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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The War in Afghanistan 2007 Week 33

1-2-3. The cut and thrust of war was the story in Afghanistan last week.

1. The American launched a furious offensive in the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan. The air assault on the first day was unlike anything seen all year.
2. Five Nato soldiers were killed in separate attacks.
3. A disappointing lack of progress in rebuilding the vital Kajaki Dam

Tora Bora

You want shock and awe? You got it.

The Americans got wind in July that 300 Arab, Chechen, and Pakistani insurgents had moved into the mountains of Tora Bora a month earlier. The Tora Bora cave complex is "an entrenched network of caves and tunnels carved into the Safed Koh mountain range on the Nangarhar-Pakistan border." It's where many believe Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers made their final stand against a U.S. air assault before escaping into Pakistan in 2001.

On Sunday, Aug. 12, U.S. airpower returned to Tora Bora with a vengeance. The skies over Nangarhar province were full of Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, B-1B Lancer bombers, A-10 Thunderbolt Iis, Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets, and Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons.

And if that wasn't enough, the Americans have added a new weapon to their arsenal. It's an artillery shell called the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). Fired high into the air they are guided to their target by onboard GPS computer systems or lasers. This is the weapon used to kill Mullah Dadullah in May, breaking the back of the Taliban's planned spring and summer offensives. The rockets are now used as a complement to the Predator UAVs that have killed more than a dozen Al Qaeda leaders.

NATO deaths

Roadside bombs continue to take a deadly toll. They are the single most effective weapon in the insurgent arsenal. This week:

* Nangarhar 3 U.S. soldiers killed
* Eastern Afghanistan (probably Ghazni province) 1 Polish solider killed
* near Kabul 3 German diplomatic security guards killed
* Kandahar province 5 police officers killed
* Logar province 3 police officers killed
* Helmand province 3 police hurt
* Kandahar province 5 Canadian soldiers hurt
* Kandahar province 2 Canadians hurt

One British soldier was killed in combat in Helmand province, bringing the death toll for NATO and U.S. forces to five for the week. But its worth noting that we're talking about seven bomb blasts over seven days in five provinces in a country that's almost the size of France and twice the size of Germany. It's not exactly a devastating campaign.

And we can see why the Taliban has only roadside bombs to rely on. Their vaunted ambushes and raids are a faltering tactic.

In Kandahar, police got a tip that Taliban fighters were planning to storm a police centre. They launched a pre-emptive strike of their own, killing 9 insurgents.

In Helmand near the embattled town of Sangin, Taliban forces launched two ambushes. On Thursday, they were fought off until an air strike killed four insurgents, causing the rest to flee. The next day they tried again and were fought off by Afghan army forces.

In Wardak province in the east, about 10 Taliban fighters fought a four-hour gunbattle with police when they took over a radio station. They eventually fled after setting fire to the station. They left behind four dead---almost half the raiding party. Taliban forces resumed their suicide bomb campaign last week.

In Kandahar a suicide bomber knocked on the door of the district chief and detonated his explosives when the man answered. The district chief and three of his children, all under 10, were killed.

On Saturday, a suicide bomber attacked a convoy in Kandahar province but only managed to kill himself, four Afghan security guards and 11 civilians, many of them the passengers of a minibus that was passing by. 26 people were wounded.

The mainstream media, of course, carried no stories about outrage at civilian casualties caused by suicide bombers.

Dam Frustrated

The death of another British soldier in Helmand only highlights the situation there. The slow progress in securing the area around the Kajai Dam is sapping the momentum of reconstruction in Afghanistan.

It now looks extremely unlikly that the goal of providing electricity to 2 million people by early 2008 will be met. Work on the dam had to start by August at the latest.

NATO announced in June that "the major Gershk-Sangin-Kajaki road-building project has started and progresses north." That would be a first step. But the major step of stablizing a perimeter of about 3 to 5 kilometres around a worksite-to stop mortar fire from threatening workers-appears a work in progress.

While British troops have pushed Taliban insurgents out of the area, there are still mortar attacks and sniper fire and almost daily air strikes to suppress them. Coalition and Afghan forces have yet to retake the village of Musa Qala which the Taliban captured in February and still holds, providing refuge and reinforcements for insurgents targetting Kajaki Dam.]

In December, Britain's top commander in Afghanistan announced that the Taliban had been "cleared" from the Kajaki area so that construction workers could return in the spring.

In January, James Franckiewicz, director of USAID's Office of Infrastructure, Engineering, and Energy in Afghanistan, said he expected contractors to be mobilized in February and the hydroelectric portion of reconstruction to be finished by the end of the year.

Those hopes have been dashed repeatedly.

For the last month the soldiers from B (Suffolk) Company, 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment, have been based in Kajaki, and tasked with maintaining the security around the Dam.

A Ministry of Defence story on their efforts is bleak reading:

The town of Tangye, which is just outside the British base near the dam is deserted after months of fighting. Towns and villages all around Kajaki have been abandoned; soldiers call it 'the dead zone'. The daily routine involves fighting and conducting security patrols on the lower plains as well as standing patrols in observation posts accessed by goat tracks and slopes that would challenge the most experienced hill men.

In the month or so of constant patrolling the Vikings have only had one patrol on which they did not come under enemy fire.

Taliban fire came from 360 degrees, achieved by several well hidden positions. At the same time Nato air assets circled overhead, dropping three 500lb (226kg) bombs to neutralise the enemy. At the dam, the Vikings' own mortars were being fired from the British base to stop the Taliban advancing. Section commanders accurately adjusted the mortar fire running quickly between trenches and drawing enemy fire as they moved.

At the same time a sniper speedily moved between positions engaging individual targets, pausing only for a few covert puffs on a cigarette. Inside one of the trenches Second Lieutenant Martin Driver explained that, due to the intensity of fire and the 'shoot and scoot' tactics adopted by the Taliban, it was difficult to pinpoint the enemy firing positions during these fierce engagements.

During the 80-minute dawn exchange, the Vikings fired more than 6,000 rounds and a number of Taliban were killed. Explosions from mortar bombs pitted the plain below, in all 237 mortar rounds rained on the enemy. So intense was the exchange that machine gun barrels were close to overheating. Oliver 'Dusty' Hale, 20, who was protecting the unit's left flank, had to break from firing to drench his barrel with gun oil to cool it down. A thousand used cartridges, the remnants of five expended ammunition belts, littering the floor of his trench. "

A week ago, Lt Col Richard Westley, commanding officer of 1st Battalion The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, said British and coalition forces had cleared more than half the "green zone", a strip of lush growth along the Helmand River which provides cover to Taliban fighters.

The defenders of Kajaki Dam have yet to see the benefit of that announcement.


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