PRAGUE, March 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The battle began a few hours before dawn today at a forward operations base for coalition forces in the Helmand Province.
A statement from U.S.-led coalition forces says a "significant" number of guerrilla fighters attacked the walled compound in the province's northeastern Sangin District -- making it the biggest Taliban assault on foreign troops since last year.
Spring temperatures have opened up mountain passes along the Afghan-Pakistan border, making it easier for pro-Taliban militants to carry out attacks in southern Afghanistan and then seek shelter in Pakistan.
British Colonel Chris Vernon is the executive officer of the coalition's task force in southern Afghanistan. "A Canadian soldier was killed, an American soldier was killed, and five coalition soldiers were wounded -- [including four foreigners and one member of the Afghan National Army.]," he said.
Vernon says at least 12 Taliban fighters were killed in an initial counterattack when coalition troops called in air strikes against the enemy.
By mid-morning, after the Taliban assault was decimated by air strikes, the attackers fled the battlefield with coalition ground troops close behind. Another 20 suspected Taliban fighters were killed by coalition forces during the retreat.
A New Weapon?
Coalition spokesman Lieutenant Mike Cody says the Taliban attackers used rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles, and -- significantly -- mortar artillery.
While mortars are commonly used by insurgents against U.S. forces in Iraq, it is unusual for the weapon to be used by Taliban fighters. The use of mortars by the Taliban today strengthens claims by the U.S. military that pro-Taliban militants are getting equipment and training from insurgents in Iraq.
Ian Kemp, a London-based defense analyst, tells RFE/RL today that NATO's recent expansion into southern Afghanistan has forced the Taliban to announce an offensive and carry out such bold attacks.
"It's particularly important for the Taliban this year that they have declared they are launching a spring offensive," Kemp said.
"They are aware that there is going to be a build up of NATO forces [in southern Afghanistan]. NATO will be very keen to say that they will be taking control of the situation. So, for propaganda reasons, it is important [to the insurgents] that the Taliban declare an offensive and the Taliban [are] seen to be taking action."
But Kemp says the Taliban guerrilla offensive differs from a conventional military offensive. Quick hit-and-run attacks are the norm as opposed to conventional battles in which opposing forces are locked in combat for weeks at a time.
"This is not an offensive in the classic military sense," he said. "It does not necessarily involve hundreds or thousands of [Taliban] troops. A guerrilla offensive does not need a great number of people in order to cause damage. Every improvised explosive device, every bomb, every sniper attack is going to attract international attention -- particularly in those countries where the [foreign coalition] troops come from. The typical attacks that we've seen over the years [by Afghan guerrilla fighters] -- indeed going back to the war against the Soviets -- are rocket attacks against isolated stations, roadside bombs, and sniping."
While Kemp says the Taliban suffered a defeat in conventional terms, he says such attacks also are aimed at affecting public opinion in the countries that send troops to Afghanistan.
From that perspective, Kemp says the attack shows that the Taliban is not finished in Afghanistan -- and that pro-Taliban militants want to show that they can continue fighting for years.
"It's important for the Afghan security forces and the coalition forces to make it clear that they will be protected when they cooperate," he said. "It's equally important that the Taliban demonstrate that they still have the ability to retaliate so that they can deter ordinary Afghans from cooperating with the security forces. This will be another important message which they are trying to send through the [declaration] of a spring offensive. So the [announcement of a Taliban] spring offensive is very much a part of the [Taliban's reaction] to the 'hearts and minds' campaign [of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition.]"
Helmand is one of the provinces worst hit by militant violence in Afghanistan since the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001. Britain is in the midst of deploying more than 4,000 troops to Helmand as it spearheads a NATO force there attempting to take control of the volatile south.
Haji Muhaiuddin is a spokesman for Helmand's provincial governor. He says spring temperatures have opened up mountain passes along the Afghan-Pakistan border, making it easier for pro-Taliban militants to carry out attacks in southern Afghanistan and then seek shelter in Pakistan.
"It is true that Helmand is attacked every now and then. We have taken security measures to prevent this," he said. "Coalition forces are here and we have also asked for a brigade (eds.: 300 to 600 soldiers) from the Afghan National Army to be stationed here. Up until recently, we have had only police for security -- no other security forces -- and that is why the enemy was active here."
Helmand's Sangin District has been particularly volatile. The Afghan National Army's southern corps commander, General Rahmatullah Raufi, says six Afghan soldiers were killed there on March 29 by a roadside bomb that exploded as their vehicle passed by.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)
U.S. Marines operating in Helmand Province in 2002 (epa)
RULING A RESTIVE LAND: On February 12, RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Jawaid Wafa spoke briefly with Helmand Province Governor MOHAMMAD DAOUD about the ongoing violence in his restive region on the border with Pakistan.
RFE/RL: Recently, there have been many clashes and attacks by insurgents in Helmand Province. What in your view facilitates these attacks, especially in Helmand?
Mohammad Daoud: This province has a 160-kilometer border with Pakistan's Baluchistan Province. In reality, armed people, armed terrorists, from the other side of the border cross the border into Helmand. They carry out attacks and return back. It is a serious problem in Helmand that within our borders there is neither tribal good will, nor are there are special military or security measures to prevent enemies from crossing back and forth.
RFE/RL: The attacks and clashes have not only been between government forces and insurgents. There have been various clashes in different parts of Helmand between police and purported drug smugglers. How do you explain this?
Daoud: Drug smugglers also use the border for their own purposes. They have opened markets on the border and process opium there. This is a serious problem along our border. We are in touch with our authorities on this problem.
RFE/RL: There are government border police patrol your border. What is their role in preventing illegal crossings?
Daoud: Along this 160-kilometer border, there are car routes, walking routes. We have border police, but unfortunately, either because of their own problems or because of weak administration, they have not been able to stop the crossing.
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