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Afghanistan Report: January 26, 2007

Kabul Sharing Intelligence With Pakistan, NATO

By Ahto Lobjakas

Afghan soldiers in Paktika Province in October (file photo)

KABUL, January 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The NATO-led force International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Afghanistan, and Pakistan have set up a joint intelligence-sharing center at ISAF headquarters in Kabul. NATO officials said they expect the new center to coordinate the fight against insurgents coming from Pakistan into Afghanistan without tackling the highly charged questions of where the border lies or how it should be secured.

The new intelligence-sharing body represents a breakthrough in the difficult relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Detailed Operations And Intelligence

Brigadier General Richard Nugee, the chief ISAF spokesman, said in Kabul today that this is the first time that the Afghan and Pakistani armies -- together with their NATO allies -- will be sharing tactical intelligence on a continuous basis.

One NATO source told RFE/RL that instead of fencing or mining the border, Pakistan appears increasingly more likely to opt for installing sophisticated monitoring systems along its border with Afghanistan.

"In very broad terms, this center is looking at detailed operations and intelligence and therefore is [working] on day-to-day tactical -- what we call tactical issues -- low-level issues to ensure that the coordination between the Pakistan army, the Afghan army, and ISAF is as close as possible," Nugee said.

Nugee said the center, to comprise between 15-20 intelligence officers from the two countries and ISAF, has already begun its work. Its formal inauguration ceremony will take place on January 25.

Nugee said the creation of the new body was decided at the last meeting of a tripartite council that brings together the senior commanders from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and ISAF every two months.

He said the newly created Joint Intelligence Operations Center (JIOC) will not make policy, but instead execute policies already agreed to by the tripartite council.

Fence And Mine The Border?

Nugee said the JIOC will not discuss issues such as Pakistan's reputed plans to fence and/or mine parts of the border.

The border remains an extremely sensitive issue between the two countries. Although Kabul wants Pakistan to take measures to curb the movement of Taliban insurgents across the border into Afghanistan, it objects to Islamabad's reported plans to fence and mine parts of it.

NATO officials in Kabul say this position tallies with Afghanistan's long-standing policy of nonrecognition of the so-called Durand Line, drawn in 1893 to separate Afghanistan from what was then British India. Since 1947 the Durand Line has formed the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan, though Kabul argues it was forced into the 1893 agreement under duress and says the border should be renegotiated. Pakistan rejects that idea.

Nugee said today that NATO believes no fencing of the border has taken place yet. He said the tripartite meeting in Islamabad earlier this week did not discuss the border, but did involve talks about closer cooperation between the militaries "to make sure that we understand what's going on either side of the border."

One senior NATO officer said today that Kabul fears any fencing of the border by Pakistan would "cement" the Durand Line. Another official noted privately that the route of the Durand Line itself is a source of bitter dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The placement of the line can vary by a number of kilometers in the two sides' interpretations.

Cross-Border Insurgents

Mark Laity, a senior NATO spokesman in Kabul, told RFE/RL today that Afghanistan and Pakistan need to come to a political agreement over the border before it can be effectively secured.

"[Pakistani] President [Pervez] Musharraf has acknowledged quite openly that the Taliban operate from Pakistan; he has acknowledged quite openly that he's concerned about 'Talibanization' within Pakistan, that it will be a threat to Pakistan itself," Laity said. "So, everybody recognizes that the border is a problem. Everybody recognizes that there is a problem within Pakistan. The issue is what you do about it. And that in itself is something [that is not going to require aggressive military actions,] it requires a political solution, and that's why we have the tripartite council."

Laity said Afghanistan, Pakistan, and NATO will need to work together to "solve the problems that emanate from the border areas."

NATO officials say they have no information about which parts of its 2,500-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan that Pakistan might want to fence.

NATO: No Support For Mining Border

One NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicated that any moves to secure the border will need to focus on traffic from the Pakistani regions of Quetta, Peshawar, and Miranshah, where the Taliban is particularly strong.

NATO spokesman Laity said today that any plans to fence or mine the border must be "properly discussed."

He also indicated NATO will not support any moves to mine the border. "With regard to mining in particular, NATO looks upon the issue of mining with deep concern and strong reservations," he said.

One NATO source told RFE/RL that instead of fencing or mining the border, Pakistan appears increasingly more likely to opt for installing sophisticated monitoring systems along its border with Afghanistan.

NATO Downplays 'Conventional' Threat In South

By Ahto Lobjakas

An Italian ISAF soldier outside a school in Kabul (file photo)

KANDAHAR/KABUL, January 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- NATO-led forces in south and central Afghanistan say that despite fears of increased violence, Taliban militants are in no position to mount conventional attacks in large groups.

