Taliban Intensify Activity In Pashtun Provinces

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 17

Recent news reports from Afghanistan indicate that the Taliban are very active this spring. The Kabul government says that the Taliban goal is to disrupt the upcoming elections in September. Taliban resurgence is largely evident in the Pashtun-dominated provinces of southern and eastern Afghanistan. But the Taliban have now become confident enough to target the capital Kabul.

On May 23, three rocket-propelled grenades were fired at a four-vehicle Norwegian convoy in the eastern part of the capital. One grenade struck the lead vehicle, killing a soldier and slightly wounding another. It was the first fatality among the 231 Norwegians, who are part of the 6,400-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force from 35 nations known as the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF. (Reuters from Kabul, May 24).

Taliban spokesman Hamid Agha said in a signed statement distributed to news agencies, that its forces have been “advised” to take advantage of every opportunity “to target foreign forces and carry out suicide attacks.” In the past 12 months, 11 ISAF peacekeepers have been killed in attacks by suspected “Islamic militants” that include remnants of the former Taliban regime, al-Qaeda, and supporters of the former prime minister and mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In January, a British and a Canadian peacekeeper were killed; last June, four German peacekeepers were killed — all by suicide bombings.

The attack on the Norwegian peacekeepers is considered to be “a worrisome development,” because of similar tactics followed by insurgents in Iraq. The attack occurred on the Jalalabad road, lined on one side by houses hidden behind mud-walled compounds.

The Taliban are particularly active in the southeastern province of Zabul, where the southern district of Mizan reportedly fell to Taliban forces on 18 May (Afghan Islamic Press Agency or AIP, in Pashtu from Peshawar, Pakistan 19 May). AIP also carried a statement signed by Taliban spokesman Hamid Agha indicating that its forces have also captured the district of Warma in neighboring Paktika province. The statement also reported the killing of “five American soldiers and the wounding of 10 others.”

However, the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, broadcasting in Dari from Mashad on May 22, claimed that Afghan government forces have retaken Mizan district from the Taliban as of May 20.

In a related report by AIP on May 20, the Taliban told school officials to close schools in Shah Joi district in southern Zabul province starting on May 23 or their lives would be “in serious danger.” The head of the education department in Zabul said the Taliban appeared in person at Azamat College in Shah Joi district and told the officials — in front of students — that they should not visit schools or they would be decapitated. Previously, a number of school officials in Shah Joi have been abducted by the Taliban and later released.

An education department official said that he had conveyed the Taliban threat to the Ministry of Education in Kabul and was awaiting instructions. He also said that a group of 60 elders from Shah Joi district had visited the provincial capital Qalat to hold “peace talks” with the Taliban to solve the problem. However, he expressed doubts that the Taliban would back down.

The above local media accounts of Taliban activity in Afghanistan and the strength of their resurgence — ahead of the September elections — remind the author of past local media reporting of the Taliban and Northern alliance civil war in the late 1990s and the Afghan mujahideen war against the Soviet forces and their Kabul allies in the 1980s.

It is obvious that AIP is more receptive to Taliban accounts because it is a Pashtu service geared to Pashtuns. During the Taliban regime it became almost the voice of the regime. The Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran from Mashad was created by Iran to broadcast to Dari speakers who favor the Northern Alliance, which is currently holding the reigns of government in Kabul.

In any case, accounts from both sides reveal that the Taliban are active in the mountains, and by night have captured district headquarters as they did in Zabul. But in the daytime, fear of coalition aircraft attacks drives them to retreat to their mountain hideouts. Therefore, what the Taliban claims to capture at night can often be “recaptured” by government forces during the day. Such battlefield scenarios are reminiscent of the days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when mujahideen operated in the same manner, and often from bases across the border in the tribal territory of Pakistan. At that time, reports of dead Soviet soldiers were often exaggerated, similar to the way deaths of American soldiers are now being reported.

Therefore, for one who has followed events in Afghanistan through the 1980s until now, it is clear that the accuracy of political news from Afghanistan cannot be taken at face value. The motives of the political party or ethnic group behind the news must be clearly known.