[Part two of a two-part series on the conflict in western Afghanistan.]
The southwestern province of Farah has borne the brunt of the Taliban’s southwestern expansion since the insurgency rebounded in 2006. Initially, the Taliban launched attacks on Farah and Nimroz from their various strongholds in neighboring Helmand province, but they have since established footholds inside Farah itself where they can recruit, coordinate, and launch attacks. Farah province has become the Taliban’s epicenter for terrorist operations in southwestern Afghanistan and is now the linchpin to its version of a “western front”. The village of Shaiban in the Bala Baluk district is “the most dangerous stronghold of the Taliban in western Farah province,” according to a report filed by the Jamestown Foundation in November.
Mustafa Kazemi, a political adviser and resident of Nimroz province, backed up these claims and confirmed Bala Baluk’s stature as a Taliban bastion in a recent conversation with The Long War Journal. “I am sure that the Bala Buluk [district] is a stronghold, an assault base and armament and equipping base for the Taliban. Most of the UN and other NGOs humanitarian aid convoys for Farah have been ambushed by unknown armed forces on the Kandahar- Farah and Delaram-Farah Highways.”
Despite various security crackdowns in the Delaram and Khaki-Safid districts, by mid-May violence continued to flare throughout the province. It became abundantly clear that most of the insurgent activity plaguing the province was being planned and executed from strongholds in Bala Baluk. Hoping to prevent a further spike in violence, Coalition and Afghan forces launched a two-pronged assault in Farah’s Bakwa and Bala Baluk districts to rid the areas of the Taliban infestation.
Operation Shamshir Bazaar
On May 15, a joint Coalition and Afghan force launched Operation Shamshir Bazaar (Bazaar of Swords) in the Bala Baluk district. Coalition forces arrested three Taliban fighters, including a local commander, and destroyed a Taliban safe house through a series of airstrikes during the operation’s first 24 hours. At least 15 Taliban were killed in an airstrike and two kidnapped government employees were freed from Taliban custody, according to Afghan officials.
The operation picked up momentum again on May 25 when Coalition forces engaged a large number of Taliban in a fierce clash that left two policemen, a Coalition soldier and a dozen insurgents dead. Intelligence operations later tracked a large band of Taliban infiltrating into the area from neighboring Helmand province. Subsequent airstrikes against the Taliban hideout killed more than 30 insurgents, including Pakistani fighters and some regional commanders. “ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] airplanes bombed the [insurgent] fort, and 30 Taliban, including their ranking commanders, were killed,” Afghan army commander Jalandar Shah Behnam told the AFP shortly after the incident. “There is no one left inside the fort.”
Around the same time, Coalition forces conducted a lighting assault on the Bakwa district. The two-day operation left more than 100 Taliban fighters dead, including five commanders, according to the Interior Ministry. A huge band of Taliban fighters overran the district nearly eight months ago, looting the government’s weapons and ammunition stocks and leaving scores of local security personnel dead. The battle in Bakwa has been the fiercest fighting in Farah this year.
As fighting continues to rage in Bala Baluk, the Taliban have stepped up their activity against soft targets elsewhere throughout the province. The region of Delaram, southeast of Bala Baluk near the Gulistan district, has been particularly besieged by Taliban insurgents. A burqa-clad suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint in Delaram on May 15, killing at least seven policemen, including the commander of the public defense forces and five civilians. Five days later, another suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint in Delaram; this time prematurely detonating his explosives-packed vehicle, injuring two police officers and killing a civilian. Then on May 22, insurgents detonated a remote-controlled bomb near an Indian BRO convoy leaving an engineer seriously injured.
The ferocious onslaught by Taliban suicide bombers and uptick in armed attacks indicates the strategic importance Farah province has become for the Taliban in southwestern Afghanistan. Additionally, the Coalition’s latest operation there, now in its second week, is much longer than the three-day offensive Operation Wyconda Pincer that NATO launched in Bala Baluk back in 2006. This is a sign the Coalition has a much more entrenched insurgent network to deal with two years on.
