NATO's Winter Offensive in Afghanistan, continued
Fighting in Helmand, Kunar, two of the most dangerous provinces, initiated by NATO forces; Taliban ambush in Nangarhar
While the Taliban has geared up for their yearly spring offensive, NATO forces have declined to remain on the defensive. NATO forces are currently on the offensive in the violent provinces of Helmand and Kunar. The Taliban currently are in control of the Musa Qala and Washir districts. Pajhwok Afghan News reports Taliban and NATO forces have engaged in battle in the Nadali, Sangin and Grishk districts. An International Security Assistance Force (ISAF, the NATO lead security organization in Afghanistan) press release confirms fighting in Helmand is ongoing. "ISAF has conducted operations and seen significant fighting in Helmand province over the past few days," according to the March 3 press release. Two NATO soldiers have been reported killed in southern Afghanistan.
The Sangin and Grishk districts have been the scene of Taliban activity. Three "U.S. spies" were recently executed in public by the Taliban. Two were beheaded and one hanged. Sangin saw heavy fighting during the British forces' push to eject the Taliban from areas near the Kajaki Dam.
The Taliban claim to have destroyed four NATO 'tanks' during the engagement, but ISAF strongly denied this. "During the incident, two ISAF vehicles became stuck in the difficult terrain," notes the ISAF press release. "ISAF forces could have destroyed the vehicles, but chose not to do so because of concerns for the safety of nearby civilians. Neither vehicle was hit by enemy fire or destroyed, as the Taliban claim. Both vehicles were deliberately disabled by ISAF troops on the ground to render them useless by the enemy."
While the fighting in the Kunar village of Mandaghel continues, Taliban fighters scored a hit on an ISAF outpost in the Pech River Valley. "Indirect fire," either mortar or rockets, struck the compound, wounding 12 civilians and 2 Afghan soldiers.
The Pech River Valley was the scene of a major U.S. and Afghan Army operation last spring. Kunar province and the Pech River Valley lie directly across the border from Bajaur, Pakistan, where the Taliban maintain a command and control center and Faqir Mohammed's Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (or TNSM, which translates to the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Sharia), the Pakistani Taliban, rules. Airstrikes in Damadola and Chingai targeted al Qaeda and Taliban camps. Pakistan is seeking to negotiate a peace deal in Bajaur, much like to one that has allowed the Taliban to rule in Waziristan.
In Nangarhar province, the Taliban scored a major victory by conducting a combined suicide attack and ambush against a U.S. convoy. A van packed with explosives rammed an American convoy, then "militants then fired gunfire from several directions." U.S. forces opened fire in return, and 16 civilians were killed and 25 wounded in the exchange. Afterwards, a protest broke out. "Hundreds of Afghans gathered to protest the violence, blocking the road and throwing rocks at police, with some demonstrators shouting 'Death to America! Death to Karzai,'" reports the Associated Press.
The situation in western Pakistan is driving a significant amount of the Taliban activity in southern and Eastern Afghanistan. As long as the Taliban and al Qaeda maintain bases and are free to operate without harassment, NATO and the Afghan government will be fighting a holding action against the Taliban. This does not bode well for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, or the people's confidence that the government can protect them.