A major military operation is underway along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier that seeks to deliver a decisive blow against Islamic militants active in the area. Some US military officials in Afghanistan believe that popular support for the Islamic radical movement has eroded significantly in recent weeks, indicating that the ongoing "hammer-and-anvil" operation has the potential to break the back of the Taliban-al Qaeda insurgency.
Pakistani military units launched a new security sweep during the early hours of November 9 in the tribal area of Waziristan, a region used by Islamic militants as a staging ground for raids across the border into Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Pakistani military sources said at least six militants and two government troops were killed in initial fighting. The operation came just days after Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said during a visit to Kabul that Islamabad would expand its assistance to Afghanistan. "The success of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan is Pakistan's success," Musharraf told journalists during a November 6 joint appearance with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
As Pakistani troops make a push towards the border, US military units are stepping up anti-Taliban patrols in southern Afghanistan in an attempt to trap and annihilate Islamic militant units. Optimism is running high among American commanders, who note that fighting conditions in southern Afghanistan have experienced a sudden shift in favor of US and Afghan government military forces. According to Col. Gary Cheek, the commander of the joint force at the Salerno Forward Operating Base in Khost Province, a marked decline in support among the local population for the Islamic insurgency is hampering the fighting capability of Taliban-al Qaeda units. Cheek added in an interview, conducted before the launch of Pakistan's latest security sweep, that the Taliban's inability to follow through on threats to disrupt Afghanistan's presidential election in early October severely damaged the movement's credibility among conservative inhabitants of Khost and other southern Afghan provinces.
"I would never want to write off our enemy, but clearly the Taliban lost a major battle during the elections," Cheek said. "We believe the Taliban is severely fractured as an insurgency movement, and not capable of organized military operations."
Cheek also indicated that the US military would look to mount psychological operations designed to widen the perceived split within the Islamic radical ranks. "I think it is time the low-ranking Taliban to give up their quest and rejoin society," Cheek said.
When the Taliban's emerged as a religious-political force in Afghanistan in the mid 1990s, Khost was among the main bastions of support for the movement. That support remained strong even after the US-led blitz in late 2001 drove the Taliban from power in Kabul. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. As the Taliban regrouped and then began to mount raids in recent years, the Islamic militants counted on strong local support to keep the insurgency going.
According to Cheek, the balance of local support started to tip against the Taliban late in 2003. The trend accelerated in the weeks following the presidential election. Perhaps the clearest indicator that Taliban support is evaporating is the fact that locals are increasingly willing to provide information to the US military and Afghan government, Cheek said.
"There is a growing sense of Afghan nationalism among the Wazirs on the Afghan side, and, in Khost, we are successful in getting more cooperation from the locals. Attitudes are changing," Cheek said.
"There has been a dramatic change in the past year," Cheek added. "We operate to win the confidence of local residents and we come in with offers of education, reconstruction and a better life for their children. It is easy to counter the Taliban's message, which is based on threats and violence."
Afghan military officials say the improved performance of the Pakistani military is also helping to reduce the Taliban's operational ability. In March, a Pakistani military operation in Waziristan ended in failure. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]
Since then, the Pakistani military has learned its lessons and, in recent months, has quietly, but steadily exerted pressure on Islamic radicals in Waziristan, a top Afghan officer claimed.
Despite the recent success in curbing Taliban-al Qaeda military operations, security conditions remain poor in many areas of southern Afghanistan. Afghans in the region who work with international organizations, including the United Nations, often face threats of physical harm made by Islamic militants. Locals also report that travelers on the road connecting the cities of Khost and Gardez remain prone to ambushes. The lack of security suggests that even if the Taliban-al Qaeda units are decisively defeated, the US military and Afghan National Army will continue to face substantial challenges as they strive to promote stability in outlying Afghan regions.
Claudio Franco is a freelance correspondent who traveled to Afghanistan to cover the elections.