Officials Say Operation Cleared Villages Of TalibanAfghan officials say that hundreds of Taliban have been killed and wounded in a military operation to clear insurgents from a valley northwest of Kandahar city.
The joint operation by the Afghan National Army and NATO, launched on June 18, targeted some 650 Taliban fighters who had infiltrated the Arghandab district, an area of farms and orchards that offered good cover.
The Taliban are believed to have massed there following a successful insurgent attack on the main Kandahar prison on June 13, in which 900 inmates, including some 400 Taliban fighters, were freed.
The governor of Kandahar Province, Assadullah Khalid, told reporters that the NATO and Afghan troops "managed to drive out the enemy and clear all the villages in Arghandab district." "The Taliban received hundreds of casualties, killed and wounded. They also left behind many heavy and light weapons in the area," Khalid added.
But NATO officers have been more cautious in their assessment so far of the joint operation to drive the Taliban militants out of the district. Western news agencies quoted NATO officers as saying that they cannot yet confirm that Arghanabad district is free of militants.
AP quoted NATO spokesman Mark Laity as saying the coalition launched a “limited number of successful air strikes” overnight. “We don’t have a definitive assessment, though casualties were inflicted,” he siad.
Some 800 Afghan government troops, backed by hundreds of mainly Canadian soldiers, are involved in the operation. The battle has been one of the biggest in Afghanistan in recent years.
The scale of the fighting, like the prison break, is another indication of the Taliban's comeback in southern Afghanistan in recent years. They are particularly strong in areas near the Afghan-Pakistani border, and have established bases and secured support across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Villagers who have fled the fighting in Arghandab district say that many of the Taliban involved are wearing the type of clothing and “pakol” hats favored by Pashtuns living in Pakistan’s tribal regions. By contrast, local Taliban favor turbans.
The fighting comes as tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are running particularly high in response to the cross-border Taliban operations.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has warned Taliban leaders in Pakistan that Afghan forces could respond by pursuing Taliban leaders into Pakistan. Islamabad has warned Kabul not to violate Pakistan’s sovereignty.
NATO, Afghan Troops Attack Villages Following Prison BreakAfghan and NATO forces have launched a military operation against Taliban fighters who fled to villages and farmland north of Kandahar following a massive escape from a Kandahar prison on June 13.
The escapees appear to have been reinforced by militants who are infiltrating the area using canals, trees, and vineyards as cover.
The militants are thought to have concentrated in several villages of the Arghandab district, north of Kandahar city. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar's provincial council and the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that at least one-third of the militants have come from other countries.
"According to credible sources, if you look at all of the 500 or 600 Taliban fighters in this battle, about [one-third] are foreigners," Karzai said. "They are not from Afghanistan. They are from different places -- Arabs, Chechens, Chinese, and people from [Pakistan's] tribal regions of [North or South] Waziristan."
The brother of the Afghan president says the Taliban fighters are thought to include some of the hundreds of suspected Taliban who escaped from a prison in Kandahar on June 13 with the help of a bold attack by militants.
General Carlos Branko, a spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan, told Radio Free Afghanistan on June 18 about the unfolding battle in the area.
"This operation in Arghandab [district] that commenced this morning is part of an overall operation in Kandahar Province," Branko said. "The Afghans are in the lead and supported by [troops from ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force]. This is very important because the Afghan National Army is demonstrating a high capability to conduct and to lead operations. So far, we have not seen large numbers of insurgents. There is only minor contact. But this does not mean there are no insurgents present."
Dawa Khan Minapal, a Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent in Kandahar Province, traveled to a government checkpoint to the north of the city of Kandahar that is on the edge of the battle zone. He described a battle scene in the Arghandab Valley on June 18 in which NATO aircraft searched for Taliban fighters.
"NATO helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft have been flying over the area all morning," Minapal said. "I can hear the sound of heavy weapons firing and the sound of machine guns in the distance. Villagers are still fleeing the fighting, trying to evacuate the area. They were warned in the previous days to evacuate. As the helicopters and fighter jets fly over, I can see two targets that they have been bombing. And I hear the sound of heavy explosions in the area."
