Coalition and Taliban forces battle throughout Afghanistan
Scores of Taliban fighters and several Afghan officials were killed in fighting throughout Afghanistan. The violence marks the opening of the spring fighting season in Afghanistan as the Coalition and the Taliban surge forces for what is expected to be the toughest year of fighting since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
The largest battle took place in the Gereshk district in the southern province of Helmand on March 19. Afghan soldiers and their Coalition advisers conducting "combat reconnaissance in an area of known militant presence" took fire from Taliban fighters and engaged, the US military said in a press release.
The Afghan forces returned fire and routed the Taliban force. Thirty Taliban fighters were killed and one Afghan soldier was wounded in the firefight.
The same day, the Taliban killed a member of parliament, the highway police chief, and three bodyguards in an IED attack on a convoy in Helmand province. MP Dad Mohammad Khan "was known for his long opposition to the Taliban, which dated back to the hardliners' time in government between 1996 and 2001," The Associated Press reported. He served as the province's intelligence chief before being elected to parliament in 2005.
Helmand has been active the past several days. On March 18, a US airstrike killed two senior Taliban leaders in the Now Zad district.
Helmand province is one of the most violent in Afghanistan as the Taliban have taken advantage of local support and the opium drug industry to maintain a foothold in the province. The US Marines killed more than 500 Taliban fighters in Helmand province after surging into the region in 2008.
In the northern province of Jozjan, the Taliban killed several senior district leaders during an ambush, according to a report in Pajhwok News. The Kustapa district leader, the police and intelligence chiefs, and the criminal branch chief along with six policemen were killed in the attack. Jozjan has been one of the most secure provinces in Afghanistan, and the attack indicates that the Taliban insurgency, which has begun to intensify in neighboring Badghis and Faryab, may be spreading north.
In the southwestern province of Farah, the Taliban briefly overran the district of Pushtrud before being beaten back by police forces. Nine policemen and six Taliban fighters, including a commander, were killed in the fighting, Pajhwok News reported.
The violence in Farah province spiked during the summer of 2008. More than 270 Taliban fighters and nine Coalition troops were killed during fighting in Farah province in 2008, according to numbers compiled by The Long War Journal. The Taliban overran the Gulistan district center in late 2007 and took control of the Bakwa district in May 2008.
In Logar province just south of Kabul, Coalition and Afghan forces killed three members of a Taliban bomb-making cell. More than 3,000 US soldiers have deployed to Logar and neighboring Wardak province to dislodge the Taliban from the region.
Pakistani Taliban leader threatens suicide campaign against US forces
Across the border in Pakistan, one of the three senior leaders of a new Taliban alliance said his group has prepared a suicide campaign that is specifically designed to hit US troops in Afghanistan.
Mullah Nazir, one of the two main Taliban leaders in South Waziristan, told ABC News that US soldiers in Afghanistan "absolutely" were the target of his suicide bombers.
"We have readied suicide bombers for them, they cannot escape us," Nazir told ABC News.
Nazir and North Waziristan Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar put aside tribal feuds and strategic differences with South Waziristan and Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud at the end of February and created the Council of United Mujahideen. Previously, Nazir and Bahadar had feuded with Baitullah due to tribal disputes as well as Baitullah's rising power as the senior leader of the Pakistani Taliban.
The council was formed at the behest of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. The three leaders had pamphlets distributed throughout North and South Waziristan to announce the formation of the Council of United Mujahideen. The Taliban leaders have "united according to the wishes of Mujahideen leaders like Mullah Muhammad Omar and Sheikh Osama bin Laden," The Nation reported.
The Taliban alliance said it "supported Mullah Muhammad Omar and Osama bin Laden's struggle" against the administrations of US President Barack Obama, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The new alliance further stated it was waging war "in an organized manner'" to "stop the infidels from carrying out acts of barbarism against innocent people" just as Omar and bin Laden were waging war against Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the US.
Nazir was often described by the media and the Pakistani government as a "pro-government Taliban" because he did not advocate fighting Pakistani security forces. This is a perception the Pakistani government has been willing to promote. The government signed a peace agreement with Nazir in mid-October 2008, and the military refuses to conduct operations against Nazir and Bahadar, despite the fact that their forces attack Afghan and Coalition forces inside Afghanistan.
But Nazir openly supports al Qaeda and its leadership. He admitted he would provide shelter to senior al Qaeda leaders. "How can I say no to any request from Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar under tribal traditions, if they approach me to get shelter?" Nazir asked the Pakistani press in the spring of 2007.
Al Qaeda runs terror camps inside Nazir's tribal areas and helps to finance his operations. The US routinely targets Nazir's tribal areas. In July 2008, Abu Khabab al Masri, the chief of al Qaeda's weapons of mass destruction program, and his staff were killed in an airstrike in Nazir's tribal areas South Waziristan. Last fall, one of Nazir's senior deputies threatened to attack Pakistani military forces if the government did not stop US airstrikes in the tribal areas.