Al Qaeda-linked Taliban commander killed in western Afghanistan
Coalition forces killed a Taliban commander with links to al Qaeda and the training of fighters in Iran during an airstrike in the southwestern Afghan province of Farah.
Mullah Akhtar and an undisclosed number of Taliban fighters were killed during a series of airstrikes and a ground raid yesterday and last night in the district of Gulistan in Farah. The operation took place in "a known insurgent safe haven," the International Security Assistance Force stated in a press release.
Akhtar coordinated the training of Taliban fighters in Iran and was linked to top al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Farah province, in which Akhtar was killed, borders Iran to the west. Mullah Hayatullah, the Taliban's military commander in Farah province, is also closely linked with al Qaeda. He runs suicide training camps and also serves as a spokesman for the group.
"Mullah Akhtar had close ties with Taliban and al Qaeda senior leaders," ISAF stated. "He was responsible for arranging training for foreign fighters from Iran and helped resolve disputes between militant networks."
Akhtar was also linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Qods Force, US military intelligence officials told The Long War Journal. Qods Force is the IRGC's special operations branch tasked with promoting Iran's radical Islamist ideology worldwide.
For years, ISAF has stated that Taliban fighters have conducted training inside Iran, with the aid of Qods Force, the special operations branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. As recently as May 30, ISAF commander General Stanley McChrystal said that Iran is training Taliban fighters and providing them with weapons.
"The training that we have seen occurs inside Iran with fighters moving inside Iran," McChrystal said at a press conference. "The weapons that we have received come from Iran into Afghanistan."
In March 2010, a Taliban commander admitted that Iran has been training teams of Taliban fighters in small unit tactics. "Our religions and our histories are different, but our target is the same - we both want to kill Americans," the commander told The Sunday Times, rebutting the common analysis that Shia Iran and Sunni al Qaeda could not cooperate due to ideological differences.
Southwestern Afghanistan a fallback position for the Taliban
Since the summer of 2009, the US military has launched three operations to clear the Taliban from various regions in Helmand province, and as a result, the Taliban have used the neighboring provinces of Farah and Nimroz as fallback havens.
Taliban support in the southwest remains a major problem for the Coalition and Afghan governments as they attempt to wrest control of the region from the Taliban. A Department of Defense survey of the local population's support for the Taliban and the government that was released this spring shows that a difficult task lies ahead for the Coalition. The report identified 121 "key districts" as vital to both the Taliban and the government. In the survey, the majority of these districts were found to be either neutral, sympathetic to the Taliban, or supportive of the Taliban.
The picture in the south and southwest was particularly grim. Only three of the 27 districts assessed were sympathetic to the government; 12 districts were neutral; nine districts were sympathetic to the Taliban; and three districts supported the Taliban.
Of the four of Farah's 11 districts assessed by the US military as key districts, two (Farah and Bala Buluk) were considered sympathetic to the government, and two (Pusht Rod and Bakra) were considered sympathetic to the Taliban. The district of Gulistan was not assessed, but is considered to be under Taliban control.
In Nimroz, only one district, Khash Rod, was assessed, and it is considered to be sympathetic to the Taliban.
In Kandahar and Helmand, the two provinces considered to be key to the Taliban's power in the south, the majority of the population was found to be ambivalent toward the Afghan government and the Coalition, or sympathetic to or supportive of the Taliban.
Of the 11 of Helmand's 13 districts assessed, eight of the districts were considered neutral, one was sympathetic to the Taliban, and two supported the Taliban. Of the 11 of Kandahar's 13 districts assessed, one district (Kandahar City) supported the government, three districts were considered neutral, six were sympathetic to the Taliban, and one supported the Taliban.