Minapal says Afghan and NATO ground troops have set up blocking positions and are moving cautiously toward a series of villages where the Taliban are thought to have fortified themselves.
Destroyed Bridges, Planted Mines
The Arghandab district is divided into northern and southern areas by the Arghandab River. Minapal said the Taliban are now positioned to the south of the river, while government and coalition forces are on the north side. He said the Taliban have destroyed small bridges over irrigation canals in the area and have been planting land mines.
Taliban fighters are thought to be moving into the Arghandab Valley from the Panjwai and Khakrez districts, which are famous as Taliban strongholds, Minapal said. There also is a large hydroelectric dam on the river -- the Arghandab Dam -- that provides electricity to residents in the area. He said the vegetation in the valley and the irrigation canals provide cover for guerrilla fighters, making it easier for Taliban fighters to move in from other districts.
Some 400 Taliban prisoners escaped from a jail in Kandahar on June 13 with the help of a bold attack by militants outside of the facility.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar's provincial council and the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told RFE/RL that many of the besieged Taliban fighters are thought to be escaped prisoners. But he says they also have received reinforcements from other militants.
Villagers who have fled areas now under Taliban control say many of the Taliban reinforcements appear to be from Pakistan's tribal regions because they are wearing clothes and "pakol" hats from that region instead of the turbans worn by local Taliban.
There were no immediate reports on casualties among Afghan and NATO troops in the battle. But Afghan officials claim they killed 16 to 25 Taliban fighters during their initial strikes on June 18.
Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Freshta Jalalazai contributed to this report from Prague
Karzai's Retaliation Threat Inflames Relations With Pakistan
In the past, Karzai has complained that Pakistani security forces have turned a blind eye to the Taliban's cross-border attacks, allowing them to strike and then flee back to safe havens in Pakistani territory.
But on June 15, Karzai raised his criticism to a new level. He accused Pakistani forces of supporting Taliban leaders in the tribal regions, and threatened to send Afghan troops across the border to kill extremist leaders.
"Afghanistan has the right of self-defense," Karzai said. "When they cross the territory from Pakistan to come and kill Afghans and to kill coalition troops, it exactly gives us the right to go back and do the same."
Karzai stressed that he was not threatening to invade Pakistan, saying instead that limited incursions were needed to kill specific Taliban leaders. Nevertheless, the threat angered Pakistan's new government, which summoned the Afghan ambassador to issue a formal complaint.
But U.S. President George W. Bush, asked on June 16 whether he supported Karzai's threat, made no reference to Islamabad's concerns about its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Instead, Bush urged Pakistan to work more closely with Afghan and U.S. forces in the fight against terrorism.
"Our strategy is to deny safe haven to extremists who would do harm to innocent people, and that's the strategy of Afghanistan," Bush said. "And it needs to be the strategy of Pakistan. It's in all of our interests to prevent those who murder innocent people to achieve political objectives to gain safe haven."
Bush’s comments come as relations between U.S. and Pakistani security forces appear to be at a new low. Last week, a U.S. air strike killed 11 Pakistani soldiers within Pakistani territory. The Pentagon says it targeted a group who had attacked U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and then fled back to Pakistan.
U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan have complained for years about the trustworthiness of Pakistani security forces, telling RFE/RL and other international news organizations that informing Pakistan in advance about border operations against the Taliban meant risking the lives of U.S. troops.
Washington's growing distrust was highlighted last week by the release of a Pentagon-funded study by RAND Corporation. That study concludes that individuals in Pakistan's Frontier Corps and intelligence services support the Taliban by providing them with intelligence about the movements of coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and prominent author who is critical of the international approach in Afghanistan, tells RFE/RL that Washington has become frustrated with Pakistan's military.
