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Saturday, March 31, 2007

The War in Afghanistan 2007 week 11

Iran's seizure of British sailors is commanding the world's attention but the story that British soldiers are fighting Iranians in Afghanistan has gone virtually unmentioned.

The information appeared in the earliest story about Operation Achilles, the British-led offensive to clear a portion of Helmand province of Taliban fighters. The operation, now in its fourth week, involves 4500 Brit troops and about 1000 Afghan soldiers.

The Telegraph, March 8, 2007
Operation Achilles: Taliban launch attack in Sangin
British troops fight Taliban for key town
By Tom Coghlan in Kabul

British soldiers fought a fierce battle with hundreds of Taliban fighters yesterday as a flashpoint town in southern Afghanistan erupted in violence.


Many of those fighting the British were believed to be foreigners. "There are some very strange people," said one local by telephone. "They cannot speak Pashtu [the local language], they are speaking Dari instead. They are clean-shaven and we believe they are Iranians."

The news blackout over Operation Achilles has grown more impenetrable, if that's possible. And we're beginning to wonder if the Iranian connection is why.


The map of Afghanistan lit up this week like a summer night in firefly country with firefights and ambushes in six provinces. Sounds bad? Not when you realize the attacks were fought off with heavy losses for the Taliban.

On Sunday the action was in two central provinces, Wardak and Ghazni. An attack on a district office in Wardak left 15 Taliban dead at the cost of two police officers killed and the district chief wounded. In neighbouring Ghazni, Afghan army and police launched a joint operation killing 5 Taliban and capturing 22.

It may be coincidence, by Wardak is where 800 soldiers from Turkey are stationed and Ghazni is where a battalion of Polish troops will be located. An advance unit of the 1,200 stong Polish NATO contingent is already in Afghanistan with the rest arriving over the next month or so.

Insurgents also attacked American forces at Fire Base Tillman in Paktika province, bordering on Pakistan. Allied forces back by airpower and artillery stopped the assault in its tracks, killing 12 Taliban fighters.

On Wednesday, Kandahar, where Canadian troops are stationed, was the target. A group of insurgents attacked checkpoint killing two policemen in the Arghandab district . The same day Afghan and NATO forces mopping up west of Kandahar City killed five fighters.

On Thursday, Taliban insurgents attacked a checkpoint manned by Afghan police in Uruzgan province sparking a six-hour firefight. Five Afghan soldiers and eight Taliban fighters were killed. The Taliban forces withdrew taking a wounded policeman hostage with them. Afghan and NATO forces pursued them, rescuing the policeman.

In the country's south, militants attacked a government compound in Zabul province. Three Taliban insurgents were killed.

And on Friday, a group 25 Taliban attacked Sar Hawzeh district centre of eastern Paktika Province. Two police were killed. The Taliban fled but left their wounded commander behind. The man who goes by the name Engineer Majeed had been shot twice. He was apprehended by Afghan forces.

Also this week, a NATO soldier was killed and three wounded during an operation in eastern Afghanistan. Four wounded soldiers were evacuated to a medical facility after the operation Thursday evening, where one died of his wounds, the military said. The three others are in stable condition. The soldier is likely American and "eastern Afghanistan" usually turns out to be Paktika province.

Overall, the big picture shows that Taliban forces lost 48 killed and 23 captured in a single-week's fighting outside the major offensive in Helmand province. Six police, five Afghan soldiers and one NATO soldier died on the allied side. Taliban forces accomplished nothing and achieved nothing.

Action-Packed Kandahar

On a smaller scale, Kandahar province was attracting more than its fair share of activity.

Two of the week's 4 suicide attacks were in Kandahar. On Monday a suicide bomber drove his car into a convoy on the outskirts of Kandahar. He killed himself, but caused no other casualties. The next day, a carefully planned ambush on Canadian troops in the Zahre district west of Kandahar city, saw insurgents launch an attack on a convoy with small arms and RPG's. But the intent was really to drive the fleeing troops into the path of another suicide bomber.

The ensuring explosion flattened the tires of an LAV-3 and wounded two soldiers. One suffered a badly broken arm and was flown to Germany for treatment. Soldiers from India company of the 2 RCR swept the ambush site but didn't find any insurgents.

Neither of the injured men, serving with the Royal Canadian Regiment battle group, reported his injuries until after the attack.

"They continued to perform their jobs like there was nothing wrong with them,'' said Capt. Matt Allen, the commander of the convoy. "When the opportunity presented itself to stop and assess it, that's when they reported their injuries. It was amazing.''

Maj. David Quick, speaking from Patrol Base Wilson, told CP that local Afghans have warned his troops to be on the lookout for trouble.

