There was more exciting action, more intrigue and more twists in Afghanistan this week than in a full season of 24. It's still too early to start cheering, but there are indications of major developments that favour the NATO mission to stamp out the Taliban insurgency and bring peace to the beleagured country.
A brief sampling of what happened during week three of the War in Afghanistan, 2007:
* NATO troops are abuzz with the story of the most daring rescue mission of the war, one that will be celebrated in British military books for generations
* Six Pakistani nuclear scientists were kidnapped and their captors said they were taking the men to a Taliban commander on Afghanistan's border
* And the governor of an Afghan province next to Pakistan said a Taliban spokesman was captured in a house containing packets of anthrax.
Have you read any of these stories in your local newspaper or seen them on any national television newscast?
Early Monday morning in Helmand province a British force of 200, led by Royal Marines, assaulted Jugroom Fort. A walled compound ringed by watchtowers, it sits on the east bank of the Helmand River in Garmsir district.
Intelligence officers had been watching it for more than two months and suspected Taliban leaders who were orchestrating the insurgency across Garmsir were hiding there.
Just after dawn, the British troops crossed the Helmand river in Viking amphibious vehicles. Scimitar tanks, Apache gunships and 105 mm artillery provided cover fire. The Brits broke into the compound, but were met by heavy defensive fire. After four men fell, the British force fell back.
To their horror, they discovered Lance Corporal Matthew Ford, 30, one of the wounded, had been left behind. Reconnaissance aircraft spotted his body outside the fort walls.
Refusing to leave his body to be mutilated by the insurgents, the commandos decided by launch a recovery mission.
The pilots of the Apache helicopters suggested an operation so dangerous its only diagrammed during training and never practised or demonstrated.
In a scenario straight out of the 1965 movie Flight of the Phoenix, two Marines would strap themselves with carabiners to the short stabilizer wings of each of two helicopters. They would cling to bolted handholds used by maintenance crews as the Apaches returned to the fort under enemy fire.
One helicopter landed inside the fort, and one outside. A third gave covering fire. The Marines jumped off the helicopter nearest to Ford, and strapped his body to the underside of their machine. The attack helicopters then took off and returned safely to base.
There was a time that a story of such tremendous courage would have been splashed across the front pages of every newspaper in the country. That was when bravery was a value to be celebrated by all Canadians.
Last year the mainstream news media feasted on a story that a Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan was a coward who had wanted to come home, a story based only on his distraught girlfriend's interpretation of what he told her. But tales of astounding courage and self-sacrifice are not newsworthy in the eyes of the MSM.
Instead, the Globe and Mail runs another front page story hinting at the doom and destruction awaiting Canadian troops in the coming feared Taliban Spring offensive.
"Taliban plot new offensive on NATO/ Militants vow to hit Kandahar territory" (Jan. 18, 2007)
"The Taliban have promised another season of death in southern Afghanistan, saying their fighting strength is undiminished by recent NATO attempts to destroy their leadership."
Oh yeah? Keep reading to see how the facts show the direct opposite.
Another story not carried in the Canadian press is of the Pakistani nuclear scientists. We've pieced the story together from accounts in Pakistani, British and Indian news agencies.
Last Sunday night, at least 20 armed men kidnapped the scientists from their camp office near a uranium mining field in Karak district of Pakistan. They set off in three trucks towards the Orakzai Agency, one of seven federally administered tribal areas in northwest Pakistan where a local leaders hold absolute sway.
The BBC says police located the kidnappers a half hour later. In the gunfight that followed, one police officer and two kidnappers were killed. Two others were wounded and arrested. The rest escaped.
Among the dead and wounded were two men from North Waziristan, a tribal area bordering Afghanistan. One of the injured kidnappers told police the scientists were being taken to the seminary of Taliban commander Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani in North Waziristan.
Now, why does a Taliban commander want nuclear scientists?
And what is a Taliban spokesman doing in a house with packets of anthrax?
On Wednesday, the governor of Nangarhar Province ( in the eastern end of Afghanistan) distributed photos of Taliban spokesman Mohammed Hanif who had been arrested Monday night after crossing over from Pakistan. Governor Gul Aghar Sherzai dropped the bombshell that packets of anthrax were found in the house where Hanif was arrested.