"There is a very massive breakdown between the U.S. and the Pakistani military. I think talks between these two have failed," Rashid says. "Whatever the details are of this clash [and air strike], we really don't know what happened. There are many versions. But I think the real issue was that the Americans are clearly sending a very tough message to the Pakistanis."
Backing From Washington?
Analysts agree that without U.S. military support, Afghan forces would have little chance of success in a battle within Pakistan's tribal agencies. But it's unclear if Washington is willing to provide that support. James Phillips, a research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, believes Karzai’s threat does not have Washington’s backing.
"There is growing impatience in Washington with the new Pakistani government's cautious negotiations with radicals -- with the militants. But I don't see President Karzai's statement as indicating that there is backing in Washington for such a cross-border incursion," Phillips says. "President Karzai has his eye more on Afghan domestic politics. He knows that many Afghans see the Taliban as the cat's paw of Pakistan -- specifically of Pakistani intelligence. So it's popular [for Karzai] to threaten retaliation for the cross-border raids" by the Taliban, but that does not necessarily indicates that there is U.S. support for Karzai's threat, Phillips said.
Since he made the statement, Karzai has garnered considerable support among Afghans who blame Pakistan's policies for instability within Afghanistan.
There have been rallies in support of Karzai in the southeastern provinces of Paktia and Paktika as well as the western province of Herat. In the southern insurgency-plagued province of Helmand, and the northern province of Baghlan, similar gatherings have expressed support for the president.
Atta Mohammad Nur, the governor of the northern province of Balkh, said that he supports Karzai's incursion threat and that Afghans from the north are prepared to "make sacrifices" to protect the sovereignty of Afghanistan.
In Kabul, analyst Rashid Waziri tells RFE/RL that Pakistani interference in Afghan affairs is equivalent to a declaration of war. Waziri says a massive escape by Taliban prisoners on June 13 in Kandahar forced Karzai to issue a forceful warning.
"We have the right to strike our enemies inside Pakistan or its tribal territories," Waziri says. "The Turkish government gave itself the right to bomb and target Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and to eliminate their bases. So this is an international right. And everybody can benefit from it."
But in Pakistan, such reactions are treated with suspicion. Mehmood Shah, a retired Pakistani brigadier general who formerly headed security affairs in the tribal regions, tells RFE/RL from Peshawar that Karzai's threat is provocative and violates international law.
Shah also argues that Karzai's statements, and the reactions from the Bush administration, could indicate U.S. plans to expand operations into Pakistan's tribal areas.
Shah warns that cross-border attacks by Afghan troops would undermine the global war against terrorism, and spread instability throughout the region. He also maintains that the current democratically elected coalition government in Pakistan may be too weak to formulate a comprehensive policy toward Afghanistan.
"In Pakistan, the government needs a comprehensive [anti-terror] strategy," Shah says. "This strategy needs to aim at establishing the government's authority over the tribal territories. This policy should be debated in the parliament and the Pakistani military. The ISI [intelligence service] and civilian administration need to implement such a policy wholeheartedly."
Zahid Khan is a spokesman in Peshawar for the secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, which leads the provincial government in the Northwest Frontier Province. He says that as long as there are elements in Pakistan threatening and endangering the security of neighbors, Islamabad should be ready to face retaliation.
Khan maintains that the two peace deals the provincial government concluded with pro-Taliban militants in the Swat region have been effective. But he says the provincial government has been denied any role in the more significant peace deals the military was negotiating with Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud and other Taliban commanders across the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
"As long as there is no peace in Afghanistan, there will be no peace in [Pakistan’s] tribal areas," Khan says. In turn, if there is no peace in the tribal areas, instability throughout Pakistan and the region will follow, he says.
Khan adds that it was necessary for all sides to negotiate a peaceful settlement, and called on the Taliban to renounce violence and participate peacefully in politics. After a negotiated political settlement, "everybody should have the freedom to campaign for their ideology and ask for people’s votes. But using violence for strong-arming a country into accepting a political solution is wrong. This will only result in more innocent bloodshed," Khan says.
