Sunday, July 13, 2008

The escalated war (updated)

Making headlines today are reports that Taliban fighters in the Afghan province of Kunar have killed nine US soldiers operating under NATO in a fierce day-long attack on a US/Afghan military post. Some 15 other NATO troops were injured in the attack, which included Taliban machine gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars and which reportedly cost the lives of "dozens" of militants. If that's true, then it is likely that the attackers struck in considerable numbers. [**See update, below.]

Meanwhile in Helmand, one other US soldier was killed in an IED blast.

Reuters sums up the security incidents:

FACTBOX-Security developments in Afghanistan, July 13

URUZGAN - Twenty civilians, most of them children, and four policemen died in a Taliban suicide attack in a bazaar on Sunday in Deh Rawud district of southern Uruzgan province, the interior ministry said, adding a senior police officer was also among the victims.

KUNAR - NATO forces have suffered casualties during heavy fighting with Taliban insurgents which erupted late on Saturday in eastern Kunar province, an alliance spokesman said on Sunday.

GHAZNI - Taliban insurgents killed two women detective police officers and dumped their bodies in a ditch in a graveyard in Ghazni province on Saturday evening, a senior provincial police officer said. On Sunday in another area of the province, a roadside bomb killed two Afghan guards of a road construction company, another official said.

ZABUL - In neighbouring Zabul, three police officers were killed when a roadside bomb hit their vehicle late on Saturday, police said.

HELMAND - A roadside bomb killed a soldier from the U.S.-led coalition force on Sunday in the southern province of Helmand, the U.S. military said. A spokesman for the military separately said 35 militants were killed since Saturday in an air backed operation of Afghan and coalition forces in Helmand after the blast which followed militants attack on the forces patrol.

BAGHLAN - A NATO-led International Security Assistance Force soldier died on Saturday from injuries he had suffered in a blast in northern Baghlan province, the alliance said.

NURISTAN - Four Taliban insurgents were killed and six more were wounded in an operation by Afghan forces in northeastern Nuristan on Saturday, a district governor said. The defence ministry said dozens of insurgents were killed and dozens more wounded on Sunday in a counter attack of the Afghan army in Nuristan... (link)
In the Globe and Mail, reporter Graeme Smith catches top Canadian brass being either deceitful or shockingly ignorant:
Growing violence in Kandahar 'insignificant,' top soldier says

KANDAHAR, July 13 — Canada's top soldier has dismissed the growing violence in Kandahar as “insignificant,” contradicting all public data and highlighting the growing gap between Canada's upbeat view of the war and the sober analysis from other NATO countries.

General Walter Natynczyk, Chief of the Defence Staff, has frequently claimed troops are making progress...

Pressed by journalists to back up his claim, Gen. Natynczyk turned to his commander of all overseas forces, Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, who gave a figure that initially appeared to support the general's assessment. A comparison of figures from June, 2007, and June, 2008, shows violence was similar during the two months, he said.

“They're within 3 or 4 per cent of each other, so certainly not a marked increase in any way shape or form,” Lt-Gen. Gauthier said.

The lieutenant-general later corrected himself, saying the comparison was, in fact, limited to the first days of July. He provided no other data. Neither of the two senior Canadian officers explained why they based their assessments on a span of days, instead of following the practice of most security analysts who examine months and years.

Gen. Natynczyk's claim that violence has not significantly increased in Kandahar does not fit any of the published statistics, all of which show major increases in Taliban attacks since 2005.

The most recent numbers were compiled by Sami Kovanen, a respected security consultant at Vigilant Strategic Services Afghanistan...

A comparison of the past two months against the same period in the previous year shows that insurgent attacks have more than doubled in the current fighting season, from 134 in 2007 to 289 in 2008.

For the year to date, VSSA counted 532 insurgent attacks as of July 6, up 77 per cent from 300 last year.

Canadian military officials have argued that the shifting nature of the Taliban's attacks shows that the insurgents are growing weaker, because they are increasingly relying on bombs, or improvised explosive devices, instead of confronting their enemy in direct combat.

In fact, the statistics for Kandahar don't show a clear trend toward bombs as the weapon of choice for the insurgents. While IEDs were the most common type of attack last year, the number of successful IED strikes was slightly smaller this year than the number of so-called complex attacks – ambushes using more than one type of weapon. Such multi-layered attacks have increased this year by 116 per cent, to 123, according the VSSA numbers.

When asked why he refuses to acknowledge that the security situation has grown worse, Gen. Natynczyk responded that Canada's control of the Afghan countryside has expanded.

However, over the past two years, Canada's regular forces have abandoned positions such as Forward Operating Base Martello, about 100 kilometres north of Kandahar city, and the Gumbad Platoon House, about 80 kilometres north of Kandahar city, in favour of concentrating troops in the core districts.

Gen. Natynczyk also emphasized subjective signs of stability...

“Kandaharans have returned to their normal pattern of life,” he said...

In Kandahar city Sunday, a roomful of Afghan businessmen laughed raucously when informed that the Canadian military believes the city has returned to normal.

“Just last night we were sitting outside and a convoy passed by with the soldiers shooting in the air, like cowboys,” said Mohammed Naseem, 34, who owns a coffee shop, an advertising company and the region's largest newspaper. “If things are okay here, why are the soldiers scared?”

