Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Taleban Defiant Following Marja Operation
Recent operations by foreign and Afghan government forces in Helmand province had little impact on Taleban capabilities ahead of the summer fighting season, an insurgent commander has claimed.
Despite February’s assault by 15,000 troops on the Taleban’s stronghold of Marja, its ranks are unhurt, uncowed and poised to retaliate, Abu Hamza, who claims to command 300 rebel fighters operating in southern Afghanistan, told IWPR in a telephone interview.
“We will inflict heavy casualties on the foreigners this year,” Abu Hamza, who is well known in the region, said. “We have not been defeated in Helmand … The foreigners are now surrounded in Marja. We have only withdrawn tactically from some areas.”
Marja was a key focus of Operation Moshtarak, which began in February as an assault on insurgent strongholds with the declared aim of re-establishing Afghan government control of the area.
Western forces say vehicle traffic, and indication of the extent to which free movement is established, has been growing in Marja and Nad Ali.
Marja itself had been a major centre of opium poppy growing and refining. A scheme to distribute wheat seed to persuade farmers to move away from poppy is due to begin in Marja – the registration process began on April 4.
Abu Hamza’s remarks reflected western media reports quoting United States military officials as saying the Taleban are again encroaching on Marja from all sides, so far mainly scaring local people from participating in development projects.
Abu Hamza said Taleban casualties during the fighting were ten killed. The International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, put the number of confirmed enemy dead at six, compared to 21 troops killed mainly by improvised explosive devices, IEDs.
A total of 29 civilians were listed as killed during the Marja fighting, although local people say the number was around 40.
According to Abu Hamza, the low insurgent death tally resulted from avoidance of direct engagements with troops and widespread use of IEDs, which to April 4 this year accounted for 79 of 134 combat deaths of foreign soldiers across Afghanistan.
“We have inflicted heavy casualties with these weapons,” claimed Abu Hamza, who gave his age as 35 and said he’d fought for the Taleban in various provinces since the Islamic militia was toppled from power by US-led forces in 2001.
He said senior Taleban commanders ordered units to intensify use of roadside bombs and also attacks on specific targets in cities, like the February assault by gunmen and suicide bombers on guest houses and businesses frequented by foreigners in the capital.
“I believe that instead of face-to-face fighting, attacks like this one are a more successful tactic,” Abu Hamza said.
Asked whether civilian casualties inflicted by such actions constituted terrorism, he replied, “Is it not terrorism when the Americans bombard and fire rockets at people’s houses, funeral and other traditional ceremonies, and kill innocents under the pretext of fighting the Taleban or al-Qaeda?
“We have warned all Muslim people to avoid areas where foreigners congregate, therefore responsibility lies with the people, not the Taleban.”
Concerning the location of insurgent forces after the seizure of Marja, Hamza said, “You should put that question to the Americans because they have modern equipment and say that they can see everything from the air, so they should be able to say where we are.
“I will say only that the Taleban have tactically withdrawn and are active in their areas. We never flee.”
Reports from Marja indicate that insurgent fighters have largely blended in with the local population, and in many cases are locals themselves, also benefiting from US cash payments for human and property damage incurred in the fighting.
Their supply of arms and ammunition here and elsewhere is steady and comes in part from countries that also oppose the US, the commander claimed, while noting that weaponry alone is no guarantee of victory.
“The Americans have very modern weapons…. … We have the weapon of belief [in Islam] while they do not,” he said.
Lack of cultural awareness, he went on, would also disastrously undermine foreign forces deployed in the country.
“They have no information about the Afghans’ history, culture and traditions. Our strength is [boosted] by their actions, such as breaking into people’s homes, bombarding them, disrespecting Islamic values, and so on, things which weaken them and strengthen us.”
On the ultimate goal of the resistance, Abu Hamza reiterated the line of the Taleban leadership that all foreign forces must be withdrawn from Afghanistan and Sharia law established.
“The Afghan government has no authority in the presence of the foreigners, who control of everything. We will hold no negotiations with the government unless the foreigners leave,” he said.
Hewad is an IWPR trainee in Kabul.
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