led Operation Achilles in Helmand province. It looks like the fighting has died down around Kajaki Dam, but not around Sangin, which was the most attacked British outpost in Afghanistan. The skies around Sangin are filled with planes daily supporting the British forces. 500-hundred and thousand-pound bombs are dropping onto buildings, compounds, and cave entrances.

Friday the suspected Taliban commanders house was the target of GBU-31s and GBU-38s from B-1B Bombers. The full arsenal of airpower is being launched at Taliban forces, B-1Bs, Harrier jump jets, F/A-18s, you name it.

It appears Taliban forces are being forced west, with fighting reported in Farah province, which butts up to Helmand and borders Iran. Farah houses 1,600 ISAF soldiers, mostly Spanish and Italian, based in Farah City.

But what's exciting is that Operation Achilles is partially a test of how well the Afghan army can fight on its own. Now we can see how many of the operations in March were a softening up of the area where ANA forces would make their solo debut.

On Tuesday, three Taliban fighters were killed in the Gershek district as Afghan and NATO soldiers targeted a "known Taliban commander and suicide bomb facilitator." He was suspected of controlling 200 fighters in the area. A NATO spokesman said the man ordered assassinations of Afghan government officials and helped move suicide bombers into Helmand through Kandahar City.

On Thursday, ANA forces backed by NATO airpower attacked in two areas of Gereshk. "Eleven Taliban were killed in one attack and 27 in another. There were no casualties among NATO or our troops," in what one local official called a mop-up in Helmand province. Three police officers were killed, however, and 10 Taliban fighters captured.

Sher Mohammad Karimi, the Defense Ministry's chief of operations, said a report from the field described the Taliban fighters as "very badly demoralized" and running from the fight. He said the fighters' bodies had been left on the battle site, allowing soldiers to make an accurate count.

Tom Coglan of the U.K. Telegraph is embedded with British forces in Helmand and was there when the Afghan army attacked:

British commanders knew there was a major Afghan-led operation unfolding somewhere in front of the Dragoons' Scimitar and Spartan light tanks, the biggest ever by the fledgling Afghan National Army, with hundreds of Afghan troops and police infiltrating from three points to dislodge unknown numbers of Taliban fighters in the villages ahead.

Constant fire, both small arms and mortars, echoed across the plain to the southeast. Ahead of the Dragoons clouds of dust indicated streams of vehicles beginning to flee at high speed. Were they Taliban or civilians?

As a succession of cars and minibuses passed through their lines, the Dragoons were fairly certain they were getting a mixture of the two.

"One car had two big chaps of fighting age inside," said Sgt. Matthew Lambie, 33, after stopping three vehicles fleeing the fighting. "They were wide-eyed and hostile and dressed in black turbans... They'd just driven through the fighting area but they denied that they knew anything about any fighting at all. They were dead cert Taliban."

However, with no weapons in the car, the Dragoons could do nothing.
Half an hour later, probing ahead of the rest of C Squadron, a dozen Royal Marines in machine-gun mounted jeeps with a troop of four Scimitar tanks came under fire close to the canal marking the western limit of Nad Ali district.

Ahead they saw a jumble of compounds, some of which appeared to be under fire from forces they could not see. Mortar rounds began falling close around them together with small arms fire. The Scimitars under Capt Jon Harris, a cigar-smoking 26-year-old with a dusty blond beard, identified a compound from which the fire against them was coming.

Thirty rounds of cannon fire from the Scimitars later it ceased, as dust and smoke billowed round the building.

An Afghan general said the operation in Helmand shows what Afghanistan's army can do "without the help of foreign troops." A spokeswoman for NATO confirmed that coalition troops did not participate in the fighting. She said NATO is "stepping back further and further" as it trains Afghanistan's army and police forces.

The one-day operation cleared 3 villages near Gereshk. Troops were involved in a "clean-up" on Friday which included assessing damage and searching for weapons. An ANA spokesman said 69 Taliban were killed, with 49 bodies left on the battleground. Another 17 insurgents were captured. Seven police were also killed and 19 men from the police force, army and the intelligence service were wounded," he added.

