US-led troops in eastern Afghanistan kicked off a major offensive Sunday designed to root out Taliban, al Qaeda, and Hizb-i-Islami-Gulbadin fighters hiding in southeastern Nangahar province. So far, the fighting has killed at least three American GIs, two of whom were Green Berets. Local government officials say up to 50 militants are dead with another 40 “under siege.” The fighting has forced as many as 100 families in the area to flee. Early reports say at least seven civilians have been killed. The US troops, augmented by the Afghan National Army and close air support, are targeting “hundreds of foreign fighters” who are well-entrenched.
The showdown has been brewing since February when fragmented militant groups reorganized under the name “Tora Bora Mahaz (Front).” The group is led by Anwarul Haq Mujahid, the eldest son of the famous mujahadeen leader Yuni Khalis who battled against the the Soviet occupation. The Taliban forces, backed by al Qaeda, began to reoccupy the extensive underground complex that saw heavy fighting during the opening months of the war. By late May, the Taliban had declared the opening of the “Tora Bora front.”
The group’s first declared attack on Coalition forces came in March when a Marine Special Forces unit was targeted by a complex ambush outside of Jalalabad. The Marines returned fire, killing up to a dozen civilians. The incident precipitated the newly commissioned unit’s early departure from the country.
Countering the move, in preparation for the current operation, paratroopers and engineers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team began work on Forward Operating Base Lonestar in Par Wa Agam district in early July. The new FOB, 20 kilometers from the border, overlooks the foothills of the Tora Bora Mountains, where Taliban and al Qaeda operatives are known to cross over from Pakistan.
Nangarhar province is one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan. According to data compiled by Vigilant Strategic Services Afghanistan, there were 620 security incidents reported in the province from January 1 through August 12, making Nangarhar second only to Kandahar, with 774 security incidents. Kunar finished third with 613 security incidents over the same time period.
Nangarhar borders Kunar province to the north, which has been the scene of major battles between the Taliban and US and Afghan forces over the past year. Nangarhar also borders the Pakistani tribal districts of Kurram and Khyber to the south, and Bajaur to the east. The TNSM openly run Bajaur province after the Pakistani government negotiated a peace deal in March, while the Taliban maintain a strong influence in Kurram and Khyber.