A year ago this month the Taliban was boasting of "a year of decision" when they would isolate NATO bases and capture a provincial capital or two prior to ousting the international coalition from Afghanistan. This year, as we reported last week, they've conceded they're unable to defeat U.S. and NATO forces and they're resorting to a campaign of suicide bombings and landmines to cause as much carnage as possible.
Between Saturday March 8 and Monday March 17 that campaign has killed seven coalition soldiers, bringing to 30 the number killed to date this year.
* March 8. One American soldier killed in eastern Afghanistan, Paktia province, by an IED
* March 10. Two American soldiers killed in Khost province by a suicide bomber.
* March 16. One Canadian soldier killed in Kandahar province by a landmine.
* March 17. Three soldiers, two Danes and one Czech, killed by a suicide bomber in Helmand province.
* March 12. Two Canadians soldiers were wounded when a suicide bomber attacked a convoy in Kandahar province.
* The same day 3 Romanian soldiers were hurt when a roadside bomb exploded on the road from Kandahar to Kabul.
But the terrorists are most successful at killing Afghan civilians and police.
* March 8. An old man and two children killed by a roadside bomb in Helmand province. The Taliban later issued a release saying they destroyed a tank and all the soldiers in it.
* March 10. The suicide bomber who killed two NATO soldiers in Khost also killed two civilians and injured 15 Afghan soldiers.
* March 11. A suicide bomber in Khost killed one policeman.
* March 12. The suicide bomber attacking a convoy of Canadian troops killed one passing civilian.
* March 13. A convoy in Wardak province hit a roadside bomb and three policemen were killed.
* The same day a suicide bomber attacked U.S. troops in Kabul. Six Afghans were killed. The four American soldiers travelling in an SUV and a truck were not seriously hurt.
As another rotation of Canadian soldiers begins its tour in Kandahar, it's with the knowledge that their jurisdiction is not the most dangerous place in Afghanistan any more. Senior Afghan general Zahir Azimi gave that designation to the neighbouring province Helmand, where British forces call the shots.
Helmand was the hotspot of Afghanistan most of last year and looks like it will repeat in 2008. The Brits have already begun their spring offensive to keep the Taliban off balance.
Off the public radar, fighting has picked up around Sangin, the Taliban stronghold now controlled by British forces. The daily airpower summary for March 11 read: Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs fired cannon rounds and dropped GBU-12s, GBU-31s, GBU-38s and general-purpose 500-pound bombs onto enemy combatants and enemy buildings in various locations in Sangin. An enemy compound and weapon cache were among the targets destroyed. For March 12: In Sangin, a British GR-7 Harrier dropped a 540-pound bomb in order to destroy enemy mortar positions who were engaging friendly forces. By March 14, things were quieter: Royal Air Force GR-7 Harriers performed shows of force in order to deter enemy activities in Sangin.
Taliban forces are getting the message with deadly accuracy.
On Wednesday morning, Afghan and U.S. forces intercepted a strong force of Taliban insurgents trying to get out of Dodge by crossing into Pakistan from Nimruz and Helmand provinces. They were travellling on motorbikes. Imagine their surprise when U.S. helicopter gunships popped up over the horizon. In a four-hour battle, punctuated by airstrikes, 41 insurgents were killed.
In another operation in Helmand, nearly a dozen insurgents were killed as coalition forces struck Taliban support networks in Garmsir district. Troops discovered a weapons cache and "multiple opium processing rooms."
The British are gearing up big time for the fighting in the coming year.
The RAF has three Reaper UAVs in service this year. They had been intended for use as spyplanes, but they've now been fitted with 500-pound guided bombs and Hellfire missiles designed for targetted kills. The Reaper has a wingspan of 86 feet, similar to a Learjet. They will be flying from Kandahar airfield, although the controllers who will operate the aircraft in flight will be in a bunker 7000 miles away in Nevada. Reapers can stay in the air 14 hours. The RAF wants to buy another 9.
The Brits have started arming their Apache helicopters with Hellfire missiles which they say will give them extra capability to kill insurgents hiding in caves and bunkers.
According to one British newspaper a CIA report described the impact of the missile this way : "The effect of the explosion within confined spaces is immense. "
"Those near the ignition point are obliterated. Those at the fringe are likely to suffer many internal and thus invisible injuries, including burst eardrums and crushed inner ear organs, severe concussions, ruptured lungs and internal organs and possible blindness."
And the British army has a new all-terrain vehicle ready for service in Afghanistan. Here's how Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph describes it:
"Fast, powerful and with a fearsome array of weaponry, it has already been named "Pitbull" by the soldiers who will drive it deep behind enemy lines."
