The latest estimate of Taliban casualties during the fighting over the past few days is approaching 200, with 25 Coalition, Afghan security forces and civilians killed. The Daily Times of Pakistan reports the fighting around Kandahar City, which was initiated by two separate Coalition operations, resulted in an estimated 100 Taliban killed. The U.S. military reported up to 60 Taliban were killed in the fighting at Musa Qala, where the Afghan security forces thwarted a major Taliban assault.
Agence France-Presse reports two French commandos were killed and one wounded in an “engagement against the Taliban in the region of Kandahar” – during offensive operations. A U.S. soldier was also killed in Uruzgan. Fighting continued in Helmand through Saturday, as the Taliban ambushed an Afghan convoy. At least 15 Taliban and 4 Afghan soldiers were killed, and 13 Afghan soldiers are missing. the Afghan Army called for reinforcements and air support, and beat back the attack. The reporting continues to conflate Coalition and Taliban operations.
Assadullah Khalid, the governor of Kandahar reiterated the claim that three Taliban commanders were captured, and described them as “high-ranking Taliban, members of their leadership council.” The arrest of Mullah Dadullah has not been confirmed, however a one legged man fitting Dadullah description is said to be in custody. A man claiming to be Dadullah phoned a Pakistani newspaper and refuted the claims.
The violence in Afghanistan cannot be viewed in a vacuum. The Taliban has established safe havens in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) agencies of North and South Waziristan, Bajaur, Tank, Khyber and Dera Ismail Khan – a region now being referred to as Talibanistan.
Pakistani forces conducted a strike against “militants” in Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan after a paramilitary officer was killed and three wounded in a Taliban attack on a police station. Eighteen ‘miscreants’ were killed, and “three of them were said to be Uzbek.” The Pakistani Army called in helicopter strikes to support the operation. In a separate incident, yet another “senior pro-government tribal chief” was assassinated by the Taliban, who continue the campaign to eliminate their opposition in the tribal areas.
Accusations of the Taliban operating from Pakistan continue to surface. The most recent charge was issued by Colonel Chris Vernon, the Chief of Staff for southern Afghanistan. “The thinking piece of the Taliban is out of Quetta in Pakistan. It’s the major headquarters,” Colonel Vernon said in an interview with the Guardian. “They use it to run a series of networks in Afghanistan.”
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf continues to walk a fine line in dealing with the overt insurgency in the tribal regions and the problem with ‘foreigners and miscreants’. In a television interview on Friday, Musharraf continues to make distinctions between the Taliban and al Qaeda, and views the Taliban as a political problem and al Qaeda as a military problem.
Musharraf said the government had drawn up a wide-ranging strategy to combat extremism by strengthening the political set-up in the tribal region. “A military operation is not the answer to extremism. It has to be done through political administration,” he said.
He said that the entire political setup in the Federally Administered Areas (FATA) was being strengthened to achieve the desired objectives. He said the government would appoint competent political agents in tribal agencies. Musharraf said the government would spend Rs 10 billion every year on the development of FATA and had a roadmap on it. He said the government planned to have 12 more wings of the Frontier Corps while the Frontier Constabulary, that was working in various parts of the country, would be brought back.
Musharraf said the government had successfully countered Al Qaeda terrorists in cities and mountains, adding that the terrorists were now hiding in mountains in small groups and were being targeted by the military. Musharraf said Taliban were involved in spreading extremism in the tribal region. “Extremism was being practiced by Taliban. I think they have no single leadership. May be it is Mulla Omar who I think is in Afghanistan and they may have linkages here but there is no common leader here,” the president said.
This fails to recognize the core of the Taliban leadership share al Qaeda’s views on waging jihad and religious purity, and cannot be wooed by political incentives. The attempts to separate al Qaeda and the Taliban in the NWFP ignore the reality of the situation on the ground, as the Taliban and al Qaeda continue to recruit, train, arm and sorty fighters in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In April, the Daily Times reported “Pro-Taliban tribes in North Waziristan have buried ancient feuds and joined forces to fight the army… Up to 5,000 tribesmen are launching near-daily rocket and bomb attacks on military bases and convoys in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, while the headless bodies of alleged US spies are dumped on the streets…” Some estimates place the Taliban strength as high as 27,000 in North Waziristan and 13,000 in South Waziristan.
For decades, the mountainous and sparsely populated Afghan-Pakistani border has been an autonomous area, with little control by Islamabad or Kabul. The Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan have been a safe haven for AQ fighters since the fall of the Taliban in December 2001. The FATA also includes Islamist groups and local tribesmen who continue to resist the government’s efforts to improve governance and administrative control at the expense of longstanding local autonomy. Bringing government services to this region, and turning an AQ safe haven into a regularly administered province of Pakistan, remains an important objective in the global war on terror.
Through substantial efforts since 2004, the Government of Pakistan has deployed more than 80,000 security forces into the FATA and made some improvements in health care, education, and social services. These operations have disrupted the terrorists but also affected tribal institutions in the area, requiring efforts to build new political and economic institutions. Meanwhile, the Afghan Government, in concert with U.S. forces and the international community, continues efforts to build security on the Afghan side of the border. The border areas remain a contested region, however, with ongoing insurgent and terrorist attacks and AQ-linked propaganda activity.
Ayman al-Zawahiri’s most recent videotape specifically addressed the Pakistani people and the Army, calling for them to rise against the government. Zawahiri’s grievances against the Pakistani government are legion, and include Musharraf’s “combating Islam”, assisting the “crusaders” in the deposing of Taliban, placing nuclear weapons under U.S. safeguards, directing the military against Islamists in NWFP and FATA, abandoning the Indian front, abandoning Kashmir and recognizing Israel. Zawahiri and al Qaeda are relying on the Taliban and other Islamists groups within Pakistan to answer the call to jihad. In Pakistan’s tribal belt, the call has been answered, and the people of Afghanistan are paying the price.