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War in Afghanistan 2008 Week 4

While Canada's news agencies this week fixated on the Manley Report on Canada's mission to Afghanistan, they completely missed the big news---the Taliban insurgency is splintering into pieces right under our noses.

Asia Times Online reported Thursday that highly placed contacts in the Taliban told them that "Mullah Omar has sacked his own appointed leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, the main architect of the fight against Pakistani security forces, and urged all Taliban commanders to turn their venom against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces."

Then Omar's choice to replace Mehsud, Pakistan Taliban leader Moulvi Faqir Mohammed, turned him down.

Last month Mullah Omar fired Mansoor Dadullah as the chief commander of insurgents in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the birthplace of the Taliban. And that announcement came a week or two after a key Taliban commander in the Helmand town of Musa Qala, which had been held by the Taliban for 10 months, defected, leading to the recapture of Musa Qala by British-led forces.

There's big trouble in Taliban-land.

It's like seeing the removal of the Taliban's defence minister and foreign minister after a mutiny in the army.

The so-called resurgent Taliban is not a monolithic force. While Mullah Omar is ostensibly the head of the Taliban, his power has been waning. In the southern provinces, Omar gives the orders to Taliban commanders, but he's made alliances with drug smugglers who pay Taliban fighters to protect their poppy fields in Helmand and Kandahar and whose priorities may not always be the same as Omar's.

In the north, the insurgency is predominently commanded by former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who can't decide whether to be an Islamic jihadist or a politician. Sensing which way the military wind was blowing, Hekmatyar pulled out of the Feared Taliban Spring Offensive of 2007, preferring to tease the Kabul government with hints of changing sides instead of ducking American Hellfire missiles. Hekmatyar has strong ties to Iran.

Insurgents in the east of Afghanistan are run by Jalalludin Haqqani, the last of the prominent Mujahideen commanders who fought the Soviets. Haqqani was closely tied to Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban's overall commander-in-chief who was supposed to spearhead the capture of Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual home. Until the British killed him last year, that is.

Increasingly, though, it looks like Haqqani's son Sirajuddin has become the driving force of the insurgency in the east, if not the whole of Afghanistan. Sirajuddin and other Young Turks like Baitullah Mehsud have embraced Al Qaeda and its nihilist jihadi philosophy. They are elbowing aside the old men like Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who, in their eyes, have failed to do much.

Waliullah Rahmani, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and an analyst who covers terrorism and related issues for the Jamestown Foundation, has written that Mullah Omar didn't want to appoint Mansoor Dadullah as the successor to his brother, Mullah Dadullah. "But Al Qaeda supported the Mullah Mansoor leadership style. They wanted a brutal commander to lead their Neo-Taliban. Al Qaida wanted to replace Mullah Dadullah with someone who would act like Zarqawi had in Iraq. This shows that there is a wide rift between the Taliban and Al Qaida." wrote Rahmani.

Similarly, Mullah Omar appeared onside a month ago when 40 Taliban leaders from tribal areas in Pakistan met and appointed Baitullah Mehsud as their Central Amir, as reported in the Pakistani paper Dawn.

"The sole objective of the Shura meeting was to unite the Taliban against Nato forces in Afghanistan and to wage a 'defensive jihad' against Pakistani forces here," Baitullah's spokesman Maulvi Omar said at the time.

But Mullah Omar may have sensed what would happen. Mehsud, inspired by Al Qaeda, declared war on Pakistan, declaring he would impose shariah law and launching suicide attacks that have killed 600 people this year already. Mehsud promised to kill Benazir Bhutto, and did.

His first attack on her homecoming procession in October demonstrated his evil. The bomb that exploded killing Bhutto's supporters was planted in the clothes of a baby being held up for the former prime minister to embrace. Bhutto told the Washington Times she had gestured for the man holding the baby to come closer. "It was about 1 or 2 years old, and I think it was a girl," she said.

But if Mullah Omar excused that depravity, he couldn't overlook Mehsud's latest misstep. On Jan. 6, Uzbek gunmen sent by Mehsud killed eight tribal leaders at a government-sponsored peace meeting. The attack has sparked a tribal war in the Taliban-friendly tribal region of Pakistan.

Hundreds of armed tribesmen met at Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, to form a militia and hunt down those involved in the killing.

In a preview of what's to come, last year, tribesmen,incensed that foreign fighters tried to kill a tribal elder, killed about 300 Uzbeks and other foreigners.

With Pakistani army troops sweeping South Waziristan to kill Mehsud and his followers, and tribal warfare breaking out, Mullah Omar knows his forces have nowhere to go over the winter. Usually they go to safe havens in Pakistan to rest and rearm for the spring offensive. The turmoil in Pakistan makes the next spring offensive a dicey proposition, even if Mullah Omar can marshall the forces to concentrate on fighting in the south.

It was a relatively quiet, albeit deadly week in Afghanistan.

* In what may be a new tack, Taliban forces attacked NATO supply lines and civilian contractors.

In the Gereshk district of Helmand, six trucks carrying construction material were destroyed, four drivers and two security guards were killed. In Pakistan's southwest province of Balochistan, oil tankers headed to Kandahar air field were attacked by Taliban raiders.