"Every local we have spoken to while patrolling, every Afghan National Security Force individual that we have worked with have said the time is coming. They have said 'standby'," he said.

Canadian forces weren't just waiting to be attacked, though. Friday night they raided a compound in Maranjan village of Arghandab district and nabbed a notorious Taliban leader who was wanted for trying to kill a powerful local tribal elder. That's going to score points with the locals. In fact, the raid was based on tips from villagers.

The Taliban commander was identified as Taj Mohammed. Two others were also apprehended in the raid-- his brother Raz Mohammed and Bacha Aka. They are accused of trying to assassinate former Mujahideen commander Mullah Naqib earlier this month. According to the Afghan Islamic Press, one of Naqib's sons and a bodyguard died to their injuries and two bystanders were killed when a remote control bomb blew apart Naqib's vehicle as it crossed a bridge.

We can't be sure it's the same man, but a Mullah Taj Mohammed was the former deputy chief of intelligence during the Taliban regime. He was allegedly one of the few with full access to Taliban leader Mullay Omar and was a self-proclaimed "close friend" to Osama bin Laden. If it's him, this is a big catch indeed.

The Operation Achilles Kaliedoscope

It's obviously going very, very well or very, very badly, because there's hardly any official information out there. What we do know:

* Operation Nawruz is over. The four day offensive involved 400 Afghan army forces who swept three districts of Helmand province as a test of Afghan forces fighting independently from NATO ground forces but backed by NATO airpower.

* Canadian, American and Dutch troops remain on picket duty to stop Taliban reinforcements from moving into Helmand province as British troops fight to drive out the local insurgents. There's been no hint that they have had contact with any Taliban fighters coming or going to Helmand. However NATO's Major General van Loon says this is an example of success in that Taliban fighters are encircled without hope of assistance from elsewhere in Afghanistan or from Pakistan.

*NATO forces are zeroing in on the Taliban command structure in southern Afghanistan, having killed or captured at least 10 insurgent leaders and key civilian collaborators in March alone.

* Achilles has so far failed to achieve its goal of removing enough Taliban from the Kajaki area to start the major reconstruction project, refurbishing the Kajaki Dam.

Afghan National Army spokesmen said they had "purged" Nad Ali of 400 Taliban fighters, following a series of chaotic battles. They earlier claimed they had killed 122 Taliban fighters while many others surrendered their weapons. The troops were the first to be equipped with new helmets, flak jackets and weapons to bring their equipment up to the standards of allied forces.

A crucial element of the offensive was the integration of local militias who have agreed to support the national government and to drive out the Taliban. But, as with everything in Afghanistan, their allegiance is a delicate balance.

When The Daily Telegraph met some of the militia men - heavily armed, wild-looking youngsters in local garb and sunglasses - they boasted of killing three Taliban nearby.

However, a senior provincial leader warned that the militia "must be controlled". "These are all Sher Mohammed Akhundzada's men," he explained.

Akhundzada was provincial governor of Helmand until British pressure caused him to be removed in December. British counter-narcotics officials are certain he was a key figure in the province's drugs trade.

A police officer on the Afghan drugs eradication team in Helmand, who cannot be named for his own safety, said that several of the militia commanders control large opium poppy fields.

"The poppy fields have not been destroyed," he said. "That is because they all have allies in the government in Kabul."

Canadian soldiers from Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Edmonton. launched Operation Margurite in Kandahar last week in support of the Helmand operation. Teaming up with 200 Afghan army troops they patrolled through the Zhari district of Kandahar province to drive out the remnants of the Taliban.

It was designed purely as a show of force, allowing Canadian soldiers to meet with local villagers and discuss future reconstruction plans. Any Taliban who chose to stand and fight would be confronted, but that didn't appear to happen, and the Canucks mostly dismatled booby traps and removed mines. When the area is deemed secure, a new police check point will be set up. Important work? Yes. Exciting? No.

We have no idea who Operation Marguerite was named after.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai came to Helmand on Thursday, his first visit to what has been called the most troubled of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. He was accompanied by Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and some members of the two houses of parliament from that province.

From Afghan Recovery Report, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR):
Addressing a gathering of tribal elders in Lashkargah, capital of Helmand, Karzai said the main reason behind lawlessness in the province was people's non-cooperation with the government. He didn't pull any punches."I am not blaming Pakistan and other countries - I blame you, the local people," he thundered, addressing approximately 2,000 hand-picked representatives in the central mosque of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. "You are making problems. You do not want security in your province."

Karzai also answered the question why Operation Achilles has not included an assault on the village of Musa Qala which was overrun by Taliban forces at the beginning of Februrary and continues to be held by insurgents despite pleas for help from village elders.
"I do not want to take Musa Qala by force," said Karzai. "I want to solve problems through negotiations with all sides. I am asking the Taliban to stop attacking. I say to them, 'why are you killing your own people?' "

It's a different story on the ground.
Fighting continues to rage in Helmand even though we are told little about it.

