1 October 2014

Taliban Insurgents in Afghanistan Becoming Increasingly Ambitious As US Troop Withdrawal Enters Final Phase

Declan Walsh and Fazl Muzhary
September 29, 2014
Taliban Press for Advantage as Politicians Work on Maneuvers in Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan security forces managed to defeat a weeklong Taliban assault on a strategic district in central Afghanistan, provincial officials said over the weekend, though the victory was tenuous and the toll was high. At least 64 people were killed, including some civilians who were beheaded by the insurgents, and a number of homes were torched.

The battle in Ghazni Province, 150 miles southwest of Kabul, ended on a brutal note, with the hanging of four Taliban fighters by angry villagers. But it marked the latest brash gambit from an increasingly ambitious insurgency that constitutes the central challenge to the country’s president-elect, Ashraf Ghani, who was scheduled to be inaugurated on Monday.

While a bitter electoral dispute consumed the attention of Afghanistan’s political leadership over the summer, the Taliban took advantage by pressing hard into vulnerable districts, often in areas that had been vacated by foreign troops.

Where the insurgents once attacked in small groups, now they massed in larger numbers, sometimes hundreds strong, in southern districts such as Sangin, a key node of the lucrative opium trade.

The assault in Ghazni occurred in the remote Ajristan district. Taliban fighters, reinforced from neighboring Oruzgan Province, swept into four villages, destroying police check posts and burning the houses of villagers suspected of sympathizing with the government, according to Mohammad Ali Ahmadi, the deputy governor of Ghazni.

The insurgents killed at least 40 police officers and members of the Afghan Local Police, a militia set up by American special forces officers, Mr. Ahmadi said. Then they torched the homes of militiamen and beheaded at least 12 of their relatives. Abdul Wahab, a resident speaking by satellite telephone, said the victims included a man in his 80s and three boys between the ages of 5 and 7.

By Friday morning, provincial officials in Ghazni city said they were afraid the district would fall into Taliban hands. Later in the day, though, a contingent of Afghan Army troops, backed by NATO air support, arrived and drove the insurgents out, Mr. Ahmadi said.

As the Taliban retreated, local villagers caught four fleeing insurgents and hanged them from a tree.

“They were hanged by the local people, who were angry because of the loss of their relatives,” he said.

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, denied that account in a telephone interview. He said all the people killed by the Taliban had been police officers, not civilians, and he insisted that the insurgents were still in control of two of the villages.

It was not possible to independently confirm either side’s version of events. Ajristan has no cellphone coverage, and the fighting over the past week virtually cut the area off from the provincial capital. The Taliban routinely deny any reports of atrocities by their fighters, hoping to avoid alienating civilians, while Afghan officials sometimes exaggerate the threat they face, hoping to obtain support from the overstretched government in Kabul.

Whatever its precise toll, the fighting in Ajristan has stoked tensions. The police in Ghazni city detained 65 residents of the district on Friday, including shopkeepers, business people and students. After they were released the next day, several said the police had beaten them.

Provincial officials also reported that masked fighters had been seen in the Andar district, in the eastern part of Ghazni, carrying black flags similar to those of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in Syria and Iraq. Several residents, speaking by telephone, said they could not confirm those reports.

Some of the heaviest fighting this summer took place in Sangin, where at least 200 Afghan soldiers and police officers were killed. Local elders again warned last week that the district was at risk of falling to the insurgents.

The Taliban have also attacked recently in Farah, Nuristan and Kunduz Provinces. “The Taliban are as big a problem as they have ever been,” said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “They cannot hold the district centers, but the security forces have to work harder to push them out.”

The new government, which is expected to be formed in the coming days, faces stark political challenges, too. Even as Mr. Ghani prepared on Sunday night for his inauguration, there were worrisome signs of strain with his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, with whom he reached a power-sharing deal last week.

Insurgents may aim to try to strike at Mr. Ghani more directly. As security was tightened in Kabul on Sunday, a magnetic bomb planted on a jeep belonging to a senior Afghan general exploded at a traffic junction, injuring the driver, who was alone in the vehicle.

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