Bush has said the United States can help calm tensions between Islamabad and Kabul by developing a common strategy to eliminate safe havens for militants in the tribal regions -- and by working together to prevent Taliban fighters from moving freely across the border.
Bush also has suggested restarting talks between Afghan and Pakistani tribal leaders on both sides of the border. He said those talks should be conducted under the auspices of a cross-border Jirga -- a council of tribal elders -- similar to one that brought together Pashtun tribal leaders from both sides of the border in 2006. Pakistani Taliban leaders were not part of those talks.
But while such statements belie a desire for a political solution, the situation on the ground is likely to determine any future course of action. Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military commander, for now has ruled out U.S. military action in the tribal areas. Nevertheless, Mullen underscored the threat in Pakistan’s tribal areas in an interview with the “Los Angeles Times” on June 11, saying any future terrorist attack on U.S. soil is likely to originate there.
Many 'Important' Taliban Among Hundreds Of Prison EscapeesHundreds of prisoners have escaped from a jail in southern Afghanistan, including many "important" Taliban militants, after their accomplices blasted open the prison gate in an overnight attack in Kandahar.
A state of emergency has been declared in the province, and police and troops are on the streets with all residents ordered to stay in their homes.
Kandahar Provincial Council head Ahmed Wali Karzai told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that 800-900 inmates of Sarposa prison are now on the run in the volatile province, which was a traditional Taliban stronghold.
"No one knows the number exactly, but there were around 390 Taliban prisoners in that prison and around 600 or 700 more [who] were criminal prisoners. Two hundred prisoners are still here in the prison -- the rest of them escaped," said Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brother.
He said many of the escaped Taliban were high-ranking field commanders who "were organizing suicide attacks." He ran off a list of names that included Mullah Kayom, Mullah Gulbari, Mullah Kayom, Khaled Agha, and "some others who were extremely important."
"They were important because they were able to do most of the assassinations, the killings of government officials and suicide attacks and these types of activities," he said of the escapees.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yusof Ahmadi, confirmed that its fighters were behind the commando-style attack, carried out by at least one suicide bomber and other militants using small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Afghan Deputy Justice Minister Mohammad Qasim Hashimzai said that NATO-led "ISAF forces [and] government security department officials are now checking the roads around Kandahar" and inspecting vehicles "to see if they can capture inmates [trying] to leave the city."
At least 15 security guards were reported killed in the assault. Hashimzai said that around 10 p.m. "a suicide bomber, together with a truckload of ammunition and explosives," destroyed the prison gate before rockets were fired to demolish the top floor of one of the prison blocks to "open the way for the inmates to manage to escape."
"I was in my shop [when] suddenly I heard a huge bang and I was so afraid -- all the windows of my shop broke," shopkeeper Abdul Sattar said. "Some 20 minutes later, I came out of my shop and saw armed men and prisoners running toward the villages and orchards. When I came back in the morning, I saw that the prisoners had escaped and our shops were destroyed."
Deputy Justice Minister Hashimzai said that, as a precaution, the prison's chief official, Abdul Qabir, is under investigation for possible involvement.
Karzai suggested that the breakout is a major security breach that will be of great concern to the Afghan central government and security forces. "People in Kandahar are used to this type of things, but it's a big blow to the security forces," he said. "It was a huge success for the Taliban."
Kandahar Province is one of the key battlegrounds in the Taliban's insurgency against President Hamid Karzai as well as Afghan and foreign troops.
In May, hundreds of inmates at Kandahar jail ended a weeklong hunger strike after a parliamentary delegation promised to address their demands. They were demanding fair trials and complained of torture by prison authorities.
A group of Taliban prisoners briefly took control of a block in Pol-e Charkhi prison in Kabul in 2006 before it was recaptured by security personnel. Several inmates and security personnel were wounded in the armed encounter.