On Thursday a building and courtyard near the Kajaki Dam was hit by a 500 pound bomb dropped by a F-15E Strike Eagle. A Taliban commander and his men were killed. Two days earlier another F-15 levelled a building with a 500-pounder.

British Harrier jump-jets fired rockets and dropped 540-pound bombs on insurgents in the tree line around Garmsir.

But it's Sangin that's getting a pasting. A B-1B Lancer dropped 500-pound and one-ton bombs on buildings, a tunnel, and a wall from which small arms fire and RPGs were being fired near Sangin Thursday. The day before one-ton bombs were dropped on four buildings, an F-15 flew cover for an ambushed convoy, and F-15s peppered buildings and firing positions with 500-pounders, 250-pounders, and one-ton bombs.

This week NATO aircraft showed up over Tarin Kowt, in Uruzgan province, a possible indicator that Taliban fighters fleeing Helmand are getting caught in the net to the north. 500-pound guided bombs were dropped on insurgents in the open and hiding behind a wall, suggesting that casualties among the Taliban are climbing astronomically.

The Taliban, though, has a different take on what's happening. From Jihad Unspun (a pro-Taliban website)

As Brits Still Trapped In Helmand
Mar 28, 2007 By Sayed Ullah JUS Pakistan Correspondent

The Taliban are kicking up their martyrdom operations as part of their "Spring Storm" offensive with back to back sacrifice operations carried out on Tuesday and Wednesday as a contingent of Brits remain trapped in Helmand province with no way out and supply drops by air becoming very risky.


According to reports from Naba (a stringer???), British occupation forces who are trapped in a building in the Sinjeen control of Helmand province, south of Afghanistan have pleaded with pro-Taliban local leaders in the area to negotiate for them in order that they can return to their bases. The Brits were caught in an ambush set by the Taliban as a test for "The Spring Storm"

Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf said the besieged British soldiers in the building in Sinjeen, trapped for several weeks now, from weeks, made a call with loudspeakers in Pashtu on Sunday asking to leaders to free them saying "Release us and prepare a way out so that we may return to our bases". NATO has been reluctant to interfere on the basis that this may be a double military deception plan.

The enemy's response to allied firepower has been suicide bombers, the murder of a woman and kidnappings.

* A suicide bomber dressed as an army officer tried to enter the office of a police chief in Lashkar Gar on Tuesday."While being searched he detonated [the bomb], killing four policemen and wounding one," said Mohammad Mullahkhail, the town's police chief. Mullahkhail, who handles passport affairs for the province, said that the attacker had a passport application and was trying to get into his office.

* Wednesday, a Taliban suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up near the car of a senior Afghan intelligence official in a business district in Kabul. Four civilians died.

*On Monday, the head of the women's prison in Helmand was kidnapped and murdered.

* Last Sunday, local villagers in Farah province prevented the kidnapping of four Indian engineers, part of a dam survey group. The villagers and police engaged the Taliban in what was described as "a raging gunbattle." A Taliban commander and two of his fighters were killed. Another commander was arrested.

* A man claiming to be a local-level Taliban commander named Tur Jan said Thursday he is holding a medical team hostage in Kandahar province. The man said he kidnapped the five-member team--an Afghan doctor, three nurses and their driver--March 27 and that he would exchange them for a list of Taliban prisoners in government jails.

Taliban News from Pakistan

The ceasefire between Uzbek fighters linked to Al Qaeda and local tribesmen who support the Taliban in the South Waziristan tribal region of Pakistan has collapsed. The local villagers with the help of Pakistani artillery are again killing Uzbek fighters and driving them out of the region. But there's nowhere for them to go. So the internecine bloodletting will go on, eliminating dozens of potential insurgents who won't be killing anyone in Afghanistan.

On Friday alone, the number of foreign fighters and locals killed was 54. Go to it, boys.

No Slacking

In the Pakistani village of Tank, which is on the edge of South Waziristan, a Taliban recruiter was killed when he went into a school to recruit suicide bombers. The school teaches boys aged 5 to 17.

Police said the militants had asked the school's administrators to assemble the students so they could address them. A spokesman said: "We heard that they were looking for children to prepare them for jihad and for suicide attacks." The principal called police and the recruiters tried to run.

One of them threw a hand grenade that killed a police officer, said Khan. The other officers opened fire, killing the militant and injuring one of his companions. The third suspect was arrested.

And a Final Note

The Afghan academic year began March 24 as schools opened their doors to more than 6 million pupils, almost doubling the number of students from five years ago. Enrollment rates for girls in some areas is approaching 50 percent.

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