Violence Linked to Taliban Swells in Afghanistan

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 9, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan, June 8 -- Insurgents linked to the former Taliban regime have set off a wave of violence in Afghanistan, launching a string of almost daily bombings and assassinations that have killed dozens of U.S. and Afghan military personnel and civilians in recent weeks while spreading fear throughout the international aid worker community.

Analysts say the rash of attacks appears calculated to undermine stability in the lead-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for September and has undercut predictions by U.S. and Afghan officials during the winter that the radical Islamic militia was on the verge of collapse.

"The Taliban may be limited in their movements and unable to take territory and hold it," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a journalist based in Pakistan who has had frequent contact with the Taliban, "but they are very much here and they will be for a long time. . . . They are telling us they have no shortage of volunteers to fight."

In the past week, an election worker was shot in the face; two de-mining specialists were killed in a roadside ambush; a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile was fired at a U.S. aircraft; four U.S. soldiers were killed -- including two who came under mortar fire Wednesday as they unloaded a helicopter in the eastern province of Paktika; and a suicide bomber killed 20 people in a mosque in the southern city of Kandahar during a funeral for an assassinated pro-government cleric. The Taliban denied involvement in the mosque bombing but asserted responsibility for the cleric's murder.

Development projects near the Taliban's southern strongholds have been suspended, and a virtual lockdown is in effect for many of the roughly 3,000 international residents of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

The city was already on edge after a month of heightened unrest, including the kidnapping of an Italian aid worker, a rocket assault on NATO's headquarters compound, an apparent suicide bombing at an Internet cafe that killed two people, and several days of violent anti-American protests across the country that were sparked by a news report -- since retracted -- that guards at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had desecrated the Koran. The protests led to 16 deaths, and the Pentagon has since detailed five confirmed cases of desecration.

At least some of the attacks are the work of non-Taliban groups, including criminal gangs, drug traffickers, citizens who blame foreign aid workers for their country's slow economic progress, and factional leaders vying for control of local districts, some analysts and government officials said.

But Taliban fighters are widely believed to be behind most of the assaults in the south and east.

The movement's resilience 3 1/2 years after its ouster from power by a U.S. bombing campaign has also been evident during an ongoing American and Afghan military campaign to flush insurgents from their southern and eastern mountain redoubts.

Since March, that effort has boasted many successes, according to American officials. About 270 Taliban fighters have been killed; they are estimated to number anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000.

But during several pitched battles in early May, the Taliban militia also showed itself to be a well-equipped, vital foe, with units of 20 or more firing rocket-propelled grenades and light machine guns for hours despite taking heavy casualties.

"These are guys that stand and fight," observed 1st Lt. Ken Wainwright, who hunts the Taliban in the golden, craggy mountains of the southern province of Zabol as part of the Second Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry.

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