In 2005, four foreign Al-Qaeda members escaped from a high-security prison at Bagram airfield, Afghanistan's main U.S. military base, north of Kabul.
with additional Reuters reporting
Kabul Surprised, Pleased With Aid PledgesSome $21 billion in aid pledges were made for Afghanistan at an international donors' conference this week in Paris. RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Breshna Nazari, who covered the conference, discusses the significance of the event and the reaction of Afghan officials to the aid pledges and the concerns that were raised in the French capital.
RFE/RL: What does the Paris donors' conference mean for Afghanistan, and why is this such an important event for Afghanistan?
Breshna Nazari: Afghanistan's National Development Strategy needs the full support from the international community. I think it is very important for the reconstruction and development of everything in Afghanistan -- like education, like public health, like security, the situation for women, and also human rights in Afghanistan. The donor countries pledged a huge amount of money -- more than $21 billion were pledged by more than 20 countries for rebuilding the war-ravaged country.
RFE/RL: From your conversations with Afghan government officials who attended the conference, what was their reaction to receiving pledges of $21 billion from the international community?
Nazari: They were very surprised. They were very happy about the outcome of the conference. And they were very satisfied with the new pledges made by the international community here in Paris. I talked with Mr. Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, the finance minister of Afghanistan. He was really very happy about the generous donations of the countries for Afghanistan. And he told RFE/RL that they will try their best to eliminate corruption in Afghanistan and also [to push forward with] a rapid reconstruction program in the coming years.
RFE/RL: Officials in Kabul have said that the Afghan National Development Strategy needs more than $50 billion during the next five years to achieve all of its aims. But authorities in Kabul also knew before the Paris conference that they need to raise some of those funds on their own. What solutions does Kabul have to obtain the rest of the funds needed to fully implement the development plans?
Nazari: The National Development Strategy program of Afghanistan needs $51 billion for five years. But Afghan authorities told us that they just need $29 billion for this, and more money will come from the domestic incomes of Afghanistan. Also, they still have some money [that has not been disbursed yet] from the previous years, which came from countries that made pledges for Afghanistan in the past.
RFE/RL: International donors have expressed serious concerns about the inability of the Afghan government to disburse billions of dollars in aid by themselves. On the other hand, there have been complaints that the way of disbursing aid in the past did not allow Kabul to build up its own capacity for disbursements.
Nazari: In Afghanistan's National Development Strategy, they say that they will manage some programs for their capacity building among the government employees. They also told the media that they will try their best to eliminate corruption in Afghanistan, and also to spend the money in better ways -- ways that help the people of Afghanistan who need it. Some of the money will go to the Afghan government through the Finance Ministry. The rest of the money will be spent through [contracts with] international NGOs or international organizations in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Critics also have said that too much international aid in the past has been spent by foreign governments on contracts with foreign firms and nongovernmental organizations. But in recent years, new Afghan firms have emerged that could handle some of the reconstruction work. Are there any plans that would ensure that more funds from the latest aid pledges go to contracts with Afghan firms rather than foreign firms?
Nazari: The Afghan trade minister [Amin Arsala] and the Afghan foreign minister [Rangin Dadfar Spanta] said here in Paris that they will manage a program and they will continue a discussion on this issue in Kabul with the donor countries. They hope that they will find a better solution for spending money in Afghanistan in better ways.
Afghanistan: Death Threats, Intimidation Part Of Journalists' Daily Lives
But the more these daring investigative journalists reveal about deeply rooted problems in Afghan society, the more dangerous their jobs become.
Intimidation and death threats against reporters or their families have become commonplace -- not just from Taliban militants, but also from warlords, drug barons, but even corrupt government officials and police who do not want the media spotlight cast upon their activities.
The killing in the southern Helmand Province of BBC reporter Abdul Samad Rohani is seen by journalists in Afghanistan as the latest example of a worrying trend. Rohani was kidnapped on June 7 while working on a story about illegal opium-poppy cultivation in Helmand. His body was discovered the next day.