Southwestern Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders
Far removed from the tentacles of the Haqqani Network in eastern Afghanistan and the cadre of al Qaeda remnants in western Pakistani tribal states, insurgents in the southwest are led by an array of local and regional Taliban chieftains and criminal kingpins.
Mullah Abdul Manan, one of the Taliban’s top commanders for Farah province, is a former Taliban-era district police chief for two areas of Nimroz province. He specializes in attacks in and around his former jurisdictions, occasionally leading ambushes and assaults against India’s BRO road crews working to complete the Zaranj-Delaram highway. Despite being incarcerated by Afghan security forces in 2006 and previously held by the US military at Guantanamo Bay, he was released during a covert prisoner exchange between the Afghan government and insurgents who kidnapped two National Solidarity Department employees in September. Following his release, Manan re-established his role as an insurgent commander and continues to lead a wave of deadly attacks throughout the southwest.
He narrowly escaped a Coalition air strike against his compound in Farah’s Bakwa district on Feb. 4. Five people were killed in the attack, including the wife and child of Abdul Munaf, a Taliban subcommander associated with Manan. It is currently unclear if Manan and Munaf were among the five Taliban commanders killed in the latest clashes in the Bakwa area.
Mullah Abdul Ghani is a known weapons and explosives facilitator in Farah’s upper Anardara district. Coalition forces raided a compound owned by Ghani in late March after intelligence reports suggested a large weapons shipment recently arrived from smugglers operating in the Iran-Afghan border area. “We discovered a cache containing a large collection of land mines — antipersonnel and antitank mines — in the Anardara District of Farah Province [near the border with Iran.]” General Khailbaz Sherzai, told Radio Free Afghanistan shortly after the raid. “They were recently brought from Iran, and the man who was responsible for that has escaped. We completely destroyed the cache and the room it was contained in.” Some of the mines were sophisticated remote-controlled models while the rest were massive anti-tank mines.
The raid on Ghani’s compound, although hardly given the attention it deserved at the time, is a noteworthy development in the controversy over whether Iran is supplying weapons to insurgents in western Afghanistan. Iranian-made landmines were discovered in neighboring Herat and Ghor provinces during the three months leading up to the raid on Ghani’s compound.
The Iranian factor
Intelligence gathered on the suspected movement of weapons and explosives into western Afghanistan from smugglers in Iran is part of an ongoing investigation prompted by months of speculation by Coalition and Afghan authorities. Although US Army General Dan McNeill has said there is no conclusive evidence the Iranian government is providing weapons to the Taliban, there is no doubt that weapons originating from Iran are making it into the hands of Afghan insurgents.
Four large shipments have been confiscated on the Afghan-Iran border since last year, including a ten-ton explosives cache seized last September. Authorities discovered the massive haul in Herat’s Ghurian district close to the border with Iran. The cache included artillery shells, land mines, and rocket propelled grenade launchers, most with Chinese, Russian and Persian markings on them. Chinese made HN-5 anti-aircraft missiles were previously discovered by British troops in Helmand province after a patrol had killed a Taliban anti-air cell near one of their military bases. This prompted UK officials to investigate whether Chinese arms deliveries to the Taliban are using Iran as a transit route. A British air convoy of C-130s was nearly hit by an insurgent-fired heat-seeking missile as it flew over the southwestern province of Nimroz on July 22, 2007.
Explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) – the notorious roadside bomb commonly seen in Iraq and linked to Iranian bomb-factories, also have been found in Afghanistan. Although the first one discovered near a university in Kabul bore only initial resemblance to the Iranian-made ones found in Iraq, four others confiscated on the Afghan-Iran border area tell a different story.
