As summer approaches in Afghanistan and the peak fighting season lies ahead, the 20,000-strong U.S. military is making increasing contact with the enemy. But the enemy is no longer limited to pockets of suspected al-Qaeda fugitives and their Taliban allies in the mountains near the Pakistan border. The insurrection now appears to be more widespread and aimed to topple the Kabul government and its supporters in the provinces. U.S. army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Tucker Mansager told a regular news briefing in Kabul on May 26 that “militant resistance” to U.S. troops in the south and east of the country is on the rise. “We have seen in the last four to six weeks an increase in general anti-coalition militia activity,” he said (Reuters, Kabul, May 26).
Mansager said the U.S. military does not believe that any single authority was coordinating these attacks. He was referring to recurring reports that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar are hiding in that region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. “We don’t see a higher authority directing or manipulating all these things. Overall, these are individual attacks or efforts, and not coordinated overall by one higher authority,” Mansager elaborated.
Mansager was briefing reporters on the latest clash in the Arghistan district of Kandahar province near the volatile province of Zabul. According to Mansager, a “firefight” erupted on the night of May 25 after a U.S.-led patrol came across a group of militants. The patrol then called in warplanes “for a show of force,” he said. When the overflying warplanes did not scare off the militants, “precision ordnance” was dropped on them. After that, the firefight ended, according to Mansager (AP, Kabul, May 26).
Initial reports claimed that as many as 20 Taliban were killed in the engagement and that there were no U.S. casualties. However, in a more detailed account from Kandahar by government spokesman Khalid Pashtun, only eight Taliban fighters were said to have been killed, including one local commander. While briefing journalists in Kandahar on May 26, Pashtun said that a group of about 60 Taliban was having lunch in Nazar Khil village in Arghistan district, about 100km east of Kandahar city, close to the Pakistan border. When the government received the information, troops were dispatched to the area. In the ensuing firefight, the eight Taliban were killed and two Afghan soldiers wounded. According to Pashtun, “a small group of coalition forces and aircraft” are supporting Afghan troops in the region. He added that U.S. warplanes had dropped “three bombs” in “a mountainous area” the evening before (Afghan Islamic Press, AIP, Peshawar, Pakistan, in Pashtu, May 26).
From the above media accounts, it appears that actual casualty figures and the real extent and severity of the fighting this summer will continue to be murky – just as it was in the mujahidin war against the Soviets in the 1980s. If, as widely suspected, the so-called Taliban fighters have bases across the border in Pakistan, ongoing border cooperation between U.S. forces in Afghanistan and their Pakistani counterparts must become more secure (see EDM, May 12). Relations have become strained. Pakistan recently accused U.S. forces of crossing the border in North Waziristan tribal agency on May 2 and May 20, presumably in pursuit of Taliban fighters. Later, the U.S. admitted that its forces did cross the border on May 2 but denied crossing it again on May 20.
A meeting of commanders at “brigadier or one-star general level” was held on May 27 at Alwara Mandi in North Waziristan. Coalition commanders at the meeting assured their Pakistani counterparts that recurrence of such incidents would be avoided. The meeting emphasized the need for better communication between lower-level commanders, as well as conducting additional local meetings at the border to improve coordination and understanding between the two sides (PakTribune.com, Rawalpindi, Pakistan, May 28).
On the other hand, there have been fewer publicized reports of incursions by Pakistani troops into Afghan territory. Pakistani troops reportedly crossed into Afghan territory on May 25 in the Gosari and Goshta regions of the eastern province of Nangarhar, clashing with Afghan troops. (Hindukosh News Agency, Kabul, May 26).
The Afghan-Pakistan border, called the “Durand Line,” after Sir Henry Mortimer Durand of British India who demarcated the border with Afghanistan in 1893, has sections over mountainous territory that have never been properly marked.