The Taliban -- usually eager to claim responsibility for such high-profile attacks -- denied any role in Rohani's abduction and execution-style killing. Many journalists in Afghanistan think Rohani was killed by gunmen with links to the illegal drug trade -- and possibly with connections to local authorities.
Rahimullah Samadar, the head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, says that journalists "have always faced tremendous challenges from different groups and factions" in Afghanistan. "They have faced suppression and have been killed in the past. I think illegal gunmen who are working within the government -- or in an area under governmental control -- are involved in this."
Jean MacKenzie, the Afghan country director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), oversees a network of Afghan correspondents who file reports for the nonprofit investigative-journalism organization. MacKenzie tells RFE/RL there are vested interests in Helmand Province, besides the Taliban, who may have been responsible for Rohani's murder. She suspects powerful local figures who also have threatened her own reporters.
"Our reporters are working in some very risky areas and are taking on some very edgy topics," MacKenzie says. "That brings them into conflict with various members of the Afghan society. Certainly, our reporters in the south are under constant threat from a variety of sources. And, as the murder of Abdul Samad Rohani is testament to, it is not necessarily the Taliban or the insurgents who are the major source of risk."
MacKenzie agrees that the threats against Afghan journalists are growing as they increasingly cover stories about government corruption and the drug trade.
"I don't want to downplay the dangers associated with covering the Taliban or covering the war in the south. But Afghanistan is also a deeply corrupt and criminalized society," MacKenzie says. "There is very big money involved in the [illegal drug] trade. And certainly, there is a very long chain of traffickers. These people are very sensitive to being exposed and being written about or covered in any way by the media."
MacKenzie cites the case of Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, an Afghan journalism student sentenced to death on blasphemy charges by a provincial court in northern Afghanistan. She says the sentence is in fact an attempt to stop journalists from covering corruption in the local government in Balkh Province, noting that Kambakhsh's brother is an IWPR journalist who has filed investigative reports on local officials there.
She says Afghan journalists also face intimidation and death threats from powerful warlords -- some of whom have links with the government.
"These are sometimes very big commanders, and sometimes more petty commanders who are surrounded by their own private militias," MacKenzie says. "They engage in extortion, both large and small, in the communities around them...including rape, murder, and just plain robbery. These people are also very sensitive to being covered. And in many cases, they are entwined with sources within the police and within the government."
Akbar Ayazi, the director of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, agrees with MacKenzie's assessment about sources of intimidation for reporters, pointing out that the threats vary depending on the location in Afghanistan. Journalists "are not only faced with the challenges of the Taliban. They are faced with challenges from the drug lords and warlords, and also, sometimes, with challenges from government officials," Ayazi says. "We have had reporters who are detained and questioned by governors or district chiefs -- asking them questions about why they are reporting on an issue or why they are not reporting on certain issues."
Ayazi says Radio Free Afghanistan's reporters -- like journalists from other media organizations -- receive threatening phone calls not only from within Afghanistan, but also from neighboring Pakistan. Sometimes, he says, the threats have a chilling effect upon the reporters.
"There are times when the reporter would get threatened and he will have this fear [about] reporting," Ayazi says. "When they are threatened, we transfer them from one province to another. We temporarily stop their reporting -- not airing their voice or their name. We get the audio. We get the material to [RFE/RL's] Prague headquarters. And then we put them together and write a report without giving the source. These are ways that we can manage things."
In fact, Ayazi says he has to deal with a death threat or other form of intimidation against a Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent almost every month. One female correspondent was moved to a different province and stopped reporting temporarily until she and her colleagues believed the threat had subsided. Another reporter was kidnapped by the Taliban for four days, but the service managed to secure her release.
In another case last year, Ayazi says, a reporter from Quetta, Pakistan, was threatened by Pakistani officials. "He was arrested on the border [of Pakistan and Afghanistan] and then he had to quit the job. He just could not take it anymore because he and the lives of his family were threatened. So these are extreme cases that we have," Ayazi says.