By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
BAGRAM, Afghanistan, May 22 -- As many as 80 Taliban fighters and 16 civilians were reported killed early Monday by U.S.-led forces attacking from the ground and air in Kandahar province, the epicenter of a broadening swath of fighting in southern Afghanistan.
The clash -- part of the bloodiest surge of combat since the U.S.-led military ouster of Taliban rule in late 2001 -- raised the death toll from attacks across the country since Wednesday to almost 250. The fighting has included the torching of a district headquarters in Helmand province and a suicide bombing outside Kabul, the capital.
U.S. military commanders and the Afghan government are expressing new concerns about the strength and determination of the revived Taliban movement, whose purported spokesman, Mohammed Hanif, vowed two weeks ago that "our sacred land is going to turn into an inferno" unless international military forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
The country's south was relatively calm and politically stable in the initial years after a pro-Western government was appointed in Kabul in 2001. U.S. and Afghan officials said the new flare-up stemmed from public disillusionment with the government, an increase in drug trafficking and efforts by Islamic extremists to terrorize residents in the south as NATO troops prepare to assume command over security there.
Monday's fighting inflicted the first major civilian casualties in many months. Some people in the religiously conservative area support the Kabul government, while others cooperate with the insurgents because of fear, old tribal relationships, economic need or outright support for their goal of overthrowing the Kabul government.
Asadullah Khalid, the governor of Kandahar province, said Taliban fighters used civilian compounds near the village of Azizi as "trenches" to fire at U.S.-led forces, which provoked counter-fire and, later, airstrikes that he said killed 16 civilians and wounded 16 others.
"These accidents happen during fighting, especially when the Taliban hide in homes," the governor told journalists in the city of Kandahar. "I urge people not to give shelter to the Taliban."
Witnesses and wounded civilians at a Kandahar hospital later tearfully told reporters that they had lost children, relatives and neighbors in the strikes.
A U.S. military statement said troops, while searching for suspected terrorists after two recent attacks in the volatile Panjwai district of western Kandahar, met "organized armed opposition" and responded with ground attacks and strafing runs by U.S. A-10 jets. It said they had "only targeted armed resistance, compounds and buildings known to harbor extremists."
Military statements said that 20 Taliban fighters were killed and that as many as 60 others may have died.
Kandahar, Helmand and two other southern provinces are rapidly shaping up as a summer battleground between Afghan and NATO-led forces on one side and a variety of anti-government groups on the other, including Taliban fighters, other Afghan militia groups, opium poppy traders and foreign Islamic fighters.
Military officials said that despite the growing frequency and geographical spread of violence, they believed that these groups were not acting in coordination. Instead, they described the violence as a "pushing back" response to increasing encroachment by Afghan and foreign troops into the vast and rugged tribal region.
"What has changed is the permanent introduction of force and government presence. The bad guys see that the window of opportunity to turn things around is closing," U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview Monday.
By the end of summer, when NATO assumes command of the south, there will be more security forces in the region than ever before.
Freakley estimated that there are no more than 1,500 hard-core Taliban fighters, whom he described as inspired by Mohammad Omar, the fugitive Taliban leader, and organized by a council based in Quetta, Pakistan. He said most others were local Afghans who were either forced or offered cash to join the insurgents.
"The leaders are those who don't want things to progress, who don't want girls to go to school, who see change as a threat," Freakley said. But he also said coalition forces often "capture guys on the battlefield who tell us they were just looking for a job to feed their family, and someone came and asked if they wanted to make $4 a day shooting Americans."
U.S. and Afghan analysts said the Taliban movement was now far less religiously motivated than when it ruled most of Afghanistan for five years, ending in 2001. This difference was evidenced by the movement's growing alliance with opium traffickers, the use of suicide bombings and the mutilation of bodies after battle, all of which are commonly considered sinful by Afghans.
In his recent comments, Hanif, the Taliban spokesman, said that his group viewed suicide bombers as "martyrs" and that Western drug abuse was the real cause of drug trafficking. "We are happy with any means of combating Western societies," he told Italy's La Repubblica newspaper. He said his group had no operational ties with al-Qaeda, only "tactical alliances."
President Hamid Karzai and other Afghans have repeatedly blamed Pakistan, especially its religious parties and intelligence services, for seeking to destabilize Afghanistan by harboring and aiding Taliban forces. But U.S. officials said such an explanation was too simplistic and ignored domestic factors.
Some political leaders in Kandahar and the surrounding provinces said the insurgency had been able to revive because of neglect by the central government, the disarming of local militias, anti-drug programs that failed to deliver on promises of regional development, and shortfalls in the numbers and training of new national army troops and police.
They said that new multiethnic security forces drawn from across the country, who were unfamiliar with tribal relations in the south and spread too thinly across its arid reaches, had given insurgent groups an advantage, especially in districts such as Panjwai where the groups have old ties with local tribes.
"The whole world is on our side, so why are we failing?" said Khaled Pashtoon, a member of the Afghan parliament from Kandahar. "Everyone knows this is no jihad, but there are so many other reasons that add up to the Taliban uprising. The poppy growers were deceived by foreign promises, and now the Taliban are protecting them. The old militia leaders were disarmed too soon, and now people are being slaughtered."
Afghan and U.S. officials said there is a second group of Taliban members who do not support the current anti-government violence, such as burning schools, or un-Islamic tactics. But ambitious programs to lure them back to peaceful life, including offers of goats and sheep, have had little effect.
Mohammed Anwar, a political representative from Helmand province, said the government and its foreign backers should work harder to separate "good" from "bad" Taliban members and then negotiate with them, rather than provoking further violence.
"We need to solve these problems the Afghan way, through talking," said Anwar, who has not visited his home district in three months because of security concerns. "Our army and police are riding around in old Russian jeeps, trying to fight mafias with heavy weapons and SUVs. Our villagers know there is no one to defend them, so they go along with the Taliban. The situation is very dangerous, and it is only getting worse."