War in Afghanistan 2007 Week Nine
The assassination and capture of senior Taliban commanders in Afghanistan by NATO forces this winter has spooked the insurgents into a murderous spy hunt.
A Taliban spokesman from Helmand province told the Globe and Mail (via a delivered videotape) that between 60 and 70 suspected spies have been arrested and many of them killed. A landowner from Kajaki in Helmand province told government authorities that the Taliban executed 13 of their own people and arrested 3 more.
The latest victim was apparently a doctor who worked at a hospital in the capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah. He was kidnapped last Saturday and his body found Wednesday dumped on the side of a road. He was shot in the head and chest.
The Taliban don't need proof of actual spying. They consider anyone working for the government, aid groups, the U.S. military or NATO to be traitors and subject to death.
The Black Rod has learned that in Kandahar province, among the Canadian troops stationed there, the threat has a human face.
Haji Fareed, the head interpreter at the Kandahar PRT, has received a "night letter", a threatening note which usually says that unless the recipient stops working for the infidels, he or his family will be killed.
Fareed knew enough not to dismiss it as an idle threat. Last June, the Taliban planted a bomb on a bus carrying interpreters to work at the coalition base in Kandahar. Five interpreters were killed. Two were Fareed's relatives and the other three were his best friends.
Fareed refused to be intimidated, and he continued to work for the coaliton. But today his loyalty and faith in Afghanistan's allies is being sorely tested. Fareed immediately informed the Canadians at the Kandahar PRT of the night letter and asked for their protection.
The Canadian military refused to move him and his family onto the base leaving them at the mercy of the killers!
How can Canada profess to be bringing security to Kandahar when they won't step up to protect the Afghans who risk their lives every day for the allies? If you won't, or can't, defend one person, how can you expect Afghans to believe you are there to protect them all from Taliban terrorists?
Interpreters are literally invaluable in NATO's fight for freedom in Afghanistan. CTV's Steve Chao saw for himself during his stint in Afghanistan what interpreters do:
They are often the first to hit the ground when helicopters touch down in hostile territory, and the first to make contact with local villagers and elders as soldiers attempt to connect with the communities. They also lead soldiers to enemy positions and direct troops on where to train their weapons -- often without carrying arms themselves. They've been on the front lines of every major battle between insurgents and coalition troops, and they've paid a price for their commitment.
Interpreters have helped negotiate peace between feuding warlords. And who do you think translates when Americans and the non-combat NATO countries teach Afghan army recruits about "weapons, equipment, tactics, techniques and procedures"?
Another irreplaceable service is teaching Canadian troops about Afghan culture and language, including important phrases they need to do their jobs including simple commands like "stop."
Why is there any hesitation in immediately closing ranks and sending a message to everyone in the country---help us and we'll help you no matter what it takes.
We'll be watching Haji Fareed's case very closely. The credibility of the entire Canadian mission in Afghanistan is on the line.
The Taliban are not out of line in seeing spies under every bed and behind every bush.
This past week they suffered a major blow when Pakistan arrested Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, the Taliban's former defence minister, and one of the top three Taliban leaders. He was scooped in the border city of Quetta where Taliban leaders have, until now, been unmolested by Pakistani authorities.
You shouldn't underestimate how important this arrest is. Mullah Obaidullah is the most important Taliban member to be captured since the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. There was a $1 million bounty on his head for a reason.
Mullah Rahman, the Taliban's deputy commander in Zabul province, and Abdul Latif Hakimi, a former Taliban spokesman who was himself arrested in 2005 by the police in Quetta, have independently said Mullah Obaidullah was one of only two people who had direct access to Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Obaidullah supervised the destruction of the 1700 year old giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan valley in 2001.He was one of the four main Taliban military strategists and commanders along with Mullah Dadullah and Jalaluddin Haqqani. The fourth, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Osmani, was killed Dec. 19 in an American airstrike, becoming the first to die in the NATO's "kill the head and the body dies" winter campaign of eliminating top Taliban leaders.
Osmani was said to be chief of Taliban military operations in the provinces of Uruzgan, Nimroz, Kandahar, Farah, Herat and Helmand. It's not a stretch to speculate that when he was blown to bits, Mullah Obaidullah stepped in.
Obaidullah is from Panjway district of Kandahar province. The battles that Canadian forces in Kandahar fought in Panjway last year forced the Taliban into a humiliating retreat and turned the tide of the fight against the insurgency. Obaidullah would have a score to settle.
As recently as December he told news agencies "the Taliban have become a strong military power of the same levels as the most powerful army."
It's too early to say if his arrest cripples the Taliban's plans for taking Kandahar this spring. We can only hope.
And the news only gets better.
Obaidullah was among five Taliban suspects arrested in the Quetta raid. The raid was carried out by Pakistani security officials, acting on a tip from U.S. officials. Another seven Taliban suspects were arrested, also in Quetta, later in the week. The Pakistani newspaper "Dawn" reported that among the men captured with Obaidullah were Amir Khan Haqqani, a Taliban commander, and Abdul Bari, the former governor in Afghanistan's Helmand province.
