Despite successful U.S. attacks on Taliban leaders in Afghanistan's northwest, insurgency remains in control

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 1:34 AM

MAQUR, AFGHANISTAN - October has been a calamitous month for the Taliban guerrillas waging war from sandy mountains and pistachio forests in this corner of northwestern Afghanistan.

The first to die was their leader, Mullah Ismail, hunted down and killled by U.S. Special Operations troops. Next came the heir apparent, Mullah Jamaluddin, even before he could take over as Taliban "shadow" governor. Within a week, several other top commanders were dead, a new governor had been captured and the most powerful among the remaining insurgents had lit out for the Turkmenistan border - all casualties of the secretive, midnight work of American commandos.

And yet what has happened here in Badghis province also shows how large a gap remains between killing commanders and dismantling an insurgency. Nearly half of the province remains under insurgent control, an Afghan intelligence official estimated. A new Taliban governor has already been dispatched to the province, Afghan officials say, even though NATO portrayed Mullah Ismail's killing as a "huge blow" that would "significantly reduce Taliban influence throughout the region."

"Fighting in Afghanistan is like hitting coals with a stick, it just spreads to other places," said Delbar Jan Arman, who as provincial governor is trying to stave off the Taliban advances. "It will continue."

The barrage launched against the Taliban by Special Operations forces here in recent weeks is part of a broader American effort that is clearly succeeding. As other U.S. goals in Afghanistan have faltered - reforming the government, winning hearts and minds - Gen. David H. Petraeus and his new troops have so far succeeded at killing their enemies. American officials have held up the example of the onslaught against the Taliban leadership as a clear sign of progress, a development sure to factor into President Obama's December review of the Afghan campaign.

"We're trying basically to squeeze the life out of the enemy,'' Petraeus said in an interview Friday.

The increased military pressure in recent months has undoubtedly made life more difficult for Taliban leaders. Petraeus said the number of U.S. Special Operations troops doing targeted raids has continued to increase in recent months, even after a buildup under his predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.

Among those insurgents killed in the past month are al-Qaeda's No. 3 commander in Afghanistan and 15 shadow governors. Petraeus said mid-level commanders - "the senior leaders aren't in the country, they lead by cellphone" - have expressed frustration at being sacrificed while their bosses live safely across the border.

"This is quite relentless pressure. It forces them on the run," Petraeus said. "But again, if you don't take away the safe haven, it doesn't have a lasting effect."

The aggressive killing campaign has unfolded despite recent discussions between insurgents and the Afghan government, which NATO has helped facilitate by providing safe passage to Kabul for some senior Taliban figures. These early steps toward negotiations do not seem to have slowed the U.S. military's targeting of the Taliban, as both sides vie for the upper hand in the event that real negotiations commence.

Scattered, for now

Baghdis is a sparsely patrolled outpost far from southern Afghanistan's dense concentration of insurgents and NATO troops. For the past few years, the Taliban here have operated from a stronghold in the northern Bala Murghab district, assembling a robust force that former fighters say was well-funded from Pakistan. They controlled the territory so completely that Afghan soldiers and police sometimes refused to patrol or set foot beyond the district center, according to Afghan officials.

Tribes of Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks recruited Taliban fighters to battle foreign and Afghan troops, and one another. Until recently, with the bulk of NATO and Afghan troops elsewhere, the growing threat in Badghis was largely ignored.

"The government didn't want to kill them before, they always wanted them to be reconciled and join the peace process," said Mohammad Jabar, Badghis's acting police chief. "Since a month ago, the government has rolled up their sleeves and they have decided to get rid of them."

Although the number of Afghan soldiers has increased in Badghis, many here cite U.S. Special Operations raids as the most effective weapon against the Taliban.

Mullah Ismail had seized the reins as Taliban leader in the province after U.S. troops killed his predecessor in February 2009. As governor, he received about $60,000 a month from Mohammad Omar's Taliban leadership council in Pakistan, the Afghan intelligence official said, a sum augmented by payments extracted from residents in the name of Islamic charity. Earlier this summer, a Taliban court run by his subordinates carried out the whipping and execution of a 41-year-old widow who had been convicted of fornication.

The nighttime airstrike by U.S. Special Operations forces that killed Mullah Ismail and five associates on Oct. 6 temporarily left Taliban forces in the province leaderless. After his killing, and the deaths of other commanders, many insurgents - including Manan Dewana, regarded as the most powerful remaining commander - fled toward the Turkmenistan border.

"The American operations are very effective: the night raids, the airstrikes and ground attacks," said Eidi Mohammad, a Taliban commander in Badghis who recently surrendered to the government. "I was afraid they would come and kill me, too."

But the Taliban also struck back in retribution. In response to Mullah Ismail's death, the Quetta Shura, the Taliban's roughly 20-person inner circle based in Pakistan, issued an order reiterating a demand to capture and kill anyone associated with the government, the Afghan intelligence official said.

In one such case, two Afghan policemen, on leave and in civilian clothes, were stopped by insurgents while driving from Bala Murghab to the provincial capital, Qal-e-Now. When their identification was discovered, the Taliban chopped off their hands and arms, beheaded them and threw their body parts in plastic bags.

Afghan officials said insurgents in Badghis have scattered into the mountains, melted back into the villages, and fear traveling in large groups. Coalition forces have pushed Taliban lines back from the district centers, including Bala Murghab, said Lt. Col. David Bottcher, the American commander in western Afghanistan.

"The enemy is in a state of disarray; I think they're trying to figure out who's in charge," he said in Badghis before attending a memorial service for three American soldiers killed by a bomb blast.

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