The winter in Afghanistan is the worst in years, having already claimed the lives of more than 200 Afghans.
Worst hit so far are the four provinces in the west of Afghanistan--Herat, Bagdis, Ghowr, and Faryab (English spellings vary widely, so don't hold us to them). But the severe cold extends even into the southern provinces; at least 20 people have died in Uruzgan province.
"Local people are saying the winter conditions have been the most severe in decades." says the BBC. "At the other end of the country, the north-east, people say recent snowfalls have been the heaviest for 20 years."
Most of the dead are herders, although the cold and avalanches have killed women and children as well. 17,000 sheep and other livestock animals have either died or gone missing.
The one benefit of the severe weather is a dampening of insurgent attacks as evidenced by daily summaries of coalition aircraft sorties. For days now U.S. and NATO air power is being used primarily in shows of force to deter enemy action instead of in bombing runs.
Traditionally Taliban forces use the winter months to rest and rebuild in safe areas in Pakistan. But this year those Pakistani tribal regions where tribes sympathetic to the Taliban offer them shelter are in turmoil. With their Pakistani allies fighting for their own lives, the Afghan Taliban are forced to stick close to home---and freeze.
NATO forces continued to consolidate their success in driving the Taliban out of the town of Musa Qala in northern Helmand province. Afghan officials said 200 insurgents were killed in the fighting as British, American, and Estonian troops drove to the town and surrounded it before the final push in.
In a surprise move, the Karzai government appointed a former Taliban commander as the governor of Musa Qala district. Mullah Abdul Salaam defected with 300 fighters only hours before British and Afghan forces moved into Musa Qala. His switch was the biggest success to date of a reconciliation programme promoted by the British in Helmand province aimed at separating moderate Taliban fighters from the hard-core fanatical Islamists.
But if they expected any credit, they weren't getting it from the people of Musa Qala.
In an exclusive interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Radio Free Afghanistan, Salaam said residents of Musa Qala blame British forces for allowing the Taliban to seize their town in February 2007.
He blamed a deal brokered by the British in 2006 under which saw British troops withdrawn from Musa Qala with the local elders promising to keep Taliban forces out. But local militia fighters had been disarmed. They couldn't prevent the Taliban from seizing the town when they wanted to.
"For the people to realize that these [NATO] troops have come to rebuild Musa Qala, the people must be convinced that they will not be abandoned, as they were in the past when the foreigners delivered us to the terrorists -- which was not the fault of the people and the elders," Salaam said. "The international community is to be blamed for that. They disarmed the people and the elders. Then the Taliban came and took over."
The "peace deal" that led to the Taliban takeover of Musa Qala was the brainchild of General David Richards, the British commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan in 2006, and, for one brief, shameful moment, it was touted by the United Nations as the model for NATO to follow in its mission in Afghanistan.
In their defence, the British set up an undermanned post in Musa Qala in the first place only at the request of Afghan President Hamid Karzai who wanted NATO troops spread as widely as possible. They also had no strategic mobile reserve force to call on. Such a force was only introduced in 2007 after the Brits abandoned Musa Qala.
U.S. General Dan McNeill, who replaced General Richards in the rotating command in southern Afghanistan, was always opposed to such peace deals.
It's such divisions in strategy that U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates must have been thinking of when he said America's allies were ill-suited for counterinsurgency operations in southern Afghanistan.
Kandahar in the bullseye
Immediately after the recapture of Musa Qala, Asia Times Online interviewed a Taliban commander in Kandahar by telephone. Moulvi Abdul Jalil, as he was identified, sniffed that the Taliban had only put up token resistance in Musa Qala, and that they now would concentrate their efforts on Kandahar province.
And it was Kandahar where many of the headlines came from over the past couple of weeks. The pattern was sadly familiar.
* Eight police were killed when dozens of Taliban fighters stormed a police post in Kandahar's Maywand district.
* Canadian soldier Richard Renaud, of the 12e Regiment blinde du Canada in Valcartier, Que., was killed when his Coyote reconnaissance vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in Kandahar's Zhari district.
* Four Canadian soldiers were injured when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province.
* Two more roadside bombs in the Panjwaii district injured seven Canadian soldiers only last Wednesday. Their injuries were minor and all but one returned to action after treatment.
Elsewhere across Afghanistan, the Taliban resumed its suicide bomb campaign.
* A suicide bomber was inadvertently blown to bits by his own bomb at a market in the town of Qalat, the capital of Zabul province, which lies on the main Kabul to Kandahar highway. Provincial spokesman Gulab Shah Alikhail said. "Walking on foot, all of a sudden he exploded and wounded a shopkeeper. He was not near any military convoy or a particular target."
* A suicide bomber blew himself up trying to enter the house of a police commander in Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand province. One policeman was killed. Four police and two children were injured. In Kabul, interior ministry spokesman, Zemarai Bashary, said the Taliban bomber exploded "in the arms of our brave policeman who grabbed him before he could reach his target."
* In capital city Kabul, Taliban gunmen following a suicide bomber stormed the most luxurious hotel in Afghanistan and killed seven people. Four men armed with Kalashnikovs stormed the security gate, killing two Afghan guards. The suicide bomber blew himself up in the courtyard. The gunmen then ran through the hotel firing indiscriminately and throwing grenades. There was a second blast which may have been a second suicide bomber blowing himself up. Guards killed one of the attackers.
Three people in the hotel's health club were killed-- a US national who was a member of the facility, a Filipina employee and an Afghan staffer, a hotel spokesperson said. A 39-year-old Norwegian photographer was believed to have been killed in the lobby. The seventh victim may have been a French woman, according to one of the earliest accounts.
Police have since arrested four people involved in the attack including a man who transported the team to the hotel and a man who was supposed to have been one of the suicide bombers but "for some reason did not", according to Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Salah.
Finally, to leave on a positive note...this just in (emphasis ours)---
Afghanistan: 20 Taliban killed in joint operation
10 hours ago
ASADABAD, Afghanistan (AFP) - More than 20 Taliban rebels were killed and over a dozen wounded in a joint operation between Afghan and Western forces in eastern Afghanistan, officials said.
The Islamic extremists were killed late Friday in the province of Kunar, a troubled region on the Pakistani border, its governor Fazlullah Wahedi said.
The rebels had recently crossed the border from Pakistan to launch an attack on Afghan and foreign targets, he said.
"The Afghan National Army and our foreign friends identified their locations and launched a successful operation. Over 20 of them were killed and over 10 were wounded," he said.
An army commander, Captain Adam Khan Mateen, citing military intelligence reports, said some of the fighters were foreigners.
"We've intercepted their radio conversations and have intelligence reports that some of those killed and injured were foreign terrorists," he said.