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The War in Afghanistan 2007 Week 32

What's that saying about not seeing the forest for the trees?

Well, that perfectly describes how the mainstream media is covering the mission in Afghanistan.

This past week we read how five Canadian soldiers were injured when their RG-31 Nyala armoured vehicle struck an IED in a Taliban ambush.

The reporter for Canwest News, Andrew Maueda, couldn't help himself from making the snide comment "The attack came only hours after a top Canadian military commander touted the progress Canada has made in securing the province against insurgents."

But here's a story that didn't make the news: the Taliban have abandoned their 29 training camps in North and South Waziristan, the border area of Pakistan.

That's right. The pressure got too great and they split for the hills (literally in some cases). Anticipating military strikes from the American and Pakistani forces, the Taliban ran. They didn't chose to leave. They were forced to. In other words, another victory for the international forces in Afghanistan.

Oh, of course, they're painting their sudden retreat as a wily tactical manoeuvre.

"The naive, rustic but battle-hardened Taliban still want a fight, but it will be fought on the Taliban's chosen battlegrounds," writes Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau chief, in a story headlined 'Taliban a step ahead of US assault.'

Shahzad's stories for the Asia Times all put a Taliban friendly spin on the news from Afghanistan, but he has strong sources within the insurgent groups. That means his stories offer a good insight into the thinking within Taliban power circles.

Shahzad admits the killing of the Taliban's chief military commander, Mullah Dadullah, in May shattered the insurgency.

"Amid the demoralization, the entire Taliban leadership left Helmand, Uruzgan, Zabul and Kandahar and sat idle in Satellite Town in Quetta, Pakistan for several weeks," he writes.

In June, according to the Asia Times, Taliban leader Mullah Omar decided that from now on the insurgency in the southwest, where British, Canadian and Dutch forces are stationed, would be decentralized. "No members of the central military command would work in southwest Afghanistan" wrote Shahzad. The mortality rate for senior commanders was just too high.

Instead, local commanders were on their own to conduct their own strategy. Just keep us posted, said Omar.

That's the forest.

* The insurgency in shambles.
* The leaders afraid to show themselves.
* The training camps closed.

Keep this handy to read the next time you see a news account of "how badly" the mission in Afghanistan is going.

Three attacks

On the ground during Week 32 the most intriguing story was the attacks on Camp Anaconda, a U.S. special forces outpost in Uruzgan province. Taliban forces assaulted Camp Anaconda three times during the week.

On Tuesday, the camp's defenders fought off a force of about 75 insurgents, killing about 24. The daily air summary says an Air Force B-1 Lancer "provided close-air support for coalition troops taking small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire from Taliban extremists near Oruzgan. The B-1 expended Guided Bomb Unit-31s on cave entrances and the extremists' positions, ending the engagement."

Then on Saturday, another attack was beaten off with mortars and heavy machine gun fire. Four insurgents were killed. Saturday evening, there was a third attack which was also repulsed with "several" insurgents killed.

Coalition forces suspect the unusual Taliban assaults on Firebase Anaconda may be rehearsals for a much bigger attack this summer. They say the Taliban's goal is to overrun an occupied US outpost.

Two other possibilities come to mind. One is that the attacks are a diversion for forces resupplying or massing elsewhere. The other is much simpler; with the summer offensive sputtering, a local group of fighters just decided it was a good time to get killed and claim their virgins in heaven before the winter sets in.

There was a lot of air activity over Uruzgan province last week, with A-10 Thunderbolts strafing insurgents on Monday, the action over Camp Anaconda Tuesday, and a concerted attack on Friday by F-15Es which dropped 500 pound bombs on enemy firing positions in Tarin Kowt and a Royal Air Force Harrier which picked up the fight after the F-15s left, attacking a ridgeline with rockets.

Green Zone

In neighbouring Helmand Province, a top commander said British forces have cleared Taliban fighters from more than half of the crucial "Green Zone", a narrow strip along the Helmand River where the vegetation offers insurgents cover they can't find in the surrounding desert.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Westley said NATO has driven Taliban fighters out of about 60 percent of the Green Zone. He said the front line, on the outskirts of the town of Gereshk as of April, has been pushed back seven miles.

A major NATO assault last month, codenamed Operation Storm - saw up to 270 Taliban fighters killed, while others withdrew from the zone, he said.

Air over Helmand

Air activity over Helmand continued to be steady as it has almost every week since the Brits launched their first offensive in the spring. The town of Sangin continues to be hotly contested by Taliban forces which were driven out earlier this summer.

A weapons cache was destroyed at Sangin on Monday, a B-1 Lancer provided close-air support Tuesday for coaliton troops fighting insurgent foces near the Taliban-held village of Musa Qala, and a Taliban vehicle was blown up near Sangin, enemy forces were strafed Thursday at Garmsir and Sangin. On Friday, an F-15E put a 500 pound bomb on an enemy firing position near a tree line in Sangin.

About 50 Taliban ambushed British forces near the village of Payowak in Washir district of Helmand province, sparking off a 13-hour gunbattle. The Brits has some warning of the attack when villagers suddenly began leaving the area. Air support was called in and the ambush was fought off with 10 Taliban dead.

Sporadic

In Kandahar province, where Canadians lead the provincial reconstruction efforts, an attack on a police vehicle left two police dead and eight wounded.

The Dutch shot and killed a motorcyclist who got too close to their convoy.

In Zabul province insurgents on motorbikes attacked a police checkpoint. Five Taliban were killed.

In Farah province at the western edge of Afghanistan, villagers fought Taliban insurgents, killing five of them. Two villagers died.

In Badghis province, bordering Iran, a major ambush left seven Afghan soldiers dead and destroyed eight Afghan army vehicles. 20 Taliban fighters were killed, including the local commander.

And Australian troops newly arrived in Uruzgan province fought two battles in two days. On Wednesday a patrol was ambushed. Attack helicopters flew in to support the Aussies and ended the fight.

On Friday, five Australian troops guarding a reconstruction team of engineers building a checkpoint was attacked by Taliban fighters. A 90-minute gun battle in an alley followed.

Defence spokesman Brigadier Andrew Nikolic said the Australians were fired on with rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and small arms fire from multiple positions in the alley. NATO Apache attack helicopters were called in to devastating effect. "They hammered them with rockets and there was apparently very little left of some of the attackers' positions," a military source said.

The Australians found blood trails but no bodies.

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