Officials with NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) based in Kandahar and Kabul credit counterinsurgency offensives in late 2006 for curbing Taliban activities -- and options. They predict insurgent attacks are likely to be limited primarily to dispersed tactics like suicide bombings, improvised roadside explosives, and intimidation.

NATO now says that in the movement's heartland around Kandahar, the nature of that threat has been irreversibly changed.

Squadron Leader Dave Marsh, the spokesman for ISAF's Regional Command South, based at the Kandahar airfield, told RFE/RL on January 22 that ISAF operations in September and December -- known as Medusa and Baaz Tsuka, respectively -- have eliminated the Taliban as a "conventional threat" -- that is, a force capable of carrying out large-scale military operations.

"What we've moved on from, from September to now, is from is a conventional threat that's been destroyed down to an insurgency where [insurgents] must target weak points," Marsh said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently at NATO headquarters in Brussels that Taliban attacks in 2007 are likely to be worse than 2006. That warning was repeated on January 22 by the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neuman.

ISAF's 'Spring' Campaign

ISAF spokesman Marsh predicted that the seasonal spring campaign by the Taliban could be severely hamstrung this year.

"Traditionally, everyone talks about a spring campaign for the Taliban," Marsh said. "But in actual fact, the spring campaign for ISAF has already started; and it started in winter, and it is to disrupt the Taliban before they can get ready for anything they wish to do. And you can see that quite clearly because of the way they were cleared out of the Zari [and] Panjwayi districts, where they were massing to try to attack Kandahar."

Marsh said that when ISAF forces deployed into the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, they found that the Taliban had massed "hundreds of troops" in the area. He said those troops represented a conventional threat, of which ISAF disposed "quite quickly" during Operation Medusa, reportedly killing between 500 and 1,200 Taliban.

Most of the fighting took place in the Zari and Panjway districts, south of Kandahar on either side of the Arghandab River. Marsh says the area has historically been a vital bridgehead for forces wishing to win control over Kandahar.

Operation Medusa was followed in December by Operation Baaz Tsuka. Marsh said that British, U.S., Canadian, Dutch, Australian, Romanian, Danish, and Estonian troops conducted a mopping-up campaign. That operation followed extensive attempts by ISAF to communicate with local community leaders. He said ISAF also dropped leaflets urging the militants to abandon their positions.

'No Conventional Threat'

At ISAF headquarters in Kabul, Colonel Jo Voncken, who heads the organization's civil-military outreach project, told RFE/RL on January 22 that NATO views the earlier Operation Medusa as, at best, a partial success.

"But what went wrong after [Operation Medusa] was that, especially the [Afghan National Army, or ANA] did not have enough security forces to secure that complete area," Voncken said. "So, what happened after Operation Medusa [was that] a lot of insurgents again came in[to] the area, and again were a threat to Kandahar city itself. So, Operation Baaz Tsuka, you could say, was -- the purpose of the operation, not the execution -- the purpose of the operation was the same as [that of] Operation Medusa, to clear that area of insurgency."

Voncken also said he believes the Taliban now represent no conventional threat.

A NATO officer at Kandahar, who asked not to be named, said ISAF will operate bases comprising 30-60 men in the Zari and Panjway districts to reinforce the Afghan National Army presence there. ISAF will also provide the Afghan army with the means of communication to request urgent backup action.

NATO commanders on the ground said that Afghan Army troops fight far better when alongside Western forces than when alone; they also tend to lack body armor and helmets.

Marsh said ISAF is now focusing on taking out key Taliban leaders to disrupt the insurgency's command-and-control chain. He said that precision bomb strikes against Taliban leaders in 2006 have now been replaced by arrests conducted by mostly British special forces.

Who Are The Insurgents?

Marsh said ISAF commanders think that committed Taliban fighters make up only a small portion of the insurgency and that the rest are mostly "hired hands." He said ISAF wanted to target the two groups with different measures.

"What we actually want to do is to break what we call the 'Tier-1 Taliban' away from the 'Tier-2 [Taliban]' -- and 'Tier 1,' we define those as being committed as being cause, and the 'Tier 2' are the hired help," Marsh said. "So [Tier 2] can be the local people, they can be people brought in from outside; we tend to find that they are people usually with some debts that need paying, and the Taliban pay quite well."

Marsh said ISAF hoped that, deprived of their leaders, Tier-2 fighters would return to their farms and jobs.

NATO officials at Kandahar told RFE/RL that the Taliban enjoyed a major wage advantage over the Afghan Army and other Afghan security forces. It can afford to pay insurgents $8-$10 a day, amounting to about $150 a month. The Afghan Army and police can manage just $60, and their payments are often late and subject to arbitrary deductions by commanders.

Marsh and other NATO commanders said there was evidence local communities around Kandahar were beginning to reject the Taliban. Marsh said "people are now turning around saying, 'We don't want you here.'" He said there were many different, local reasons for this.