The four EFPs were discovered during the summer of 2007 in Herat province where many of the other Iranian arms shipments were intercepted. Still, officials cautiously played down the idea that Iranian government agencies were behind the latest bomb discoveries. “Some EFP components may be made in Iran, but it doesn’t mean the Iranian government is behind it, as some explosive materials maybe trafficked into Afghanistan by criminal elements,” Colonel Tom Kelly, International Security Assistance Force’s deputy chief of counter-explosives operations, told a press conference around the time of the discovery.
Nevertheless, EFPs began turning up on the Afghan battlefield and have been used against Coalition personnel and vehicles during late 2007, according to Australian forces based in central Uruzgan province.
Weapons and explosives are not the only nefarious contraband being smuggled over the Iranian border. An Iranian citizen accused of providing military training to Taliban insurgents in Farah province was arrested in Nimroz province on May 6. Two Afghans from the Bakwa district also were arrested with him as the trio tried to enter Zaranj, the provincial capital of Nimroz. The unidentified Iranian man allegedly had videotapes showing him teaching military tactics to Taliban insurgents somewhere in Farah’s Bakwa district. Suspicious looking surveillance photographs of roadways in western Afghanistan also were found on his possession. Dr. Ghulam Dastagir Azad, the governor of Nimroz, said an investigation is under way because it is unclear who “assigned the person to train Taliban.”
The porous Afghan-Iranian border has been a serious threat to Afghan security since reports of large numbers of al Qaeda-linked fighters and Taliban insurgents crossed the border in 2006 and again in 2007.
“There is a big group coming from Iraq,” Nimroz governor Dr. Ghulam Dastagir Azad said at the time. “They’re linked to Al Qaeda and fought against U.S. forces in Iraq. They have been ordered to come here. Many are suicide attackers.” Dastagir narrowly escaped death as a suicide bomber blew up at the gate of his residence near Zaranj last November. The blast killed six of his bodyguards, including one of his sons.
All is not lost: struggling to contain the insurgency in the southwest
Tasked with preventing the southwest from totally collapsing is one of the smallest, low-key US-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which is based in Farah City. Its 170-square-meter facility, dubbed “Fort Apache” by those serving at the remote outpost, is home to the only PRT contingent in the entire province. Last year, the team helped build five high schools, including a mega “School of Excellence,” which teaches higher level studies to over 1,000 students. The PRT has spent over $4.5 million on roads and bridges, and developed about 120 water wells. Despite these development efforts, security has deteriorated steadily throughout the province as the Taliban made its considerable inroads over the last two years.
To help counter this emerging threat, ISAF announced its plan to spend over $85 million this year to help transform and rapidly improve Farah’s security situation. The intended plan includes construction of an Afghan National Army Brigade headquarters in Farah City that will employ 4,000 workers and eventually house more than 2,000 soldiers. Other projects include eight new Afghan National Police headquarters to be constructed in several insurgency-plagued districts, including Shib Kho, Gulestan, Bakwa, Purchaman, Pasht-Rod, Kahki-Safid, Qal-i-Kah, Lash wa Jowayn, and a Border Police headquarters at Qal-e Kah. At least three of these districts were briefly overrun by marauding Taliban forces last fall, with two falling within the same week.
Farah, which is part of ISAF’s Regional Command-West, is the smallest of the five commands. Led by Italy and secured by only 2,600 troops over a four-province area, Regional Command-West will have its work cut out for the foreseeable future. With violence flaring throughout southern and eastern Afghanistan, Italy announced its willingness to send its troops into hot zones and support combat missions for the first time.
But the final decision will be made when other NATO countries decide where the extra manpower is needed most. So far, the United States does not plan to send additional troops to Farah province; the latest US deployment of over 3,000 Marines is divided up between Kandahar and Helmand provinces. With further training and better equipment, the incoming brigade of Afghan National Army soldiers alongside Coalition advisers will serve as the vanguard against Taliban incursions in Farah province.
This concludes Part 2 of the Coalition and Taliban vie for control of southwestern Afghanistan series. For Part 1 and additional coverage of the security challenge in southwestern Farah province over the last two years, see:
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