While Hanif has been a wealth of information on the Taliban's internal splits (more about that in the analysis portion of The Black Rod), there hasn't been another word released about the anthrax.
But we wonder whether there was any connection to the discovery by Afghan soldiers this week of about 60 gas masks in Paktika province.
Last week we told you how NATO aircraft decimated a small army of 200 Taliban insurgents who crossed over from Pakistan with trucks filled with ammunition. More details have come out.
A top US general said the men had been recruited by Jalaluddin Haqqani (yes, the same Haqqani mentioned earlier). They were untrained and unequipped, some wearing plastic bags on their feet instead of winter boots.
"It is clear to me that some of these men were just either collected in a poor part of a village or perhaps from a Madrassa or perhaps from a refugee camp and told to come fight," said Maj-Gen Benjamin Freakley, who didn't mince words.
"The message to the enemies of Afghanistan and the enemies of world peace would be that you can come at us with two people, 20 people, 200 people, 2,000 people, you'll be defeated and your young men will needlessly be killed."
Freakley said it was likely the insurgent fighters meant to attack a new military outpost that has affected insurgent infiltration routes.
But is this an indication that the Taliban has to depend on untrained fighters recruited from the poorest of the poor or pressganged into fighting for a cause they don't believe in? What does that say about the steady boasts, highlighted regularly in the Globe and Mail and elsewhere, that the new Taliban has thousands of highly trained recruits ready to fight NATO forces?
And to make matters even worse for them, Afghan soldiers in Paktika discovered 40 trucks filled with weapons and explosives in mountain caves. This will put a dent in the spring offensive planning.
Fight for Kajaki Continues
In nearby Helmand province, British troops were on the attack again this week, trying to clear the area around the vital Kajaki Dam of insurgents. One Royal Marine was killed. Thomas Curry, 21, became the first coalition soldier killed in 2007. The operation killed 30 Taliban fighters according to local police.
Canadian forces in Kandahar province continued to sweep the area for Taliban fighters even as thousands of refugees have started returning to their homes, believing that the Canadian-led NATO incursion last fall has succeeded in driving out insurgents.
Murray Brewster of The Canadian Press went into the countryside without army protection to get a firsthand look at the conditions and attitudes of the people. He wrote:
But four of us - myself, a colleague from the Globe and Mail newspaper and two CTV journalists - travelled to what had been, until a few weeks ago, Taliban territory - land over which Canadian troops have fought and died. And we went without the protection of the Canadian army.
We wanted to cover the return of refugees and to independently verify what the military claimed was happening.
After an hour's drive in an SUV through the desert on recently paved black top road, we arrived in Bazar-e Panjwaii to find a bustling town centre. Street-side stands were full of fruits, vegetables and goods; kids and adults buzzed along the narrow mud streets and past our dust-caked windows on bicycles.
Here was the place where so much Canadian blood had recently been spilled. It was the place the Taliban had used as a staging area for attacks into Kandahar itself. Yet there was such life and a peaceful resonance coming from the place on the day we visited.
"This is the tangible benefit of all of the pain and suffering last fall", Gavin Buchan, the political director of Canada's provincial reconstruction team, said in an interview days later.
"The fighting that happened last August and September set the conditions for all that has followed."
No matter where the reporters went or who they talked to they found the same optimism and relief that the Taliban had been driven off.
Amazingly, this has not made the front pages where only stories about the 'feared Taliban Spring Offensive' are considered news.
But we're not finished with Kandahar yet. Even though there was less fighting here than in Helmand and Paktiki provinces, the week's developments may be more far reaching.
* British SAS soldiers conducted a lightning raid on a heavily fortified compound in Helmand province Wednesday and snatched a key Taliban commander, Mohammed Nabi, without a shot being fired.
It turns out Nabi actually leads insurgents in Kandahar, but scrammed ahead of Canadian troops conducting their latest operation, Operation Falcon's Summit. He had enough of them in September when fighting them and losing in Panjwayi district.
