Taliban march Will they fill power void?

Anand Gopal

Even in Afghan government’s apparent victories there lies a scent of defeat.

The ambush that killed 10 NATO soldiers outside of Kabul on Tuesday, the worst battlefield loss for western forces since the war began, was the capstone in a week of high-profile insurgent activities in Afghanistan. Although North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces returned fire, killed dozens of rebels and repelled the assault, the attack was a major propaganda victory for the Taliban and highlights a growing predicament faced by western officials: the insurgency appears to be growing in confidence despite losing most battles with international forces.

Nearly 100 rebels ambushed a team of French soldiers with rockets and mortars in a mountain defile near Sarobi, a town about 30 km to the east of the capital city.

In addition to the 10 dead, 21 were wounded in what became an hours-long firefight in which the US provided air cover for their beleaguered allies. In response to the assault, the largest loss of French personnel since a suicide bomber struck the French embassy in Beirut in 1983, French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Kabul August 20 to reassure French forces.

On Monday night insurgents staged an ambitious assault on a US military base in the southeastern province of Khost. A car bomb detonated outside the base’s main gate, killing 10 civilians, and a second car bomb nearly did the same before Afghan Security forced shot the driver dead. The next day up to 30 guerrillas fired rockets at the base while a volley of suicide bombers rushed towards the gates. US forces repelled the assault, but the insurgents’ complex offensive drive signals their swelling confidence.

“The Taliban are stronger and more confident,” says Waliullah Rahmani of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. “They are launching more complex attacks and have grown more assertive.” According to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the armed coalition that NATO heads, hundreds of Taliban fighters have been killed this year. One senior NATO official says that most battlefield engagements have led to spectacular losses for the rebels, who are often killed in large numbers.

But despite such losses, the Taliban’s willingness to absorb large losses and focus on staging high-profile attacks mean that stabilising Afghanistan may be more complicated than simply sending more troops, say analysts. “This is a regional problem. Without political change in Pakistan, even 200,000 NATO soldiers won’t be enough,” Rahmani says. Afghan and US officials have repeatedly pointed to Pakistan’s role in providing a safe haven for insurgents, and some officials say that without disrupting the insurgent networks there, defeating the Taliban-led insurgency is impossible. “The struggle against terrorism is not in the villages of Afghanistan,” President Hamid Karzai told reporters recently. “The only result of airstrikes is

the killing of civilians.”

Karzai says that instead the US should focus on attacking targets in Pakistan and moving against rogue elements in the Pakistani security apparatus. US officials also point to the steady influx of foreign fighters, possibly from Iraq, who drift across the Afghan-Pakistani border and bolster the insurgency.

But analysts say that the Taliban’s confidence is fuelled not just by safe havens and support in Pakistan but because of the political situation in Afghanistan. “People have lost faith in the government,” says Habibullah Rafih, a political analyst and member of the Afghanistan Academy of Sciences. “More guns won’t solve this problem,” he says, referring to the possibility of more US troops in the region.

As the rift between Afghans and the government grows, insurgents are filling the vacuum. More than half of Wardak province, just 45 minutes from Kabul by road, is under the direct control of the Taliban, according to the SENLIS council, a European think tank. Insurgents are increasing their presence and cover of Logar province, just to the south of the capital. Last week, Taliban fighters there ambushed a vehicle from the International Rescue Committee, killing three foreign aid workers and one Afghan.

In the neighbouring Ghazni province, residents report that Taliban presence is widespread and two districts — Newa and Ajrastan — are under the Taliban’s complete control. “The Taliban controls the courts, the police, even the district government,” in these two districts, says Fazel Wali, a teacher in the area. Even in the Afghan government’s apparent victories there lies a scent of defeat. More than 7,000 police flooded Kabul’s streets on August 18 for the country’s Independence Day celebrations after authorities warned of impending insurgent attacks.The extremely tight security prevented any attacks in the capital, but the government also cancelled public Independence Day celebrations for the first time in years. “The Taliban were able to stop the celebrations without even lifting a finger,” says Hamid Asir of the National Union of Journalists.