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War in Afghanistan 2008 Week 22

The new government of Pakistan has capitulated to the Taliban, surrendering control of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan through so-called peace deals. Pakistani troops are to retreat from the region, leaving the Taliban in charge. That's how peace in Pakistan is defined.

The result if that the war in Afghanistan has become a war of attrition, what the New York Times calls a see-saw war.

We can pick two days---one from each of the past two weeks--that typify the war in the summer of 2008.

Tuesday, May 27.
12 police officers and 12 civilians are killed.

Five of the policemen died in gun battles in Kandahar province as Taliban fighters attacked a remote outpost on the Pakistani border. Another four sent as reinforcements were killed when remote-controlled bombs blew up their vehicles.
Three children were killed when a Taliban insurgent planting a bomb under a bridge blew accidentally blew himself up. The children were playing nearby.
In Logar province in eastern Afghanistan a roadside bomb killed 3 policemen.

And in southern Farah province a civilian bus hit a roadside bomb and eight civilians were killed.

Friday, June 6
Airstrikes kill an estimated 32 Taliban fighters in eastern Paktika province.
A roadside bomb killed a family of three, father, mother and child on their way to a clinic.
A tribal elder supporting the ISAF was murdered in Kandahar City.
British paratroopers were fighting fierce battles in Zabul province.
A suicide bomber killed an East Indian engineer building a road in Nimroz province.

While apparently a senseless litany of death and endless fighting, the big picture is quite different.

The Taliban have conceded they can't win in a military confrontation with allied forces. Their only hope of victory is if Western countries quit.

But time is not on their side.

Missing from media reports this year are all the defiant interviews with Taliban fighters that were all-so-common in 2007. They bragged they controlled the village of Sangin; British forces drove them out. They bragged they controlled the village of Musa Qala; then they ran for the hills when allied forces moved in. They had the run of Garmsir, in the south of Helmand province---until the U.S. Marines came calling. Now, this week, Afghan authorities say they're getting information that the Garmsir Taliban are fleeing south to Pakistan to get out of the maelstrom.

Media pundits love to point out that the Taliban always return. Yes, but there's a world of difference between running the show and slinking around at night in fear. It signals to the populace who's winning---and who's not.

The Feared Taliban Spring Offensive was missing-in-action this year. Instead, NATO troops launched their own offensives. The Australians in Uruzgan province, the British in Zabul, the U.S. marines in Helmand, the Canadians in Kandahar. Even Norway spent a month sweeping Badghis province in the north. At this rate, the Taliban are going to hate spring.

And in the past two weeks clear patterns have emerged.

* Attacks on army posts and ambushes are deadly---for the attackers.

. This report from the Chinese news agency Xinhua is typical.

KABUL, June 6 (Xinhua) -- Over 15 insurgents have been killed in a failed attack on a military base of the U.S.-led Coalition forces in Uruzgan province of southern Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military said Friday. Militants attacked on Tuesday Afghan security forces at the base and the ensuing fighting between Afghan, Coalition forces and insurgents in nearby villages left several militants dead, said a statement issued from Bagram Air Field, a major Coalition base.

Hours later, the combined forces came under RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), mortar and small-arms fire near the base and in response fire and precision air strikes killed over a dozen more insurgents, it said. The Coalition said there were no casualties on civilians or Afghan and Coalition forces in the incidents.

In neighboring Helmand province, Afghan security forces and Coalition forces on Tuesday killed several militants and detained five others, according to another Coalition statement. The combined force while searching compounds in Kajaki district "identified a militant armed with a rocket-propelled grenade waiting in an ambush position and several militants consolidating for an attack," it said, adding, "Coalition forces responded with airstrikes, killing the militants."

In remote, and usually quiet, Badghis province an insurgent force of 150 tried to overrun a poice checkpoint near the border with Turkmenistan. Norwegian troops and Afghan police fought back. More than half the attackers were killed or wounded. A 50 percent casualty rate is a good deterrent for future attacks.

In Zabul, Taliban fighters ambushed a joint Afghan and ISAF patrol on the main road travelling through the province. ISAF aircraft were called in.
"Nine Taliban were killed in the aerial bombing. Their bodies were left at the battlefield and we have the bodies," said Faridullah Khan, deputy provincial police chief.

* The Americans have eyes in the sky and they don't miss much

Provincial spokesman Ghamai Khan Mohammadyar told French news agency AFP that coalition reconnaissance planes located a number of Taliban militants Thursday in Paktika province's Urgun district who had grouped for an attack.

"Friendly forces bombed the enemy location and killed all 32 Taliban who had gathered there," he said.

* The U.S. groundwork with local Afghans is paying off in spades

Baitullah Mehsud, who heads the Pakistan Taliban, was not having a good day Friday.

