1 The Long War Journal: Afghanistan: Fierce fighting as the harsh winter approaches
Written by Matt Dupee on November 9, 2007 1:05 PM to 1 The Long War Journal
Available online at: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2007/11/afghanistan_fierce_f.php
Matt Dupee looks at the recent fighting in Afghanistan, including the Taliban takeover of districts in Farah province. Matt writes at Afgha.com.
As the notorious Afghan winter weather draws near, snow already blanketing some areas in the eastern highlands, heavy fighting has exploded throughout most of the south and east. Taliban fighters staged a recent series of assaults on remote districts while International Security Assistance Force has aggressively responded, launching a series of offensives in northern Badghis province, Ghazni in the east, and in the rugged mountains of central Uruzgan. Season long fighting in Helmand province has also helped flush Taliban fighters westward, leaving a trail of destruction along the way and grabbing international media attention.
Last week, Taliban fighters staged a three-day attack on the Gulistan district of Farah province, a desolate area in southwestern Afghanistan that nestles against the Taliban nerve-center of Helmand. Local officials told the AFP that a local band of Taliban initiated the battle but were soon joined by 400 Taliban fighters who crossed into Farah from Helmand. Fierce clashes broke out between the weakly armed Farah police force and the Taliban for two straight days before the fledging police units strategically vacated the district center and retreated to its peripheries. Within days, a second assault was launched by Taliban fighters on Farah's Bakwa district center, an area known for its small portion of the vital Herat-Kandahar highway. Dozens of Taliban fighters and several police are estimated to have died in the clashes.
The suffering of Farah continued this week as a third district (Khak-i-Safid) was stormed by the Taliban and its district headquarters ransacked. Government buildings were looted and burned while several government vehicles were stolen by the Taliban. ISAF and Afghan forces have since arrived in Khak-i-Safid and retook the area without firing a shot.
Currently, both Bakwa and Gulistan are still lawless, lacking any central government jurisdiction. ISAF and Afghan forces have amassed in the area and are preparing to retake the two districts with the full consent from President Karzai, according to an AFP report. ISAF has gagged its media office due to the critical nature of the impending operation but noted in a statement, "In September 2006, they [Taliban] overran a number of remote district centers, then almost immediately withdrew after claiming that they had achieved a strategic victory. This is propaganda-not militarily significant."
The former Afghan Interior Minister, Ali A. Jalali, endorsed this notion during an interview in August. "No matter how many tactical achievements are made the war can not be won unless the insurgents win the hearts and minds of the people. The government can not fail by losing control of a few districts but it could lose if it fails to maintain its legitimacy and win the hearts and minds of the people," he said. "In many districts, the resurgence of Taliban violence is caused more by the lack of government presence than the ability of the insurgents."
The strategic value of these areas is certainly less significant than the fact the Taliban brazenly carry out large-scale assaults in groups as large as 400. Contrary to media reports that Taliban fighters have turned exclusively to roadside bombs and suicide attacks, their use of large-scale raids have persisted throughout most of the year. Coalition Firebase Anaconda located in Uruzgan province was attacked four times in August and once in September by large groups of Taliban. Each time they were badly beaten and suffered scores of casualties but the motivation of such a brazen attack was something unseen up to that point. Just this week another frontal attack was conducted against an unnamed firebase in Uruzgan with a salvo of 82mm shells that narrowly missed hitting the base, according to a US military press statement. After the mortar barrage, the Taliban fighters occupied a defensive position in close proximity to the base and called in reinforcements. Close air support was needed to dislodge the entrenched Taliban fighters hell-bent on attacking the base.
Large-scale assaults on isolated and weakly defended districts have largely become a tactic recurrently deployed by the Taliban since their 2006 spring offensive. Since then, districts in Badghis, Day Kundi, Ghazni, Farah, Kapisa, Kandahar, Nuristan, and Uruzgan have all come under siege by groups of 200-400 Taliban fighters and held for brief periods. Despite such ambitious undertakings, the Taliban have only succeeded in retaining the Musa Qala district in Helmand province, the only strategic district overrun by Taliban forces.
The largest of these attacks came in mid-June when an estimated 1,000 Taliban encircled the mountain hamlet of Chora in Uruzgan province. Lightly defended by a Dutch unit and Afghan auxiliary police force, the Taliban staged a lightning assault on the village and overran most of the Afghan security checkpoints. The Dutch utilized their entire 500-man battle group and counterattacked with a withering barrage of artillery fire and aerial bombardments from Dutch F-16's and Apache helicopters. Over 100 Taliban were killed in the three-day battle, and the UN estimated 30-88 civilians also died in the ensuing artillery duel. The battle has remained a source of controversy ever since, and the Netherlands is deciding later this month to whether or not renew its commitment of forces in Uruzgan past 2008.
The brazen nature of these types of attacks, however, is not synonymous with success. The Taliban quickly retreated from every district they overran but one and suffered heavy casualties in many of the attacks. Aside from Musa Qala, there is little to no strategic importance of any of the districts seized by the Taliban this year, most of which were located in extremely isolated areas, sparsely populated and abundantly poor.
Although the Taliban's invasion of such remote districts serves merely as a propaganda victory, the fact that hundreds of Taliban fighters can amass and strike unhindered is alarming, especially for Afghanistan's fledgling security apparatus. Local police forces that are outmanned and outgunned by the invading Taliban routinely flee the impending onslaught under strategic retreat auspices. In most of the district take-overs mentioned above, it was not until much stronger ANA or ISAF units backed by air power arrived before the Taliban fled.
The case of the Durjan district in central Day Kundi province, where 60 motorcycle-riding Taliban fighters overran the district two days ago, is a prime example. It highlights the continuing problem the central government will encounter when attempting to exert its influence in remote areas where local loyalties remain elusive and the local security forces are less than adequate.