Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Taleban Hit and Run, and Come Back for More

Violence has surged as the election draws closer, but the insurgents say their real objective is to oust the Kabul government.
By Borhan Younus

Twenty-two hardened Taleban fighters slip down a dirt track in the darkness of this late August night, closely watching the beams from the headlights of two approaching vehicles.


The men move from the track and crouch down in a dry water-channel. Safety catches are released on Kalashnikovs and rocket-launchers made ready to fire. But as the four-wheel-drive vehicles draw near, they are seen to be carrying civilians. The Taleban stop the cars, and the travellers - from a nearby town in Ghazni province - are briefly searched and then allowed to go on their way.


The Taleban squad appears fleetingly disappointed at not having confronted a patrol of United States or Afghan troops. But the young fighters shrug it off and prepare to look for other prey.


"We are absolutely sure we will win the war since we have the greatest support of all -- that is, God. Our enemies put all their trust in material equipment and have no firm morale to win a fight, as they are not motivated by religion," said the group's commander, Mullah Habib Rahman Aziz.


The mullah’s men are aged between 18 and 25 and say they have suffered virtually no losses in their battle to inflict casualties and oust what they term the American-orchestrated regime that has ruled Afghanistan for almost four years.


Only two of the young men are veterans of the fighting that took place between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance before the US bombing campaign finally drove the fundamentalists from power in 2001. The rest are new recruits in what many now call the neo-Taleban, joined in a jihad or holy war against the foreigners.


A lull follows the disappearance of the two vehicles down the now track. Mullah Aziz uses it to explain that, contrary to what the US and Afghan military and the politicians suggest, the Taleban’s aim is not specifically to disrupt the September 18 parliamentary and provincial council elections.


Rather, it is part of a long-term strategy – a commitment to topple the government of President Hamed Karzai and expel its foreign supporters, he says. And he warns that the fighting will become "more and more bloody as the American troops get further into our areas and villages".


"Our warfare is a continuing jihad. It will not stop with the elections or other dramas. It will go on as long as necessary, until we bring a pure Islamic government to Afghanistan,” said the mullah.


Since March, when heavy winter snow in the insurgents' hideouts began to melt, the Taleban and its allies have been intensifying their attacks.


At the United Nations in August, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Afghanistan faced a worrying resurgence of violence despite the presence of 10,000 peacekeepers under NATO command and about 20,000 US-led coalition troops.


"Afghanistan today is suffering from a level of insecurity, especially in the south and parts of the east, not seen since the departure of the Taleban," he said. "There have been troubling indications that remnants of the Taleban and other extremist groups are reorganising."


Bombings and landmine explosions in May were up 40 per cent from the same month the previous year in the south and southeast, Annan said.


And 2005 has undoubtedly been the most deadly year for the US military since it ousted the Taleban.


"There is certainly more violence, and there are violent elements trying to come back," said Ronald Neumann, the new US ambassador to Kabul speaking at his maiden press conference on August 18.


"I think this is a situation that will probably be difficult for some time. But there is a strong international presence and there is a strong American presence, which is quite adequate to deal with the violence."


According to an unofficial fatality list posted for Washington's Operation Enduring Freedom, OEF, (http://icasualties.org/oef/Afghanistan.aspx), 76 American troops were killed in operations linked to Afghanistan during the first eight months of this year. This compared with 52 for all of last year, 47 for 2003 and 43 for 2002. The dead are all named, with age and rank.


The official US Defence Department website (http://www.dod.mil/news/casualty.pdf) gives a slightly higher total of 232 deaths since military operations began in 2001. But it provides no annual breakdown, and also includes deaths in other locations including Tajikistan and even the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.


US spokeswoman Lieutenant Cindy Moore in Kabul also could not give a breakdown of casualty figures for individual years, referring IWPR’s inquiries to the Secretary of Defence’s public affairs department in Washington.


Sixteen of this year's US deaths were occurred in one incident when a Chinook helicopter was shot down in late June over the eastern Kunar province. It was ferrying troops in to rescue a squad of SEAL commandos under fire from insurgents.


Taleban commander Mullah Dadullah said his fighters brought down the aircraft.


US military commanders maintain that it is their troops who are inflicting significant casualties as they take the battle to the enemy.


Mullah Aziz would disagree. His group, like others in the region, believes that its knowledge of the terrain and the support of local residents gives it a vital edge over the Americans.


The Taleban operate in small units like this one, which moves around on red motorbikes, two men on each machine, under cover of dark.


The US troops based near Ghazni city carry out most of their road patrols during the day and conduct surprise home searches at night, according to Mullah Aziz.


This enables the Taleban fighters to avoid daytime confrontations with better equipped forces, while at night they can ambush their enemy and plant roadside bombs, one of the main causes of casualties among US troops this year.


Many of the tactics used by the insurgents appear to be copies of those used against US-led Coalition troops in Iraq: hit-and-run attacks, beheading of "US spies", and occasional kidnappings and suicide bombings, although the latter are still rare.


One of these tactics has, however, backfired on the Taleban. Many Afghans see beheading captives as gratuitous violence, and this has somewhat diminished the sympathy of those who are normally on the side of the anti-American forces.


"We approve of the Taleban attacks against Americans, but their beheading and killing of Afghans and ulema [religious scholars] is not in keeping with the characteristics of Afghans," said Abdul Qayom, a 45-year-old shopkeeper in Ghazni city.


Qayom returns to his home area of Wazi Khwah in the southeast Paktika province every couple of weeks, and reports that Taleban fighters move freely around that district at night time.


Last month, a US commander forecast that the Taleban might escalate their attacks, and noted that they were becoming more ruthless in their tactics.


"They are targeting government officials and religious scholars. We are seeing an increased threat of the rebels using suicide bombers and child soldiers," Major-General Jason Kamiya, operational commander of US-led Coalition forces in Afghanistan, told a news conference in Kabul.


In the Uruzgan province, Khan Pacha, a village elder in the provincial centre Tarin Kowt said that despite what he termed the Taleban’s brutality in killing civilians mere because they were accused of “spying for the US military”, he still saw them as true Muslims fighting a war for freedom.


"The Taleban brought peace and security to the country, and they were our own sons,” he said. “The Americans, with all the facilities and money they have poured into Afghanistan, cannot bring calm.”


Borhan Younus is a freelance correspondent for IWPR.


More IWPR's Global Voices