The word is obviously getting out.
You Don't Mess With The Canadians.
*And Wednesday night, Nato-led troops arrested 20 insurgents and killed their leader, Mohammed Amin, in Kandahar. He wasn't just your average Johnny Jihad-come-lately commander.
In October, Amin told Britain's Sky News that the Taliban was planning attacks on citizens in England and other European countries that supported the NATO mission.
"It's acceptable to kill ordinary people in Europe because these are the people who have voted in the Government.
"They came to our home and attacked our women and children."
"The ordinary people of these countries are behind this - so we will not spare them. We will kill them and laugh over them like they are killing us and laughing at us."
Who's laughing last?
The Taliban has apparently launched its first ever Winter Offensive, which consists of a series of suicide bombings.
Sunday--Zabul Province--A suicide bomber detonated his explosives as a convoy of contruction workers passed. One dead---the stupid bomber.
Tuesday--Kabul--A suicide bomber crashed through the front gate of a U.S. military base, but a security guard and interpreter stopped him from detonating the explosives in the car. However the car exploded as bomb experts were moving it to defuse the explosives. Five people in a nearby office were hurt by flying glass when the explosion blew their windows in.
Thursday---Paktika province (again)--A suicide bomber on foot blew himself up in a market, killing one Afghan soldier.
Thursday -- Nangarhar province--- A suicide bomber drove into an army patrol, killing one soldier.
Thursday --Kandahar--- Afghan police arrested three men in an explosives filled car soon after they drove across from Pakistan.
"They told us that they have centres in Pakistan, where people are recruited and trained as suicide bombers," Mohammad Anway, an Afghan border security official, told Reuters.
"The car was full of explosives and they had plans to distribute some of the material to their men and carry out attacks in Kandahar," he said.
Friday -- Uruzgan province --- A suicide bomber in a car blew himself up next to a NATO convoy north of Tirin Kot, the capital . He was 100 feet away when the car exploded and was the only casualty.
Analyzing the Week
One word repeats itself thoughout the week.
Pakistan. Pakistan. Pakistan. Pakistan.
And, believe it or not, that's the good news.
Whether it was the accumulated diplomatic pressure by NATO states on Pakistan to stop Taliban training, planning and recruitment in border areas....
Or the accumulated shame of the drip, drip, drip of the evidence that Pakistan is a haven for Taliban fighters...
Or the visit to Afghanistan by US defense secretary Robert Gates...
Or the provocation of the attempted kidnapping of Pakistani nuclear scientists...
But Pakistan has turned up the heat on Taliban insurgents and their Pakistani pals.
And that can't be good news for the coming 'feared Spring Offensive.'
* Only two days after the nuclear scientists were kidnapped, Pakistan launched air strikes against suspected hideouts of Taliban insurgents in the Tribal Agency of South Waziristan. Helicopter gunships fired rockets and swept the area for 90 minutes, killing at least 30 "foreign fighters" including many from Uzbekistan and Chechnya. There was some suspicion that some Europeans were among the dead.
A military statement said "foreign terrorists and local facilitators" were occupying a complex of five camps in the mountain forest of Zamazola which is located opposite Barmal district in the Afghan province of Paktika.
"Their activities were under surveillance for the past few days and upon confirmation, this hideout was busted ... through a precision strike in which gunship helicopters also participated" it said (obviously as translated colourfully).
Local councillors from the Tribal Agency called a protest rally in the village of Tank to attack the government air strikes. One reporter's account said "Maulana Fazlur Rahmana's JUI-F, which is the strongest political party in both South and North Waziristan bordering Afghanistan and is the biggest component of the clergy-led MMA government in the NWFP, joined the protest meeting in force and its local leaders Maulana Niaz Muhammad Qureshi and Maulana Jamaluddin (Haqqani, yes, him again) made speeches."
"Innocent people have been killed in the attack," said Maulana Merajuddin, the cleric-turned parliamentarian, who had helped broker a peace agreement between the government and militants in his native Waziristan agency, told the newspaper Dawn in a telephone interview.