Part of the reason may be a resettlement campaign of refugees from Operation Medusa overseen personally by the governor of Kandahar Province with the aid of ISAF.

Refugee Returns

Voncken said that one-quarter of the total of 90,000 refugees have returned to their homes.

"The latest news is that now, at this moment, almost 5,000 families -- and each family has five persons, that is the measure we have -- almost 25,000 people of these 90,000 people are already back [in] their villages," Voncken said.

Both Marsh and Voncken noted the importance of the Taliban's hinterland in Pakistan if ISAF's hopes for the removal of the conventional threat were to materialize.

Marsh pointed to local talks currently under way between communities on both sides of the border.

Voncken said that in a potentially important move, ISAF would open a joint "intelligence operations center" on January 24.

That center will comprise four to five officers each from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and ISAF, allowing for the first time for direct contacts among all sides.

Captured Taliban Fuels Islamabad-Kabul Fire

An undated photo of "Mohammad Hanif"

January 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A captured Taliban spokesman, known as Mohammad Hanif, has claimed that the leader of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime is living in Pakistan under the protection of that country's intelligence service.

Pakistani officials quickly rejected the claims about Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and the questioned the circumstances of its disclosure.

Whether or not these and other allegations by Hanif prove true, they have highlighted tensions between Islamabad and Kabul.

Afghan authorities say they have identified the Taliban spokesman, known to journalists as Mohammad Hanif or "Dr. Hanif," as Abdul Hagh Haji Gulroz. They say he is a 26-year-old Afghan national from Nangarhar Province, which abuts Pakistan.

Quick Disclosure

Video snippets of his interrogation emerged on January 17, one day after he was reported captured when he crossed the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

Afghan authorities say Hanif told them that insurgents are being trained in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, which lies in tribal areas on the traditional route between Kabul and Islamabad.

In the video, Hanif is wearing a gray sweater and sitting in a dimly lit room. He is speaking in a soft voice.

He claims, among other things, that Mullah Omar lives in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta and is being protected by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Hanif makes another, potentially even more inflammatory claim, saying a former head of Pakistani intelligence -- former ISI Director General Hamid Gul -- organizes and trains Taliban fighters to carry out terrorist missions inside Afghanistan.

Afghan authorities say Hanif told them that insurgents are being trained in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, which lies in tribal areas on the traditional route between Kabul and Islamabad.

"In his confessions, [Hanif] mentioned a main training center for suicide bombers -- and that is the Hashemieh madrasah in Pakistan's Peshawar," Saeed Ansari, a spokesman for Afghan Intelligence Department, told reporters on January 17. "He said that [misleading] videotapes are shown to young people there. In that school, young people are being brainwashed so that they get involved in suicide missions and fight against the government of Afghanistan and coalition forces."

'All Lies'

Pakistani officials have rejected each of those allegations as "absurd and ridiculous." They counter that the claims appear to have been made "under coercion." They also say Afghan authorities should provide more information about the circumstances of the arrest.

Suspected Taliban militants arrested in Quetta, Pakistan, in September 2006 (epa)

Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao on January 18 called the allegation "baseless," saying that Pakistani authorities do not know the location of Mullah Omar.

Sherpao told AP that Afghan intelligence officials have issued contradictory statements since the arrest of Hanif -- whom he described as "the so-called Taliban spokesman." Sherpao stressed that Pakistani officials "don't know who this person [in the video] is or where we was arrested."

Gul, the former head of Pakistan's ISI, told RFE/RL today that the claims were untrue.

"These are all lies," Gul said. "It is to defame Pakistan. It is clear from [Afghan officials'] intentions. It shows what they want for the future of Pakistan."

Caught Near Border

Afghan authorities announced that Hanif was captured along with two traveling companions on January 15 after crossing the border from Pakistan.

The announcement came as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Afghanistan to talk with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about ways to stop resurgent militants, who generally launch spring offensives once the heavy snows have melted.

The bloody insurgency mounted a record number of attacks in 2006 that left hundreds of people dead.

Gates has warned that the threat posed by Taliban insurgents could increase in 2007.

Afghan officials have repeatedly accused Pakistan of doing too little to stop insurgents from crossing the border, and of failing to close down terrorist sanctuaries. They say insurgents have found a haven on the Pakistani side of the border.

During his visit to Kabul, Gates described Pakistan as an "extraordinarily strong ally" of the United Sates. But he noted that militant attacks across the border are increasing.

"Pakistan has been an extraordinarily strong ally of the United State in the war on terror," Gates said. "And the border area is a problem, that there are more attacks coming across the border, that there are Al-Qaeda networks operating on the Pakistani side of the border, and these are issues that we clearly will have to pursue with the Pakistani government."