Two NATO soldiers died this week, bringing the coalition death toll to 10 in 3 weeks. A British soldier was killed and five soldiers wounded when their vehicle hit a mine almost two miles northeast of Musa Qala. And Canadian Sapper Etienne Gonthier, 21 was killed Wednesday while on a mine-clearing operation.

The National Post said soldiers "had been engaged in a road-clearing exercise about 35 kilometres southwest of Kandahar City in the western reaches of Panjwaii district. The improvised explosive device detonated at 1:40 p.m. while bulldozers and troop carriers were trying to clear a safe route through Panjwaii district."

On Tuesday, five civilians-one woman, one child and three men--- were killed by a roadside bomb in Kandahar when it blew up their car.

* The Canadian military is tiptoeing ahead to tackle the IED campaign that is causing almost all the casualties to Canadian forces in Kanadahar. Canadian Press reports that earlier this week "the Department of Defence put out a contract tender for developing miniature "Remote Neutralization Vehicles."

The contract tender, which closes on Feb. 7, is presumably for mine-clearing robots. The department hopes to deply two. Sometime in the future.


U.S. forces have been using IED-detecting robots in Afghanistan and Iraq for years. The robots have found 10,000 roadside bombs according to CBS News. There are currently 1000 combat robots serving with troops in those two countries.

CP lays out the extent of the problem facing Canadian troops. According to a combat engineer interviewed by CP, the heavy machines added to the anti-IED capability last fall turned up about 17 roadside bombs in the first three months of use.

In the first seven months of 2007 coalition forces encountered 150 explosions. Another 150 bombs were defused.

But here's the most infuriating paragraph of the CP story:
"When roadside bombs are detected by clearing squads, it sometimes falls to soldiers themselves to approach the explosive device and detonate it. Then someone would try to gather information from the debris about the bomb."

WE'RE SENDING SAPPERS LIKE ETIENNE GONTHIER TO RISK THEIR LIVES EXAMINING BOMBS AT CLOSE RANGE?

This isn't CSI Panjwaii where we have the time patientally to track down the mad bomber. Blow the IED's up at long range, then set up an ambush for the next team that comes to plant bombs. That's logic talking.

* Elsewhere on the ground last week, American forces watched Taliban gather for a mass attack on a base in Kunar province. The Yanks opened fire with mortars, artillery and helicopter gunships and in a 21 hour battle killed a couple of dozen insurgents or more.

But in Ghazni province two days later, aggressive action by U.S. forces may have killed nine Afghan police officers by accident. The U.S. initially said they came up against a Taliban squad of fighters. Afghan government authorities said the dead turned out to be police.

Taliban commanders continue to send suicide bombers against coalition forces, with diminishing success.

A would-be suicide bomber fell down a flight of stairs and blew himself up as he was leaving a building in Khost province, apparently to target an opening ceremony for a mosque that was expected to be attended by Afghan and international military officials.

Two civilian women and a man were injured in the explosion.

Two days earlier another suicide bomber killed himself and three companions when the bomb in his waistcoat exploded as he was putting it on in the town of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

* And finally, it was amazing to watch political pundits pontificate about one of the key recommendations of the Manley Report without having the first clue about the subject.

In the report, the independent panel headed by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley said Canada should demand NATO allies send at least 1000 more troops to Kandahar to support Canadian soldiers.

The pundits all moaned and groaned about the impossibility of that goal.

The facts:

The United States is sending 3200 additional troops to Afghanistan for at least seven months. The bulk of that force, 2200 will be in Helmand province where, we presume, they will be assigned to help the British provide security for the vital Kajaki Dam project which is a year behind schedule. The other 1000 will help train Afghan forces.

Canadian forces already being supported by Nepal's famous Gurkhas. About 500 Gurkhas are based at the Kandahar Airfield, but move around to support troops in other provinces in the south. Another 150 Gurkhas are in Helmand province, supporting British forces.

A big benefit with Gurkha troops is communication with locals. Most Gurkhas speak Hindi, a language very close to Urdu, a Pakistani language spoken by many Afghans.

Between 80-100 elite special forces (GROM) from Poland are already stationed in Kandahar. "GROM" is an acronym for "Grupa Reagowania Operacyjno-Manewrowego"--in English, "Operational Mobile Reaction Group" Grom is also Polish for "thunder."

The Poles have another 1200 soldiers stationed in eastern Afghanistan. Poland recently announced it would add 400 soldiers and eight helicopters.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, other NATO countries are picking up some of the military weight, possibly freeing U.S. troops to move south.

Norway is adding 250 troops. 100 infantry and two or three helicopters will reinforce their base near the northern city of Maymana, while 150 special forces troops will be based in the Kabul region. Defense Minister Anne-Grethe Stroem-Erichsen said the special forces could be used to back up wherever they were needed with the Norwegian government's approval. In addition Norway is providing 50 trainers to work with Afghan police and army.

Even France and Germany are bolstering their contingents. France is sending 150 military experts into the south to train Afghan army units. Germany is to deploy 250 additional soldiers in northern Afghanistan this summer, and Rainer Arnold, of the co- ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) told the Passauer Neue Presse, the new troops will be used for combat unlike other German soldiers who are stationed in Mazar-i Sharif. The German contingent is to replace a 350-men Norwegian rapid reaction force which is to withdraw by July, according to Arnold.

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