Archive for the ‘Taliban’ Category

To the “Mouth of Hell” and back

October 26, 2008

The Taliban called it the ‘mouth of hell’, the tiny British fort in southern Afghanistan they relentlessly attacked throughout the summer. Today, the last paratroopers who defended its remote ramparts return home but, as ever with war, the cost has been great. Of the 160 men who manned Forward Operating Base Gibraltar, almost one in three was killed or wounded, a higher casualty rate than that suffered by British soldiers during the Second World War.

Indeed, Gibraltar was so treacherous that its occupants faced a similar likelihood of being killed or injured as those who fought on the bloody battlefields of the First World War.

Now the men are back in Britain after a period of fighting during which their battle group – 2 Para – sustained the highest number of deaths on a single six-month tour in Afghanistan or Iraq. Those who survived told yesterday of chasing Taliban fighters through shoulder-high cornfields, shooting men from punching range and pulling the bodies of comrades through streams with banks ablaze from rocket-propelled grenades.

Gibraltar was arguably the most vulnerable and dangerous British base in Helmand province. The men of C Company, who manned its fortifications, were on average 23 years old. Five of its occupants died in action, 14 were seriously injured and another 30 wounded.

The stories told by the survivors are brutal. Theirs is not a tale of technological might against a primitive foe, rather an insight into war seemingly unchanged throughout the centuries, a gruelling campaign involving daily skirmishes against a redoubtable enemy.

There are moments when men such as Corporal Matthew ‘Des’ Desmond, 31, pulled out his pistol and shot a Taliban gunman from two metres. ‘There is no emotional attachment, you’d feel more anguish shooting a bunny rabbit,’ he smiled ruefully, hours after arriving at his Colchester barracks.

Stories from the men of C company provide a snapshot of Helmand’s unique hazards. They tell how children ushered British soldiers into deadly ambushes, how troops were targeted the instant they crept out from Gibraltar’s front gates and how the Taliban planted rings of hidden explosives around the base. In the space of four months Gibraltar was attacked 36 times. In addition, its defenders became embroiled in 29 firefights while on another 22 instances they were either targeted or stumbled across explosive booby traps laid out for them.

‘We never stood down,’ said Desmond, a father-of-three. ‘We would always push on to them, even chasing them through their own ambushes,’

By the end, at least 150 Taliban were confirmed dead around their small base. Long before then, however, the Taliban had started referring to the paras’ home as the ‘mouth of hell’ or ‘devil’s place’.

For the first two months of the tour barely a shot was fired in anger. Then, on 8 June, news filtered up the Helmand valley that three men from 2 Para had been killed when a suicide bomber walked up to them and detonated his vest. The following day a suicide bomber mounted an attack on Gibraltar. The day after that a patrol came under fire. Another suicide mission was launched hours later.

The morning of 12 June defines the moment C company would first experience the horrors of Helmand. Several platoons had spent the night under the stars beyond enemy lines and were heading back when they stopped at a village. As usual, they dished out sweets and wind-up radios to the children, but this time the youngsters seemed preoccupied with what lay beyond a track winding towards a stream. ‘They were laughing and pointing. In hindsight, it’s strange they would find it so amusing,’ said Desmond.

As the paras went to investigate, four Taliban sections opened up simultaneously. ‘The weight of fire was incredible, their weapons were rocking and rolling without stopping. In 13 years in the army that was the best initiated ambush I’ve come across,’ Desmond went on.

The paras returned 9,000 machine gun and automatic rifle rounds plus 179 mortar shells. Then came the cry ‘man down’. Amid the din, it came again. In the initial chaos, Private Jeff Doherty, 20, and James Bateman, 29, had been killed instantly. Another soldier collapsed, shot in the leg, while a machine gunner took a bullet in the face. Miraculously the projectile glanced off his chin; colleagues scraped the blood from his face and the gunner got back to work.

The fight lasted 18 minutes. ‘But time stops during such moments. Fighting is like a waltz, quick, quick, slow slow,’ said Desmond. Back at Gibraltar, the mood was sombre but resolute. Five men from 2 Para had been killed in four days.

At dawn next day C Company went on patrol. Through intercepted communications they heard the Taliban exclaim their disbelief at the paras’ refusal to be cowed. Desmond said: ‘From that point on, every time we saw them we would smash them. They would choose the ground and we would beat them. Every time.’

