Clashes between Afghan militants, Taliban leave at least 50 dead

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010; 3:24 PM

KABUL -- Fierce weekend fighting in the north of Afghanistan between Taliban forces and another militant Islamist group has left an estimated 50 people dead, and the clashes were continuing late Sunday night, according to reports from the area.

Local news reports quoted government and security officials from Baghlan province saying fighting erupted Saturday between the Taliban and fighters of the Hezb-e-Islami, a guerrilla faction under the command of longtime militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Mujahideen leader in the battle against the Soviet Union.

The Afghan government has limited reach in the area where the clashes are occurring and details about the reason behind the fighting remained sketchy. It was unclear whether this was an isolated clash, or represented a break in the ranks of the allied militia groups that have been posing a challenge to the government of President Hamid Karzai.

The fighting was said to be centered in the district of Baghlan-e-Markazi, a stronghold of Hezb-e-Islami, in a village called Qaisar Khail, about five-and-a-half miles north of the district center.

News agency reports and Afghan media said the two sides were firing heavy weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades. Various government officials gave the total death toll at around 50 on both sides, but different officials gave wildly different breakdowns of the casualties.

The Associated Press quoted a provincial police chief as saying more than 100 Hezb-e-Islami fighters pledged to switch sides and join government troops.

The Afghan Web site, run by the Tolo television station, called the clashes the deadliest in years between the militia groups, which had been in a strategic alliance opposed to Karzai's Western-backed government. Both groups had been demanding a withdrawal of American and other foreign forces from Afghanistan as a prelude to any reconciliation talks with the Karzai government. But Hekmatyar, with a history of switching sides, was considered more susceptible to peace overtures.

After battling invading Soviet forces, Hekmatyar alternately allied himself with and battled against almost every major faction in Afghanistan; he spent the years of Taliban control living in exile in Iran while his militia splintered. After American troops ousted the Taliban in 2001, Hekmatyar called for a "jihad" against foreign forces, and he formed a new alliance with Taliban insurgents.

Hekmatyar has been blamed for several attacks against American and NATO troops, and the U.S. government has designated him a terrorist because of his alleged links to both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It remains unclear how the United States would react to any attempt to lure Hekmatyar out of the fighting by offering him a role in the government.

News of the clashes in the north came as Karzai made an official visit to the former Taliban stronghold of Marjah, in Helmand province, which has been the scene of a major offensive by American and Afghan troops.

Karzai, accompanied by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, spoke to about 300 tribal and village elders in a mosque and asked for their support to prevent a Taliban return to the area. Karzai has been criticized for remaining isolated in Kabul and not venturing out into the countryside, particularly in volatile areas.

"Are you with me or against me?" Karzai asked in Marjah, prompting the elders to raise their hands in the air and shout, "We are with you!" and "We are supporting you!" according to pool reporters at the scene.

Despite the pledges of support, however, the elders peppered Karzai with questions and complaints about the ongoing military operation. Some were upset that some civilians, who they said were not connected to the Taliban, were being detained by U.S. forces. Others complained that foreign troops had taken over schools and other facilities to use as bases.

The elders also claimed that Afghan troops looted their shops during the battle to retake the town, and they repeated a common Afghan complaint about high levels of corruption in the Afghan government.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company