"Armed with a mix of machine guns and an automatic grenade launcher, and with a range of more than 500 miles, the vehicle will be used to hunt down and destroy the Taliban during long range surveillance and reconnaissance operations. Its crew of three will be able to call in air strikes using onboard communications equipment. The new all-terrain vehicle has a 5.9 litre engine capable of 80mph on roads and 40mph across the Helmand desert. It has revolutionary air suspension which allows for a comfortable ride even over the roughest of terrain and helps the gunners to hit their targets while on the move. Known officially as the M-Wmik - Mobility Weapons Mounted Installation Kit - the vehicle will replace the ageing Land Rover Wmiks, variations of which have been in service since the Fifties . First to use the vehicle on operations will be the Pathfinders, from 16 Air Assault Brigade, due to begin arriving in Helmand soon."
Fighting is picking up in other regions as well.
An ongoing operation to sweep southern Uruzgan province left 10 Taliban fighters dead. Taliban insurgents captured five policemen in an attack on a police checkpoint in Farah province. The police chief was killed and his body left behind.
And in eastern Zabul province, Afghan security forces and NATO troops launched an operation Wednesday against Chechen fighters meeting in a local district. After a two-hour gunbattle three Chechens were dead and six wounded. The appearance of foreign fighters in the south may be another sign that the old guard under Mullah Omar is losing control of the insurgency to Al Qaeda backed Young Turks.
The fight has even crossed the border into Pakistan.
On Sunday a U.S. warplane fired four to seven missiles at the house of a Taliban leader in a village near the town of Wana in Pakistan's South Waziristan region on the Afghan border. The attack killed up to 20 insurgents as the Americans erased the safe from safehouse.
This past week Taliban leaders reinforced their weakness by appealing to warlords of the past to join their cause.
"There is no doubt that the former leaders and commanders of Jihad have given a lot of sacrifices for Islam and for the path of freeing the country," the Taliban said in a statement on their Web site. "Now, it is necessary that they stand beside their people and the nation and show their sacrifice once again against this invasion...the Islamic Emirate will adopt a understanding path with them and keep its bosom open for them," the statement said.
The Taliban's plea may have been inspired by the legal difficulties of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was once a feared powerhouse in northern Afghanistan. Now he's holed up in his home in Kabul's diplomatic enclave trying to stave off being arrested for kidnapping and torturing a former ally and the man's son.
"Increasingly, to the worry of his staff, he is drinking vodka heavily." said the correspondent for the U.K. Independent.
A bigger threat to the Taliban came this week from an unexpected source. Al Qaeda supporters who regularly post messages to a pro-Islamic terrorist website in Egypt have been scolding the Taliban for straying from the goal of global jihad.
In February, the Taliban announced it wanted to maintain good relations with neighboring countries. Then they expressed solidarity with Iran, condemning U.N. sanctions over its nuclear program. The Al Qaeda fan club went berserk. The Sunnis of Al Qaeda view the Shi'ite state of Iran as heretics.
"This is the worst statement I have ever read ... the disaster of defending the Iranian regime is on par with the Crusaders in Afghanistan and Iraq," posted Miskeen, one of the more influential writers on an al-Qaida linked Web site.
Mullah Salam Zaief, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan and still a prominent spokesman for the Taliban told Radio Free Afghanistan,"The conflict in Afghanistan doesn't mean [the Taliban] has to confront the world. Afghans are very tired of war. They want their homeland. They want peace in their country. They want independence. Whether they are Taliban or other Afghans, I don't think either wants to confront the entire international community. The Taliban doesn't want to rule the world."
This is a fundamental disagreement, and its only going to get worse for the Taliban as the year progresses.
Taliban insurgents knocked down another cell phone tower, this in Herat province, bringing to five the number taken out of service because of fears that coalition forces use them to track Taliban commanders. But as we mentioned last week the lack of service is angering local residents.
The gulf between the people and the Islamic extremists is widening by the day.
Among their targets is another 20th Century invention---television. In particular Hop, an MTV-style music show on Tolo TV, one of the private stations launched after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, according to ther French news service AFP.
"These TVs (stations) are spreading immorality and unIslamic culture," declared a statement by Afghan religious scholars.
And driving them even madder is Afghan Star, an American Idol style show now in its third season on Tolo.
"Afghan Star... encourages immorality among the people and is against Sharia (law)," the statement said
But the show is attracting millions of viewers. The finalists included two men and, for the first time ever, a woman. The contestants were mobbed by hundreds of fans when they showed up for a news conference before the semi-final show.
If there's one thing we can say for sure, it's you can't fight the attraction of television. That battle is over.
The Culture War is won.