One of Baitullah's senior commanders told the Pakistani newspaper The News by telephone that 18 of Mehsud's fighters were among dozens of insurgents killed in airstrikes in Afghanistan. The timing suggests he was talking about the 32 killed in Paktika, as cited above.

"Dozens of Mehsud tribal militants, led by Commander Khan Ghafoor, had gone to Afghanistan to fight against the US-led forces," The News reported.

"They were staying in various houses when someone informed the US forces about their presence. The US planes bombarded their positions, killing most of them," said the Taliban commander.

"Around two dozen militants had been sent to retrieve the remaining bodies, still lying in the Afghan territory. They are most likely to be brought back tonight," said a militant commander.

The newspaper quoted a close aide to Mehsud as saying that Baitullah was extremely dejected over the incident.

And it's no wonder he's despondent. Nothing is working out for the Taliban.

British journalist Fraser Nelson, reporting for The Spectator from Helmand province observed last week:

" seems the Taliban have failed to recruit for this season. The poppy harvest ended three weeks ago, and the fighting usually starts immediately as the hired $10 Taliban” swap ploughshares for Kalashnikovs. Not this time, though. As one solider told me “the problem with the $10 Taliban is they receive $0 training and get killed.”

And the foreign fighters the Taliban is using to backstop the lack of local insurgents are either getting killed by the score, or are blowing themselves up at a record rate and not deliberately.

Along with the incident of the insurgent under the bridge (above) came this report from Pakistan. A pick-up truck carrying Taliban fighters to Afghanistan's Nuristan province blew up, killing as many as 8 fighters. As best as could be determined, someone inside the truck fumbled a hand grenade. Six men in the truck died instantly and two died of their injuries later. Explosives in the truck were ignited and blast continued for two hours. The truck was destroyed by fire.

Incidents like these are being reported weekly.

The bad news out of Afghanistan this week is the departure of U.S. General Dan McNeill as NATO commander in Afghanistan, on regular rotation of command.

McNeill has turned the situation in Afghanistan around, recovering the initiative after the disastrous leadership of British General David Richards whose plan in 2006 was to sign a series of "peace deals" giving up villages to the Taliban on their promise to be good. The first deal was in the Helmand village of Musa Qala where the Taliban imposed their terrorist rule for 10 months and local villagers pleaded for help even at the cost of airstrikes and civilian casualties.

Little known is that McNeill was the originator of the provisional reconstruction teams that are the linchpin of the Canadian mission to Afghanistan. The first team was established by the Americans in Gardez on Dec. 31, 2002.

McNeill will be succeeded by four-star U.S. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the head of American Army troops in Europe.

Canada has suffered another two fatalities in Afghanistan.

* Capt. Jon Snyder died June 8 in a freak accident. He fell into a deep well while on patrol with Afghan troops.

* Capt. Richard Leary died in combat June 3.

Canada has lost 11 soldiers in 2008 to date. Four, including Snyder's, were classified non-hostile deaths. In 2007, by this day in June Canada has 12 deaths, two non-hostile.

And we may have been given a clue into how the Taliban is using the humanitarian efforts of Canadian forces against them. It may answer our questions about why a medic Cpl. Michael Starker with 15 Field Ambulance Regiment became Canada's first non IED combat death in almost 9 months since Cpl. Nathan Horbug was killed in a mortar attack.

On June 2 four Canadian soldiers were wounded in two separate attacks. One was hit by small-arms fire and the other three were hit by an IED. None of these casualties should have happened.

Canwest News Service reported:

Both attacks occurred in the midst of the "days of tranquillity," a three-day period when international aid agencies such as UNICEF and the World Health Organization planned to blanket the southern area of conflict with mobile teams sent to inoculate children under the age of five against polio.
UNICEF officials said earlier yesterday that "access negotiators" had spoken with the Taliban to arrange a temporary cessation of hostilities in the most dangerous areas, which includes Zhari."

Obviously, to the Taliban, a cessation of hostilities means they can kill us, but we can't kill them.

Was Cpl. Stalker killed during similar "days of tranquillity"?

Canadian troops can never let their guard down. We're still shaking at how close Canadian forces came to a major tragedy last month from a huge booby-trap set for them.

As reported by Katherine O'Neill in the Globe and Mail, the soldiers were clearing a suspected Taliban hideout in Zhari district when an explosion erupted near the main door, leaving a crater the size of a small car, followed 10 minutes later by another explosion inside the compound.

"After the attack, soldiers searched the abandoned compound on the north bank of the Arghandab River southwest of Kandahar and found dozens of improvised explosive devices, including mortars, which failed to detonate. Those explosives, which were wired together by a single strand of copper wire and activated by command denotation, were sequenced to blow up so the soldiers would be trapped inside and killed. They didn't detonate because of faulty wiring.

“That place was rigged to kill everybody,” said Warrant Officer Chuck Côté, who was also inside the compound when blasts occurred."