Taliban forces based in Pakistan are intensifying attacks on US and Afghan government forces. According to the top US general in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters and affiliated Islamic militants have divided eastern Afghanistan into three zones for launching attacks. Meanwhile, al Qaeda is offering bounties for killing or capturing US troops.
July has seen some of the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan since the US-led anti-terrorism coalition drove the Taliban from power in December 2001. The Taliban raids are coming as Afghanistan prepares for nationwide debate on a new constitution. A Loya Jirga, or grand tribal council, is scheduled to convene in October to put the finishing touches on a new Afghan constitution.
US officials say thousands of Taliban are living in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan Province, studying in Islamic schools and being recruited to fight US forces. Taliban leaders are openly giving press conferences and talking to reporters on mobile phones. Pakistan denies it is helping the Taliban, but Islamabad has done nothing to stop Islamic radical activity despite repeated requests by President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders to take action. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
General F.L. "Buster" Hagenback, the acting commander of the US-led coalition force in Afghanistan, acknowledged an increase in Islamic radical activity in several key Afghan regions mainly in the south and east of the country, along the country's long border with Pakistan. Hagenback insisted, however, that the anti-terrorism coalition had the resources to contain the security threat.
"We will go to all the places that we need to [in order] to track down the Taliban. There are large numbers of Taliban coming back into southern Afghanistan [from the Quetta region] but there have been some recent successes in resisting them," said Hagenback. "We have a very robust intelligence feed out there."
"There are three groups made up of between 25-100 Taliban operating in Helmand Province and they are facilitating the drugs trade," added Hagenback, the acting commander of the US-led coalition force in Afghanistan.
Hagenback said that in north eastern Afghanistan, also close to the Pakistan border, forces under renegade commander Gulbuddin Hekmetyar, who is allied to the Taliban, are "operating on the Jalalabad road moving up and down." The US commander added that "there are second- or third-level al Qaeda leaders trying to establish cells on the road between Khost and Gardez." Jalalabad is on the main road between Peshawar, Pakistan and Kabul, while the other two towns are traditional Taliban strongholds and adjacent to the Pakistan tribal agencies.
"The Taliban and al Qaeda are offering monetary incentives to kill or capture a US soldier in order to undermine the Afghan government, but it is clear they have very little local support," said Hagenback, speaking at his headquarters located at the main US base at Bagram, about 25 miles outside Kabul. Captured Taliban have confirmed that bounties range between $5,000 and $100,000, depending on the target. One Taliban interviewed by reporters in mid July said he had been offered $2,000 to kill a civilian and $5,000 to kill an American soldier.
One notable clash in recent weeks occurred July 18-19. On the night of July 19, US warplanes launched air strikes on a Taliban position close to the Pakistan border. The bombing raid came in response to a Taliban attack on a government check point near the border town of Spin Baldak. Afghan government officials asserted that 24 Taliban fighters were killed during the counter-attack. A Taliban commander said that 20 government troops died in the raid. None of the claims could be independently verified.
The Spin Baldak raid reportedly involved upwards of 200 Taliban. Until a few months ago the Taliban groups were never more than a dozen or so and the increase in their numbers reflects the impunity with which they believe they can now operate. Over 120 Afghan soldiers and civilians have been killed in Taliban attacks since the start of the year.
Ahmed Rashid is a journalist and the author of two books.