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Afghanistan: Battle Linked To Elections, New Taliban Tactics

(file photo) U.S. and Afghan officials say at least 40 Taliban fighters have been killed by air strikes since yesterday in the southern province of Kandahar. The air strikes targeted Taliban fighters who had seized districts of Kandahar and neighboring Helmand Province on 17 June. It is the latest in a series of battles in which the Taliban has employed tactics that differ from classic Afghan hit-and-run guerilla warfare. Afghan Trade Minister Amin Arsala, a top adviser to President Hamid Karzai, says the Taliban's new tactics are aimed at derailing September's parliamentary elections. He also says the tactics reflect desperation rather than a Taliban resurgence.

Prague, 22 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The surge in violence by Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan during the past three months has cost the militants dearly.

Afghan and U.S. officials now say that more than 300 suspected militants have been killed in clashes with U.S.-led coalition forces since the end of the cold season in March. In most cases, coalition forces have been able to call in airstrikes with devastating effect.

During the same period, 29 U.S. soldiers and about 40 Afghan government troops have been killed, along with about 100 Afghan civilians.

A battle that began yesterday in Kandahar Province is being described as the bloodiest fight in that area for months. U.S. officials say at least 40 Taliban fighters were killed by U.S. and Afghan government troops backed by warplanes. Afghan officials say the Taliban death toll could reach 60. Eight Afghan security officers were killed.

That battle follows a pattern seen since March in the neighboring southeastern provinces of Uruzgan and Zabul -- where U.S. and British air strikes also have killed scores of Taliban fighters.

In all of those cases, the Taliban concentrated fighters in an attempt to hold onto strategic positions. It is a dramatic shift from the classic Afghan guerilla hit-and-run tactics where a small group of fighters disperse in the mountains or among an urban population after a one-day battle.

Military experts say that by concentrating their numbers, the Taliban is allowing U.S. Special Forces on the ground to use laser-targeting technology to guide air strikes against them with deadly accuracy.

Paul Beaver, an independent defense analyst in London, says the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have been forced to use more conventional military tactics because of a well-tuned U.S. strategy that developed against Afghan guerilla techniques.

"I don't think [the Taliban] are desperate. I think that they are actually having to adjust their tactics to the tactics of NATO and the Western allies," Beaver said. "For the first time in Afghanistan, I do detect that the West is on the front foot. Not only in the north of the country around Mazar-e Sharif do we see pacification of the countryside. We see very large amounts of support for the Western way of doing things. There is a lot of issues out there still to be resolved. But there is an increase of military activity. And I think the Taliban is really on the back foot -- at the moment.”

"These are last attempts, basically, at trying to see as to whether [Taliban and Al-Qaeda] can destabilize Afghanistan." - Afghan minister
Afghan Trade Minister Amin Arsala, a top adviser to President Hamid Karzai, told RFE/RL today that the Taliban is trying to intimidate Afghan voters ahead of September parliamentary elections.

"In the case of why these activities are intensified on the part of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, let's face it," Arsala said. "They believe that Afghanistan is moving in a political direction that is totally different and that undermines their hopes of returning to power."

Arsala says the shift away from the kind of guerilla tactics used by mujahedin fighters against Soviet troops in the 1980s reflects desperation rather than the resurgence of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. "These are last attempts, basically, at trying to see as to whether they can destabilize Afghanistan," he said. "Of course, there are also some elements that may be unhappy -- whether they are internal elements or external elements -- about the close relationship that exists between the western powers and Afghanistan."

The U.S. military said the air strikes that began yesterday in Kandahar Province are part of a search-and-destroy operation code-named Catania that is focused on Taliban hideouts.

Afghan officials say those killed were part of a group that took over the district of Mian Nishin on 17 June, capturing 31 Afghan security officers. Eight of those seized were executed. The others were released on 20 June as Afghan government troops surrounded Mian Nishin.