People who can afford to leave have evacuated, Mr. Naseem said. He himself has relocated his family to Dubai, and he says he only feels free to speak critically about what's happening in Kandahar because they are safely out of the country.

“There is panic now in Kandahar,” he said. “Everybody is wondering what will happen next.” (link)
Elsewhere, Smith cites VSSA again:
[...] As of July 6, security consultant Sami Kovanen of Vigilant Strategic Services Afghanistan had counted 527 insurgent attacks this year in Kandahar province.

That's vastly more than in any other province in the country; the two other most violent provinces were Kunar, with 316 attacks, and Helmand with 311.

Despite the official importance of the capital city, Kabul province has suffered only 77 insurgent strikes this year, according to VSSA... (link)
In Nuristan, concerns of Taliban take-over are growing, says Afghanistan's Quqnoos news:
'Rebels will take Nuristan unless troops are sent in'
Officials say residents and police are fighting a losing battle against rebels

July 12 - The Taliban will overrun a district in the north-eastern province of Nuristan unless the government ships more police and soldiers to the area immediately, the head of the local council said.

Militants flooding into the district of Bargi Matal, which borders Pakistan, have been trying to take the area for the last three days, council chief Rahmatullah Rashidi said on Saturday.

Residents and police are trying to fend off the rebel offensive but face a fighting force of 500 armed Taliban, Rashidi said.

There are only 150 police serving in the district and residents said they are running out of ammunition.

Representatives from Nuristan have waited 20 days to meet with officials in the Ministry of Interior to discuss the crisis.

One of the representatives, Abdullah Asad, said if the district fell into the Taliban’s hands, then the rest of the province would follow in its footsteps... (link)
The CBC reports on US claims that American Marines have killed 400 insurgents in Helmand province since their deployment there in April. Meanwhile, the LA Times reports (July 6) that these same Marines still control only four and a half square miles of Garmsir district.

At the same time, the Red Cross warned on July 9: "At least 250 civilians are reported to have been killed or injured in various incidents since July 4". Their statement cites both insurgent attacks and "the reportedly high number of civilian casualties resulting from the recent air strikes in the east of the country."

Update:
It is indeed the case that insurgents attacked US soldiers in Kunar in large numbers, according to the Christian Science Monitor:
Outpost attack in Afghanistan shows major boost in militant strength
By Aunohita Mojumdar

KABUL, Jul 15 - A deadly attack on a remote NATO outpost in the eastern province of Kunar is being viewed as a serious escalation in the fighting...

In contrast to their traditional hit-and-run tactics and reliance on use of explosives, bombs, and suicide attacks, militants directly engaged soldiers at the outpost, in the village of Wanat, in a style that had not been seen for more than a year. A wave of insurgents attacked the outpost from multiple sides and some were able to get inside, killing nine US troops and wounding 15...

"The attack on Sunday was a carefully planned one, with upward of 200 insurgents, to give it weight of force," Capt. Michael Finney, acting spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, said in an interview...

Haroun Mir, the deputy director for Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, said the attack's superior planning was clear evidence of the presence of Al Qaeda troops in the area...

Analysts have also noted activity of the insurgent group Hezb-i Islami and the Taliban in Nuristan Province, which neighbors Kunar Province.

Mr. Mir said that "the recent attacks show that the Al Qaeda is involved in the planning and execution of the attacks. Until now the Taliban have been avoiding direct confrontation and after 2006 they were using IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and bombs. Now for the first time they are engaging directly. Once the bodies of the insurgents are recovered from the area I am sure Pakistani and Arab fighters will be found among them." ...
While Mir's comments merit serious attention, it needs to be said that Taliban connections with Al Qaeda are (or would be) a highly useful propaganda tool for NATO/US officials. Yet, there is a lack of convincing evidence to prove this alleged association. While it is true that a few Arab militants have been caught or killed, that hardly adds up to the position of eminence grise which Al Qaeda are alleged to hold vis-a-vis the Taliban. Since many "Arab Afghans" rotated through Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad, it is not surprising that some Arab militants married Afghan women, thus joining with an Afghan extended family.

However, the CSM piece offers more along these lines courtesy of veteran reporter Kathy Gannon:
Regional expert Kathy Gannon reported from Pakistan on Sunday that a conclave of militant and terrorist groups, held in Rawalpindi in June, had agreed to focus on Afghanistan.

The conclave included groups with a history of fighting in Kashmir against the Indian government such as Hezb ul Mujahideen, Jaish-e Muhammed, and Lashkar-i Tayyaba, the last two with links to Al Qaeda. Rawalpindi is where the Pakistani Army is headquartered... (link)
I tend to be rather skeptical of such claims - as I said, because of the propaganda value. I take the same tack with regard to claims that the Iranian government is arming the Taliban, and with regard to claims that Chechens and Tuaregs have joined the Taliban. (And, since I am on a roll, I think that statements by both US/NATO and Taliban commanders claiming large numbers of enemy kills are suspect as well.

Speaking of claims about foreign fighters, the Times report on the Kunar attack repeats that very claim:
Some reports spoke of a joint assault including members of the Taleban, al-Qaeda fighters from neighbouring Pakistan, Arabs and Chechen “foreign fighters” and members of Hizb-e Islami, an allied insurgent group... (link)
Finally, in the BBC's report on the Kunar incident, they note "There may also have been civilian casualties" caused by the all-day battle.

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