Struggle to rein in Taliban in Afghanistan’s south

Kabul, Afghanistan – Afghans affected by an outbreak of Taliban fighting in a strategic district bordering the southern city of Kandahar have returned to their villages after a week of crisis sparked by the death of a tribal strongman.

Local authorities said Sunday that life was returning to normal following successful operations by Afghan security forces and Canadian troops to dislodge Taliban fighters from the lush agricultural lands of Afghandab district.

The insurgents were apparently intent on capitalizing on the death of Mullah Naqib, the former mujahideen warrior who led the Alokozai tribe of the district, north of Kandahar city.

For years, Mullah Naqib had kept the Taliban out of a district that offers a perfect route for attacking Kandahar city, the spiritual home of the hardline Sunni movement from its emergence in 1996 through its removal from power by US-led forces in 2001.

But up to 300 Taliban fighters entered the district last week, less than three weeks after Mullah Naqib’s death created a political vacuum in one of southern Afghanistan’s most important tribes.

The fighters, who local sources say were all in their mid-20s, remained for two days and came within 15 miles of the provincial capital. They occupied and trashed Naqib’s ancestral home before being expelled by more than 600 Afghan and international forces.

The swift collapse of political authority in the province highlights the reliance of overstretched international forces on friendly power brokers remaining loyal to the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Rising insecurity, official corruption, and the widespread belief that the government has failed to deliver basic public services have all undermined popular support, according to a European diplomat who spoke anonymously.

“It is very worrying that an area that had previously been secure should become vulnerable to the Taliban,” he says. “But the big problem is, who is sitting on the fence? Are they going to remain against the insurgents or join them?”

In the case of Arghandab, the local tribe remained loyal. Lt. Commander Pierre Babinsky, spokesman for international troops in Kandahar Province, says the Afghan Army and police force had played a vital role in expelling the Taliban.

“This was one of the first truly joint operations between Canadian and Afghan forces operating together as equal partners,” he says.

The police and Army have been the focus of intense training efforts to leave them capable of operating without direct foreign support and holding Taliban-free territory.

Much of the local police success against the Taliban fighters appeared to be because it is not yet a fully reconstituted force purged of tribal identity. With most of the fighters drawn from the Alokozai, analysts said, they were fighting out of tribal loyalty rather than as professional police officers.

Last week’s political and military drama may have demonstrated the Taliban’s weakness as a conventional military force. According to Haji Padshah, a tribal elder, “The Taliban are so weak that even our women could have beaten them.”

The NATO-led forces refused to give estimates of Taliban deaths, but Sayed Agha Saqib, the regional police chief, says 50 were killed, 40 injured, and eight captured.

The apparent attempt to seize Afghandab also represented a surprising tactical step backward for the Taliban, which has been forced to abandon conventional military tactics in favor of kidnappings and suicide bombs.

Rates of insurgent attacks and terrorist violence are at least 20 percent higher this year, with an average of 548 incidents per month compared with 425 in 2006, according to a UN report published in September, with most of the victims being ordinary Afghans.

Adoption of these so-called “asymmetric” tactics have caused acute concern because they are much harder to prevent and have proved effective in undermining public confidence.

A Kabul-based Western analyst said that the Taliban were prone to forgetting their limitations as a military force. But according to Sarah Chayes, a former journalist who has lived for years in Kandahar city, the Taliban never had any ambition to seize control of Afghandab. “Far from being annihilated by the security forces, they actually executed a fighting retreat,” she says. “It’s clear that they wanted to send a very strong message … saying that ‘our advance is inevitable and we can dance on the roof of Mullah Naqib’s house within three weeks of his death.’ In Kandahar, it just knocked people sideways.”

Protecting the exposed flanks of the city will be tough for overstretched Canadian forces. The Taliban’s assault forced commanders to move men and equipment out of the other districts that border the northern edge.

“We would like to have more resources,” Commander Babinsky says, “but the work we have done training the Afghan Army units mean we did not have to leave any districts unsecured.”

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