Observers say the apparent arrest of the Taliban spokesman -- and his claims of Pakistani support for the insurgency -- could further strain relations with Afghanistan.

Replacement Announced

Hanif had used e-mails and telephone calls to provide the media with information about Taliban activities since 2005.

He was said to have been appointed Taliban spokesman in 2005, following the arrest of chief Taliban spokesman Latifullah Hakimi. Hakimi was arrested in the southwestern city of Quetta in Pakistan, where Hanif now says Mullah Omar is living under the protection of the ISI.

News agencies report that another purported Taliban spokesman, known as Qari Yousef Ahmadi, has already confirmed Hanif's arrest. He reportedly said the Taliban's "leadership council" has already appointed a new spokesman, Zadiollah Mujahid.

Major Battle Reignites Pakistan Border Controversy

By Ron Synovitz

U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan earlier this year (file photo)

January 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan saw its bloodiest battle in months overnight when NATO and Afghan troops spotted two groups of militants mainly within Pakistan and then tracked them as they crossed into Afghanistan's southeastern Paktika Province.

The NATO alliance says as many as 150 insurgents were killed during an overnight battle in southeastern Afghanistan after the insurgents crossed into the country from neighboring Pakistan.

Infiltration From Pakistan

NATO spokesman Major Dominic Whyte told RFE/RL that both NATO and Afghan government troops witnessed two groups of militants concentrating inside of Pakistan. He says the militants were tracked from the air and by ground forces as they crossed the border into the Bermel district of Afghanistan's Paktika Province.

"It's very unusual to have had so many insurgents gather into one place on the other side of the border and then to cross over. So one assumes that they had commanders."

"It's very unusual to have had so many insurgents gather into one place on the other side of the border and then to cross over. So one assumes that they had commanders.""Initial battle damage estimates indicate that as many as 150 insurgents were killed," he said. "The insurgents were observed congregating together in a large number in several trucks and they were armed and appeared to be gathering for a potential attack. The insurgents had been observed gathering in Pakistan itself and, indeed, had actually crossed the border [into Afghanistan.]"

Whyte says both NATO and Afghan troops were involved in what he described as a "series of running battles."

"The air strikes were conducted by fixed-wing aircraft who were brought onto target by ground forces," he said. "We also employed artillery to target the insurgents."

Islamabad Informed

The Afghan Defense Ministry issued a more conservative estimate on casualties, saying about 80 militants are thought to have been killed. Television footage from the battlefield showed the bodies of dozens of young men gathered together in one location.

NATO says Pakistani military liaison officers were kept fully informed during the operation. Whyte says it appears highly unlikely that any of the dead are civilians.

"The combination of using footage from the fixed-wing aircraft and the troops on the ground provides us with a fairly wide-ranging picture of what happened both before the operation and after it," he said. "There will, obviously, be follow-up operations of troops moving through those areas to provide a final confirmation of the initial estimates. The incident itself took place in a very remote and mountainous part of the country -- sparsely populated -- and our initial estimates include only casualties to the insurgents themselves."

Afghan anger about the infiltration of Taliban militants from Pakistan has damaged relations between Kabul and Islamabad.

Pakistan had repeatedly assured Afghanistan it would take action to stop cross-border infiltrations. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month leveled his strongest criticism at Pakistan over the issue -- openly accusing state elements in Pakistan of supporting the insurgents.

Proof For Pakistani Government?

Islamabad rejects allegations that Taliban leaders are using Pakistan as a base of operations. Pakistan has said in the past that such reports are "unsubstantiated" and that forces operating within Afghanistan should do more to curb the insurgents there.

The NATO spokesman says the latest battle strongly suggests that Taliban leaders are sheltering within Pakistan, though it is not absolute proof.

"It's very unusual to have had so many insurgents gather into one place on the other side of the border and then to cross over," he said. "So one assumes that they had commanders. But at the moment, we have no idea whether there was any particular high-level [coordination or assistance]. The fact is that they came over the border, they were attacked, and a very high level of casualties [were] inflicted."

Some observers say NATO's aerial footage of the incident could lead to increased pressure on Pakistan to stop cross-border incursions.

U.S. Official To Pakistan

Richard Boucher, assistant U.S. secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, is due to travel to Pakistan for talks that he expects to include Pakistan's plan to fence and lay mines on parts of the border to stop infiltration.

Kabul opposes the plan, saying fences and mines would unfairly divide ethnic Pashtun communities that straddle both sides of the border -- which is a British colonial-era demarcation that Kabul does not recognize.

Boucher said in Kabul today that questions remain about what more can be done. "The issue to us is control of the border and control of the border area," he said.

Boucher said Washington thinks Islamabad is genuinely committed to battling militancy within Pakistan.

But UN officials have said in recent days that Pakistan needs to take more action against leaders of the Taliban who are on Pakistani territory.