As the United States-led Coalition and Afghan army gear up for a new push against insurgent forces in the south, the country looks set for a long season of intense fighting. The offensive focusing on Helmand and Uruzgan provinces comes as the Taliban extend their attacks to northern and western areas well beyond their traditional stamping ground.
Daily reports of clashes, suicide attacks, schools burned down and civilians killed have long since ceased to shock anyone. While the Afghan conflict may be overshadowed by news from Iraq, the violence is serious - and spreading.
Helmand, Uruzgan, Zabul and Kandahar provinces, all of which border on Pakistan, are commonly referred to as “restive” or “volatile” – but these descriptions now also apply to places like Wardak, a mere 40 kilometres from the capital Kabul.
Even Kabul is no longer the safe haven it was thought to be just a few weeks ago. Street riots on 29 May which left at least 17 dead and close to 200 injured, put paid to the notion that the capital was secure.
Recent reports from the north and west of Afghanistan suggest that the insurgents have a much longer reach and broader support than was formerly thought possible.
Officials in charge of providing security have been slow to acknowledge the Taliban’s growing presence.
Optimism about southern offensive
US military spokesman Colonel Tom Collins announced on 14 June that the second phase of Operation Mountain Thrust, which began last month, would be a determined effort to root out Taliban forces from stronghold areas in the mountains of northern Helmand and adjoining parts of western Uruzgan.
A massive force has been deployed for the operation, consisting of 3,500 members of the Afghan National Army (Ana), 3,300 British troops from the force newly deployed in Helmand, 2,300 more from the US and 2,200 Canadians.
The aim is to hit insurgent-held areas all at once so they cannot slip away to other provinces. The operation will also target pockets of insurgents in Kandahar and Zabul.
Speaking prior to the latest announcement, Afghan defence ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi admitted, “The situation in the south is not good. But we have security plans for the region, and I hope that there will be a positive change within the next two months.”
Azimi said the main problem was the insurgents’ changing tactics.
“It is very difficult to control suicide attacks,” he said, “but we are trying to make the intelligence services more active so as to stop these attacks before they happen.”
Interior ministry spokesman Mohammad Yousuf Stanezai was similarly optimistic, saying, “Yes, there is a lack of security, but this is a last-ditch effort by the enemies of the people. Our security bodies are getting stronger day by day.”
On the ground, a grimmer picture
According to Stanezai, the insurgents’ capacity for military engagement has been depleted. “The Taliban used to fight us face to face, and now they can’t,” he told IWPR (Institute for War and Peace Reporting).
This is a well-rehearsed argument, but it does not seem to be borne out by reports from the ground. The insurgents are no longer confining their efforts to suicide attacks, and appear confident about mounting bolder attacks including set-piece battles.
In recent months there has been a rise in Taliban attacks on police and army checkpoints in many provinces, and in some places they have won control of whole areas for days at a time. Clashes have occurred in places like Nimruz, Nuristan and Wardak – all outside the main Taliban areas. Most recently, insurgents captured and held a district in Uruzgan for four days.
A recent report by the Senlis Council, an international think-tank, suggested that the Taliban had retaken control of southern Afghanistan. The report said 80 per cent of the population in Helmand now viewed the foreign troop presence in the province - where the British have taken over from the Americans - as the oppressors, and supported the Taliban against them.
“The nature of instability in Helmand has shifted from random insurgency to a state of prolonged and organised violence that threatens the very foundations of the new Afghanistan,” said the report. “The nature of the insurgency has changed and [it] is now perceived by the local population as the accepted power holder.”
While few of those running security operations in the south would agree with the Senlis Council’s bleak assessment, it is hard to argue with the view that the situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past six months.
Major Luke Knittig, spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Nato-led peacekeeping body that operates separately from the Coalition, said there were problems everywhere, not just in the south, but stressed that there was an strong public will for security.
“If we look at the security situation, we have threats and opportunities in every province and district, not just in the south,” he told IWPR. “But most Afghan people want security. Those creating problems are limited in number. But the problem is not only in the south, it’s other places as well.”
Interviewed before he announced the latest offensive, Colonel Collins said it was not true that the insurgents were now operating across the country.
“If we look at the four parts of Afghanistan, in the north and west the situation is completely quiet. Where there are incidents, most are due to criminal activity, drug smuggling, especially in the south. We cannot attribute all incidents to the Taliban,” he said.