NATO is being extremely tight-lipped about Operation Achilles, but as best we can tell the mission will end April 10. That's when Spanish troops will end their cordon duties to keep Taliban fighters from fleeing into Badghis province in the west of the country where the 690 Spanish troops are based.

The bellylaugh of the week came from a story in Der Spiegel which said The German government and NATO's North Atlantic Council have criticized US General Dan McNeill, the new NATO commander in Afghanistan. McNeill has been operating too independently and has been too brash in his choice of words, critics say.

Note to Germany: If you don't want to join the A-Team you don't get to sit at the table with the adults. You sit at the children's table and eat children's portions. It's big boys' games and big boys' rules, so stop whining.

And Achilles is only the preliminary round for a much bigger operation, according to The Independent.

British troops prepare for decisive Afghan battle
By Kim Sengupta and Raymond Whitaker
The Independent March 11, 2007

As more NATO troops arrive in country, Operation Nawruz will unfold.

The blueprint for Nawruz was drawn up by General David Richards, the British former commander of the Nato force, and adopted by his American successor, General Dan K McNeill. The new British battle group - a mobile reserve Gen Richards had asked for, and been denied, during his nine months in charge - will operate well beyond Helmand, where British forces are concentrated. It will also range across the five other provinces of Nato's southern regional command: Kandahar, Oruzgan, Zabol, Nimruz and Daykondi.

At about the same time as the reinforcements arrive, a British commander, Major General "Jacko" Page, will take over the regional headquarters in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, from the Dutch. He will be responsible for Operation Nawruz, which is due to spread across the south and east of Afghanistan, as well as striking towards Taliban crossing points along the Pakistani border.

Much of the operation will be led by intelligence which, Nato commanders claim, has greatly improved recently. They point out that Kandahar was experiencing a suicide bombing almost every day a few months ago, but since information from local people led to the discovery of a number of "bomb factories", the attacks have all but dried up.

The Taliban have responded to their unravelling situation with their usual terror tactics.

Taliban guerrillas chopped noses and ears off of at least five truck drivers in eastern Afghanistan as punishment for transporting supplies to NATO troops. The drivers were part of a convoy headed for a coalition military base when they were attacked in the province of Nuristan on Saturday.

And on Monday a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of four SUVs leaving the American embassy in Kabul. A teenager nearby was killed. The world press trumpeted it as an attack on the American ambassador to Afghanistan, although he was not in the convoy. Last month the press said a suicide bomber targeted U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney even though he was a mile away when the bomb went off. No slanted reporting there.

The Taliban released an Italian reporter they had been holding hostage, in return for five Taliban prisoners being held by Kabul. One of them was Mullah Dadullah's brother. Dadullah immediately said he would capture more reporters. The Italian said he was present when his driver Sayed Agha was murdered by having his head cut off. An interpreter who was with the reporter has not been heard from.

And a final reminder of why we fight:

From the Asia Times

Religious extremists in the district of Swat have derailed the government's anti-polio campaign. At the forefront is a charismatic local cleric, Maulana Fazlullah. "Anyone getting crippled by polio or killed by an epidemic is a martyr," he announced at a sermon during Friday prayers

And finally, what do you make of this?

A Pakistani citizen was arrested by the Afghani authorities charged with facilitating the entry of Al-Qa'ida leader Osama Bin Laden into Afghanistan, the London-based daily Al-Hayyat reported. The paper quoted sources in the Pakistani Foreign Affairs Ministry, who said they were recently informed of the matter by their Afghani counterparts. The Pakistani, Sayyid Akbar, reportedly smuggled Bin Laden into the Nouristan province in eastern Afghanistan and provided him with shelter for an unknown period of time.

The Afghani intelligence services are accusing Akbar of being the liaison officer between Pakistan's intelligence services and Bin Laden. Akbar is now being interrogated and is believed to have been a close aide to Bin Laden in the past two years, according to the spokesman for Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Karim Rahimi. Kabul has not specified when Bin Laden was smuggled into the country, but underlined this had taken place in the past few months.
[By The Media Line Staff & Mideastwire Staff on Tuesday, March 13, 2007]

Nouristan is located in the far eastern part of the country, along the border with Pakistan, north of Peshawar. The capital is Jalalabad.

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