Amir Khan Haqqani is/was the military commander of Taliban fighters in Zabul province just east of Kandahar. His deputy was Mullah Rahman who we quoted earlier speaking of Obaidullah's closeness to Mullah Omar.
The removal of important leaders this close to the anticipated Feared Taliban Spring Offensive (TM. The Black Rod) is a terrific sign.
On His Shoulders
Left almost alone at the helm is Mullah Dadullah (hate the man, gotta love the name). The spring and summer offensives are on his shoulders. Dadullah is the last of the major military commanders left. He's been described as bloodthirsty and ruthless, and that's without going into his bad traits.
A chief Taliban spokesman who was caught sneaking into Afghanistan in January said that a tip from Dadullah was responsible for Mullah Osmani's demise. Osmani was known to be a proponent of diplomacy rather than outright terror. He died and Dadullah didn't.
The 2006 offensives in Kandahar and Helmand provinces were led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, another of the old guard fighters who earned his reputation battling the Russians. He was forced to run back to Quetta with his tail between his legs. Dadullah is determined he will do better.
Both sides have declared that 2007 will be the decisive year in Afghanistan.
NATO spokesman Colonel Tom Collins told a news conference said they were fully prepared to meet the threat from Taliban. He said the current year would be decisive in terms that the militants would have either to surrender or to be ruined by the NATO forces. (Kuna, Feb. 28)
An Al-Jazeera reporter: "All the movement's leaders and fighters whom we met emphasized that this year will be the decisive one in favor of the Taliban. One of them proudly told us that Afghanistan is the graveyard of the empires - from the Mongols and the British to the Russians - and that now, NATO's turn has come." (Al-Jazeera TV February 21 and 22, 2007)
The basic strategy for both sides has been laid out in various interviews and news conferences collected here.
Col. Tom Collins, NATO's chief spokesman in Kabul, said NATO would head off the Taliban Spring offensive by launching pre-emptive attacks against Taliban strongholds and sanctuaries in Helmand and Uruzgan provinces. The Coalition, with its enormous superiority in firepower, sees no way the Taliban can capture and hold any significant target.
"They may hold a small place for days," Collins allows, "but they'll get run out at a high cost." (Newsweek Feb. 25, 2007)
Dutch Maj-Gen. Ton Van Loon, who is responsible for the multinational force patrolling the six provinces in the southern part of Afghanistan, told reporters NATO will not sit idly by and allow militants to launch their own wave of bombings and suicide attacks in southern Afghanistan, the alliance's southern commander declared this weekend.
"A spring offensive (by the Taliban) will not happen because we are going to take the initiative." (NATO and) "the government of Afghanistan, the Afghan army, the Afghan police - we'll make sure we go into as many areas as we possibly can to make sure the Taliban cannot go back and bully the population." (Canadian Press, Feb. 18, 2007)
Canadian Col. Mike Kampman, the chief of staff to Van Loon, told The Canadian Press that pushing Taliban militants up into the central mountains of Afghanistan and marginalizing them in remote locations is a cornerstone of NATO's strategy this year. The hope is that once isolated, the insurgency will lose its bite and eventually wither away.
Since arriving in the volatile southern region almost a year ago, NATO forces have "spread out and pushed up against the insurgent staging areas," he said.
"If we apply pressure on them, essentially the effect we have over time is disrupting their ability to move back down into the populated areas and have an influence." (Feb. 7, 2007)
The Black Rod has been reporting on these pre-emptive steps. In Kandahar, Canadian troops have cleared out more of Panjway, allowing refugees from the fighting to return home. In next-door Helmand province, British forces have conducted raids deep into Taliban-controlled areas.
NATO it is preparing and even wider offensive, "Operation Nowrouz" (new year), to disrupt the Taliban's spring offensive. Its launch may only be waiting the arrival of all the additional NATO troops (American, British, Polish) that are expected in territory in the next month.
The Taliban, for their part, have announced that their war preparations are complete. Mullah Dadullah told Al Jazeera: "There are 6,000 Taliban mujahideen ready to fight in the spring campaign, and the number will rise to 10,000. The greater the number of Jewish and Christian forces fighting us, the more this will encourage the people to join us."
He said the Taliban had a "new weapon" to counter NATO's overarching superiority in weaponry. The weapon?
Dadullah said he had recruited more than 500 suicide bombers for the spring campaign with more signing up daily.
(These numbers have been reported a thousand times already and will be reported another thousand times this year to support the press meme of a resurgent Taliban insurgency. Watch how many reporters mention that last year---in 2006-Dadullah boasted he had 500 suicide bombers and 12,000 fighters at the ready. So this year he's down 2000 insurgents already. And NATO has increased its forces by almost 6000---3,400 Americans, 1000 Poles, 1200 Brits.)