The media, continued Collins, bears some responsibility for the perception that things are getting worse, “The Taliban take responsibility for every single thing. Then they get their message out through the media, trying to show that the situation is getting worse.
“But we have been and are successful.”
However, it does appear that the Taliban are on the move in areas where they would not have been active, say, a year ago.
Take Wardak, a central region with a largely Pashtun population that borders on Kabul province.
The interior ministry’s Stanezai insisted, “Wardak province is completely under police control. Police are patrolling the whole province.”
But residents tell a different story, especially after a spate of attacks on fuel tankers shuttling between the Coalition’s main base at Bagram near Kabul and other US facilities close to the Pakistani border.
People in Wardak, a province from which some of the drivers came and through which the Kabul-Kandahar highway runs, said as many as 20 were killed in the attacks on tankers on May 26 and 27. The Afghan interior ministry has confirmed only four deaths, but relatives insist the higher figure is closer to the mark. The exact number is unclear, they say, because not all the bodies have been recovered.
“My cousin was killed by the Taliban,” said one resident of Shekhabad, a town in Wardak. “They shot his face off. His son is still missing. Is he dead? Captured? We don’t know.”
The insurgents in Wardak are working to classic guerrilla tactics designed to cut the American troops’ fuel and supply lines, and to intimidate the local population and erode cooperation with the foreign troops, and with the central Afghan government they protect.
“The Taliban warned my cousin many times not to transport supplies to the Americans. He didn’t stop, and they finally killed him,” said the Shekhabad man.
Another resident of Shekhabad said six bodies had been brought back to Wardak province, although he had only seen three of them.
“They buried them at night, because the Taliban had issued a night letter [covertly distributed leaflet] warning people not to say prayers for those who work for the Americans. They said anyone who took part in their funeral services would be in trouble,” he said.
The “night letters” are a common tactic used by the insurgents to spread fear among the population.
Stanezai dismissed them, saying no one really takes them seriously.
“Night letters are just the work of people who are afraid and unable to show themselves,” he said. “They use the cover of darkness to spread fear, but the people know that and they aren’t afraid.”
But a shopkeeper in Shekhabad interviewed by IWPR offered a different perspective, saying, “They stuck a night letter on my shop. I can’t read, but other people read it out to me, and it said those who work for the government in Kabul should leave their jobs and return. I am afraid.”
The insurgents, he went on, have imposed an informal curfew in the province, “They wrote that people should not leave their houses after ten at night. If there is an emergency and you have to take someone to hospital, you must carry a light with you and announce yourself very loudly.”
According to many Wardak residents, mullahs in the province are taking the side of the insurgents, using prayer gatherings to preach jihad and urging locals to take part in the struggle against the government and the Americans.
But many people are willing to risk these dangers, because they have few other options.
“There are no other jobs,” said the cousin of one of the dead truck drivers, who himself drives fuel and supplies between Bagram and Paktika. “I’m making a lot of money.”
Since the Americans pay danger money for drivers willing to enter risky areas, this man said four trips between Paktika and Bagram would net him 6,000 US dollars.
“I’m going to do this as long as I can,” he added.
On June 14, the driver of a truck used to supply Coalition forces was shot dead in Wardak. A defence ministry press release issued on 15 June said another tanker driver was killed and the vehicle set on fire by a roadside bomb in Uruzgan.
Western region sees rise in violence
The ancient city of Herat, in the west, has long been considered one of the most stable of Afghanistan’s major centres. But in recent months, it too has witnessed an upsurge in insurgency-related violence.
“In the last three months, there have been three suicide attacks in Herat and 25 bomb explosions, as well as 10 people killed in private quarrels,” said police spokesman Abdulrauf Ahmadi.
The most spectacular attack occurred in April, when a suicide bomber exploded a car in front of the offices of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Herat, killing five people and wounding nine.
Military-run PRTs located in many Afghan urban centres facilitate reconstruction work and provide security through a mix of army and civilian personnel. Most, like the one in Herat, operate under Nato/ISAF rather than Coalition command.
In another attack in May, added Ahmadi, one American and one Afghan were killed, “Suicide attacks are very difficult for us to predict or control.”
But provincial officials insist that the situation is not as bad as it is being painted.