"Those were poor labourers involved in wood-cutting. It's now up to the people to decide whether the peace agreement still holds," he said.
One leader promised retaliation in a week to ten days.
* The police chief in Pakistan's southwestern province Balochistan said Thursday that a major operation against Taliban suspects will soon be launched in the province. Provincial police chief Tariq Mahmood Khosa told a news conference the operation will be conducted in Quetta and also other parts of the province by special teams created for this purpose. He vowed to arrest any Taliban militants hiding there.
Khosa said Pakistani police in recent months have arrested 400 Taliban, and 300 of them have been handed over to Afghanistan.
The remaining 100 were being questioned by Baluchistan police, and would also be handed over soon, he said.
To provide Afghan and NATO forces a wealth of intelligence information, we're sure.
* Pakistan's ambassador to the United States said this week Pakistan will close four refugee camps near its border with Afghanistan to help prevent Afghan insurgents from gunrunning and seeking a safe haven in the country. Two will be closed around March and the other two later.
Just in time for the "feared Taliban Spring Offensive.
"On the one side NATO troops are disrupting the movement and supply of Taliban forces in Afghanistan, killing and capturing their military leaders, and moving checkpoints and police into areas previously controlled by insurgents.
On the other, Pakistan is starting to squeeze Taliban fighters and their supporters, throwing their fundraising and planning into disarray, not to mention losing dozens of fighters to Pakistani gunships.
This sure looks like a completely different picture than the one being painted daily in the major newspapers and on the national newscasts, doesn't it?
But we saved the best for last.
Dr. Mohammed Hanif was a regular source for reporters covering the Taliban and he was always being quoted, by name, from his base in Pakistan. In many ways he was like Baghdad Bob, always quick to deny NATO successes even in the face of direct proof.
But when Afghan authorities arrested him Wednesday as he was sneaking into Nangahar province, he turned out to be a hidden treasure of information. And he's been talking, talking, talking about what he knows.
* He said Taliban leader Mullah Omar is hiding out in Quetta under the protection of retired ISI chief Hamid Gul. ISI is the Pakistani intelligence agency that backed the Taliban up to and after the U.S. drove them from power in 2001.
* Time magazine reports that "Afghan investigators say that under questioning, Dr. Hanif... told them that the organization would never have been able to challenge Afghan military and NATO forces without the direct assistance of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. "This means that according to his confession, the ISI of Pakistan is directly involved in funding, arming and supporting the Taliban and other opposition groups against the government of Afghanistan," says NDS (National Defence Services) spokesman Sayed Ansari."
* He is said to have told his interrogators that the recent surge of suicide attacks in Afghanistan were carried out by men trained at a fundamentalist madrassah in Pakistan's Bajur agency, not far from the Afghan border in Waziristan. (Time, Jan. 17, 2007)
* According to Afghan security sources, cited in the Saudi newspaper 'al-Watan', Hanif says the Taliban is split into three groups, who don't always get along well. One group consists of former members of the Taliban regime in Kabul who are fighting to keep from getting arrested.
The second group is linked to Islamic extremists in Pakistan. And the most violent and dangerous group is linked to Al Qaeda.
* Hanif also allegedly said that Mullah Omar has ordered the killing of one of his top military commanders, Mullah Dadullah, for having helped Americans, indirectly, kill one of the Taliban's most important leaders, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani. Osmani was killed by an airstrike in December after a British monitoring aircraft pinpointed his location by tracking his satellite phone.
This offers some support to a little noticed paragraph in a Chicago Tribune report on Osmani's death by Kim Barker Tribune foreign correspondent published December 30, 2006:
An Afghan intelligence source this week said Osmani was killed five minutes after he left a meeting with another senior Taliban military commander, Mullah Dadullah. The source said Dadullah and Osmani were trying to reconcile a split in Taliban leadership.
At the time British newspapers said Osmani, who headed Taliban operations in six provinces, was said to be part of a triumvirate within the Taliban with Mullah Dadullah and Mullah Omar.
If Omar, like Tony Soprano, has ordered a hit on Dadullah, then....
Oooh, this could be gooood.