The fact that the Taliban is having to resort to suicide bombers as their prime weapon is an indication of how badly they were mauled by NATO last year.
Taliban spokesman were ecstatic at a suicide attack on the Bagram air base when U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visited last Tuesday.
Now, remember that the bomber blew himself up a mile from Cheney. That's correct. One entire mile. He didn't even get past the first checkpoint.
So the Taliban's idea of success is a suicide bomber killing himself a mile away from his target?
That's how desperate they are to claim a victory. Any victory.
A brand new study of the Taliban's 2007 suicide bomb campaign demonstrates what a futile weapon its proving itself. The study by Dr Brian Glyn Williams and Cathy Young at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor, looked all the known suicide bomb attacks in Afghanistan since 2001, including the 21 so far this year up to the Bagram attack.
In 16 of the 21 attacks, the only one killed was the bomber. In two cases the bomber was arrested or shot. And in one case the suicide bomber killed himself and one policeman.
"Typically, the suicide bombers' explosives went off prematurely or their bombs failed to kill coalition troops driving in heavily armoured vehicles," they wrote. Of all the suicide bombings since 2001, only two targetted civilians.
"These findings tell us volumes about the Taliban's overall strategy in employing suicide bombing as a tactic. Far from imitating Iraqi insurgent tactics, the Taliban are trying to avoid losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people by needlessly killing civilians," the study says.
Yet 84 percent of victims are civilians. And that has angered Afghans, including supporters of the Taliban. A bloody spring offensive that leaves civilians dead and injured would be counterproductive to the Taliban's goals.
But is there more to the strategy?
Did Taliban commander Mullah Hayatullah Khan say too much in the wake of the Cheyney attack when he told reporters (from a secret location) that 1000 suicide bombers had been sent to the relatively quiet north of the country?
Not his reference to double the number of bombers that Dadullah spoke about. But that the suicide bomb campaign may be intended for the northern provinces--- where the non-combatant NATO forces are stationed. Will Germany and France come to regret their refusal to confront the insurgents in the border areas?
Attacks in the north could be intended to spread terror in relatively safe areas of the country, hoping to force NATO to shift troops away from the border with Pakistan and give Taliban fighters a free hand in the south.
Certainly Taliban leaders have made no bones that the ultimate goal remains to capture Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement. They would then use the victory to convince the various tribes of Afghanistan to unite under their banner to take Kabul in a repeat of their success in the Nineties.
Taliban commanders interviewed by friendly reporters have spelled out the battle plan in more detail.
Taliban sub-commander Qari Hazrat laid out the Taliban's strategy for 2007 for Asia Times reporter Saleem Shahzad.
"... we will mobilize our strength and occupy the Herat-Kandahar highway and establish our pockets all over ... And then we will not give them a chance to even find an escape route in their helicopters. We will hold parts of the Kandahar-Herat highway and our friends will hold other points. So Kandahar and other places will automatically come under siege and there will be little chance of reinforcements."
Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief, travelled inside Taliban territory last December and spoke with fighters and commanders about their plan for this year's offensive," the central aim of which is to retake Kandahar, their previous spiritual capital."
Among his findings:
The Taliban in neighboring Helmand province are expected to play a central role in the planned fall of Kandahar. Many top field commanders are already concentrated there and Taliban leader Mullah Omar is expected to spend some time in the province making formal tribal arrangements that will unify all tribes under one pro-Taliban flag.
Already the game gets complicated like something out of a John le Carre novel. The International Terrorism Monitor published a paper two weeks ago titled
TALIBAN PRE-EMPTS NATO'S PLANNED PRE-EMPTIVE STRIKE
"According to reliable reports from Pashtun sources in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, it has already infiltrated about 1,000 of its trained cadres, fully armed, into Southern and Eastern Afghanistan through the Waziristan area of Pakistan's Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), by taking advantage of the peace agreement signed by the Pakistan army with the pro-Taliban elements in North Waziristan in September last year. Large quantities of arms and ammunition have been cached by the Neo Taliban in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan."
The idea is that the Neo Taliban cadres, who have already infiltrated and taken up position, would launch their spring offensive not from Pakistani territory as anticipated by the NATO forces, but from behind their back in Afghan territory. The infiltrated cadres consist almost exclusively of Afghans recruited from the refugee camps in the Pakistani territory and Pashtun ex-servicemen from the Pakistan Army. It is groups of trained cadres from among these infiltrators who recently occupied the town of Musa Qala in the Helmand Province.
Musa Qala, occupied by Taliban forces for a month now. Last week village elders went begging for help from the government in Kabul. The Taliban occupiers have launched a campaign of arrests and reprisals. Death threats against elders have forced many to flee.
The elders want NATO and the government to drive the insurgents out, even if it means bombing the town.
"We want the government to take back Musa Qala," said one elder who helped broker the October deal. "People are ready to help NATO and the government, but we don't know what we are waiting for." (New York Times, Feb. 26, 2007)
There's so much more to say, but it will have to wait for next week.