“In a city of two million, it is impossible to ensure security 100 percent,” said Ghulam Sarwar Haidari, the provincial security chief. “But taking into account all the problems, the police have done remarkably well.”
Some of the city’s residents find this less than reassuring.
Abdul Salam Noori, who lives near the PRT that was bombed in April, is uneasy about having foreign troops so close to his home.
“They came to our country to ensure our security, and now we have to protect them,” he said. “It’s is a big disgrace for the Americans that they cannot get rid of the terrorists.”
The PRT in Herat was formerly run by US forces but Italian troops have been in charge here for more than a year.
Noori added that many people living near the PRT had left their houses, heeding warnings put out through the media by self-styled Taliban spokesmen that attacks on foreign troops would be stepped up in western Afghanistan.
Analysts here trace the roots of the problem to outside influences. Herat is on the border with Iran, and some see the hand of America’s old foe in the current unrest in the city.
“Iran does not want American troops on its borders,” said Abdul Ghani Khesrawi, a political analyst and lecturer at Herat University. “America has been Iran’s enemy for a long time. Defeating America in Afghanistan is one of Iran’s biggest hopes.”
Taliban believed to have a hand in incidents in north
Taliban activity has spread even further north, to the formerly secure provinces of Balkh, Jowzjan, Sar-e-Pul, and even remote Badakhshan in the northeast – historically the only part of Afghanistan the Taliban never conquered.
In late May, two people were killed and two injured in an attack on a non-government organisation, NGO, in Badakhshan. Four employees of Action Aid, an NGO helping with the national reconstruction programme in the north, were killed in Jowzjan, also in late May.
Arson attacks on schools are also on the rise in the north: six have been burned down since the end of April, three in Sar-e-Pul, two in Balkh, and one in Faryab.
It is not always possible to ascertain which armed group was involved in such attacks, but Colonel Mohammad Ibrahim, the head of security in Jowzjan who is investigating the murders of the Action Aid employees, suspects the Taliban played a part.
“We have arrested four people in this case,” he told IWPR. “These people are residents of the area where the attack took place. But we believe the Taliban told them to carry out the attack. It’s possible the Taliban are giving money to people to start attacks in the north, and maybe there are some Taliban here as well.”
Colonel Ibrahim insisted that the security forces were on top of the situation.
General Markus Kneip, the German army officer in command of ISAF forces in northern Afghanistan, also said there were indications the Taliban were present.
“We have received reports that there are small groups of Taliban in the north of Afghanistan,” he said. “Most of them are in places where poppy is being grown, and are in league with drug smugglers.”
Kneip added that Nato is working with the Afghan army and the police to create security in the north.
“The best way to improve security is with the help of the population,” he said. “And in any case, the north is not comparable with the south.”
Coalition to focus on reconstruction as well as counter-insurgency
When Colonel Collins announced Operation Mountain Thrust, he indicated that the combat operation would be followed by efforts to carry out reconstruction projects in troubled parts of the southern provinces.
Speaking to IWPR earlier in June, he said, “The military should adopt a new tactic. The problem cannot be solved by the military alone… we want to run reconstruction programmes to give people hope for their future.”
While the PRTs dotted around Afghanistan have run such reconstruction and development projects, the Coalition’s main emphasis has been on search-and-destroy missions against the Taliban and associated forces including Al Qaida and Hizb-e-Islami.
Counter-insurgency operations have obstructed efforts to win people’s confidence in the south, where the Coalition is often viewed as an alien presence supporting an Afghan government that has made little tangible change to livelihoods.
Fazal Rahman Orya, an Afghan political analyst, believes that not even the deployment of “millions of Nato and Coalition forces” can effect a purely military solution. And he insists the decision to shift the emphasis of the Coalition effort in favour of reconstruction is too little, too late.
“Afghanistan’s problems cannot be solved by economic or military means. As the Americans step up military operations, people’s animosity towards them increases,” he said.
Wahidullah Amani is an Institute for War and Peace Reporting staff reporter in Kabul. Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi contributed to this report from Mazar-e-Sharif, and Sadeq Behnam and Sudabah Afzali contributed from Herat.
© Institute for War & Peace Reporting. This article originally appeared in Afghan Recovery Report produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (ARR No. 219, 15-Jun-06). Go to www.iwpr.net