Iranian-backed Afghan Taliban commander survived airstrike
A Taliban commander thought to have been killed in a US airstrike in western Afghanistan has survived the attack, while fighting in northern and western Afghanistan intensifies.
Mullah Mustafa, a Taliban commander in Ghor province, denied reports he was killed in the June 9 airstrike. Mustafa contacted Quqnoos, an Afghan newspaper, and said the US killed civilians after acting on bad intelligence.
"Some people went to the US forces and provided them with false information, and then they bombed our area," Mustafa said. "I am not harmed." Mustafa said his six-year-old son and ten year old brother were among those killed. The deputy governor of Ghor province claimed 10 civilians were killed in the strike.
The US military claimed it killed Mullah Mustafa along with 16 of his fighters during an airstrike on June 9, but later retracted the statement.
"Initial Afghan and coalition reports said Mullah Mustafa died in the strike, but credible reports surfaced today that Mustafa survived," according to a press release issued by the US military.
The US military said Mustafa commands more than 100 fighters and receives support from Iran's Qods Force, the external operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Mustafa claimed he "never [has] been in the opposition to the [Afghan] government" but did not deny attacking US forces.
The US military said it will continue to target Mustafa and will investigate claims that civilians were killed in the attack.
"Mustafa is an enemy of Afghanistan, and we're working with Afghan officials to pursue him until he is captured or confirmed killed," Navy Lieutenant Commander Christine Sidenstricker said. "In addition, we are working closely with Afghan partners to investigate unconfirmed reports of civilians among Mustafa's party."
US airstrikes have been a contentious issue with the Afghan people. Civilians have been caught in the crossfire of these attacks and many have been killed. The latest incident, in Farah province, has sparked a backlash. Some Afghan officials and human rights groups claim more than 140 civilians were killed, while the US military maintains that scores of Taliban fighters and about 30 civilians were killed. According to the US military, the Taliban are intentionally provoking fights in civilian population centers in order to cause civilian casualties.
Major fighting in Badghis and Farah province
The airstrike in Ghor, a province largely free of Taliban influence, highlights the spread of the fighting into regions previously thought to be safe. Over the past few days, Coalition and Afghan forces have fought major battles in Badghis and Farah provinces, two areas that had been considered relatively safe but have seen an uptick in violence over the past year. Just today, 41 Taliban fighters were killed during fighting in both provinces.
In the Balamurghab district in Badghis province, the Afghan Army said 25 Taliban fighters and an Uzbek were killed and 10 more were wounded during the latest round of fighting. The Afghan Army and Coalition forces launched an operation there more than three weeks ago to secure a road construction project. So far, more than 60 Taliban fighters have been killed in the operation.
The Balamurghab district serves as the Taliban's main operations hub for northwestern Afghanistan. Taliban commanders in Badghis claimed to have 74 bases scattered throughout the Balamurghab district alone. Both Balamurghab and the neighboring district of Ghormach are under Taliban control. US, Spanish, and Afghan forces now maintain a presence in the Balamurghab district at the newly-built Forward Operating Base Columbus.
Badghis is critical to the Taliban's northern front. The Taliban are attempting to isolate the province by keeping the instability high so the paved section of the northern ring road cannot be completed. The Taliban want to use their safe havens in Badghis to launch attacks against neighboring Faryab province and eventually Mazar-i-Sharif.
In Farah province, Afghan soldiers killed 16 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters during an operation in the village of Taqsirak in the Bala Buluk district. A Taliban commander named Mullah Nik and an Arab trainer were killed during the fighting. Nik was described as "a Taliban proxy deputy governor for Farah province." The Arab fighter was described as a suicide attack mastermind and an expert on building improvised explosive devices.
Al Qaeda's paramilitary Shadow Army is known to dispatch its cadre in one- and two-man teams to Taliban groups with more than 100 fighters. These al Qaeda fighters serve as embedded trainers to the Taliban, and provide instruction on conducting infantry, suicide, and roadside bombing attacks.