Friday, May 19, 2006

Offensive in Afghanistan -Taliban kingpin captured?

I'm seeing various reports on the possible capture of a major taliban figure - Mullah Dadullah, overall commander for Taleban military operations.

Mullah Omar had also named Dadullah to the 10-member "rahbari shura" [leadership council] comprising top military commanders. He's a high profile hero in the eyes of the Taleban rank and file and was one of the first Taleban commanders to organise attacks against US-led coalition forces. His capture would be a huge setback for the Taliban.

In the last 24 hours, the Taliban launched two suicide bombers, numerous firefights and a massive assault on a village in Helmand province, where 3,300 British soldiers are deployed. At least 87 Taliban fighters died, along with 15 police, an American civilian and a Canadian woman soldier. The fact of the Taliban making a frontal assault like this shows that they are fairly desperate.

In another development, British Colonel Chris Vernon, chief of staff for southern Afghanistan, told the British Guardian that the Taliban leadership was launching its offensive from the western Pakistani city of Quetta, near the Afghan border. "The thinking piece of the Taliban is out of Quetta in Pakistan. It's the major headquarters," he told the Guardian. "They use it to run a series of networks in Afghanistan." Vernon accussed the Pakistani government of allowing the Taliban to use its territory as a "headquarters" for attacks on western troops in Afghanistan.

Afghani president Hamid Karzai also accused Pakistan of arming the Taliban. "Pakistani intelligence gives military training to people and then sends them to Afghanistan with logistics," the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency quoted him as saying.

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan worsened sharply in March after Afghan allegations that Omar, Osama bin Laden and more than 100 Taliban leaders were hiding in Pakistan.

Pakistan of course denies this.

"It is absolutely absurd that someone is talking like this. If the Taliban leadership was in Quetta we would be out of our minds not to arrest them," said a spokesman, Major General Shaukat Sultan. "They should give us actionable intelligence so that we can take action."

NATO is preparing to assume command of southern Afghanistan from the US forces on July 31, and the interchange reflects growing tension between Pakistan and the West.

Kandahar has been the major target. Canadian troops there have seen a string a suicide attacks, roadside bombs and an axe attack on an officer during a village meeting.

On Wednesday a suicide bomber rammed into a UN vehicle near the main coalition base at Kandahar airport, killing himself and injuring the driver. Col Vernon said he had tightened up security on the road by "imposing Northern Ireland procedures".

Also, Wednesday night, the Taliban attacked Musa Qala village in northern Helmand in force, sparking an eight-hour battle that left 40 Taliban fighters and 13 police dead.

There has been renewed diplomatic pressure on the Pakistani government to crack down on the Taliban..unlikely because of the Taliban's ties to Iran.

"Clearly the Taliban are at large in Baluchistan, operating in Quetta. Obviously that's a cause for concern," said a British diplomat in Islamabad.

In fairness, the border there is a no man's land of mostly barren mountains and desert, and has been a major smuggling point and a law unto itself for years. It is not an easy area to police.

But it's an open question whether Pakistan has the will to do so anyway.

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