Captain Josh Jones, 32, from London, who briefly left Helmand for the birth of his daughter Isabella, now eight weeks old, said: ‘We never relied on air cover, we always fought them head on.’

But one facet that could not be altered was Gibraltar’s reputation as the most exposed of Helmand’s bases. Easy to attack, it was hard to defend. Troops who ventured outside were often shot from snipers. As the conflict intensified, conditions deteriorated. On one occasion the ground temperature taken by a sniper read 78C.

Desmond’s desert boots melted. Forced to lug packs weighing 90lbs, many of C Coy cursed the clunky body armour designed to save their lives. As summer gave way to autumn, the enemy amended its tactics. Chechens, Uzbeks and trained Pakistani fighters began to lay siege to Gibraltar. Corporal Paul Knapp, 26, from Bristol said: ‘You can tell immediately they are different, the way they move, the way they fight.’

Knapp also travelled back from Afghanistan for the birth of his son, Colburn, seven weeks old yesterday. His wife, Chanelle, 24, said: ‘It was really hard before the tour because you don’t know what to expect. It’s just good to have him back.’

Now home with their families, the readjustment starts. Desmond admits to being a bit ‘jumpy’ in downtown Colchester. Knapp jokes about the cacophony of bonfire night jangling the nerves. ‘When we started, we all knew we would not be coming back with all the guys,’ said Jones. On Thursday the 13 men from the 2 Para battle group who died this summer will be remembered at a ceremony in Colchester. Yet a return to Helmand already looms C Company are pencilled in for southern Afghanistan in 2010.


Taliban Escalate Afghan Fighting

August 20, 2008

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — Taliban insurgents mounted their most serious attacks in six years of fighting in Afghanistan over the last two days, including a coordinated assault by at least 10 suicide bombers against one of the largest American military bases in the country, and another by about 100 insurgents who killed 10 elite French paratroopers.

The New York Times: Insurgents carried out attacks in Sarobi and Camp Salerno.

The attack on the French, in a district near Kabul, added to the sense of siege around the capital and was the deadliest single loss for foreign troops in a ground battle since the United States-led invasion chased the Taliban from power in 2001.

Taken together, the attacks were part of a sharp escalation in fighting as insurgents have seized a window of opportunity to press their campaign this summer — taking advantage of a wavering NATO commitment, an outgoing American administration, a flailing Afghan government and a Pakistani government in deep disarray that has given the militants freer rein across the border.

As a result, this year is on pace to be the deadliest in the Afghan war so far, as the insurgent attacks show rising zeal and sophistication. The insurgents are employing not only a growing number of suicide and roadside bombs, but are also waging increasingly well-organized and complex operations using multiple attackers with different types of weapons, NATO officials say.

NATO and American military officials place blame for much of the increased insurgent activity on the greater freedom of movement the militants have in Pakistan’s tribal areas on the Afghan border. The turmoil in the Pakistani government, with the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf on Monday, has added to the sense of a vacuum of authority there.

But at least as important, the officials say, is the fact that Pakistan’s military has agreed to a series of peace deals with the militants under which it stopped large-scale operations in the tribal areas in February, allowing the insurgents greater freedom to train, recruit and carry out attacks into Afghanistan.

More foreign fighters are entering Afghanistan this summer than in previous years, NATO officials say, an indication that Al Qaeda and allied groups have been able to gather more foreigners in their tribal redoubts.

The push by the insurgents has taken a rising toll. Before the attack on Monday, 173 foreign soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan this year, including 99 Americans. In all of 2007, 232 foreign troops were killed, the highest number since the war began in 2001.

The attack with multiple suicide bombers, which struck Camp Salerno in the eastern province of Khost, wounded three American soldiers and six members of the Afghan Special Forces, Afghan officials said. It was one of the most complex attacks yet in Afghanistan, and included a backup fighting force that tried to breach defenses to the airport at the base.

The assault followed a suicide car bombing at the outer entrance to the same base on Monday morning, which killed 12 Afghan workers lining up to enter the base, and another attempted bombing that was thwarted later.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahed, reached by telephone at an unknown location, said the attack was carried out by 15 suicide bombers, each equipped with machine guns and explosives vests, and backed by 30 more militants.

He also claimed that some of the bombers had breached the walls of the base and had killed a number of American soldiers and destroyed equipment and helicopters. This last claim was denied by Gen. Zaher Azimi of the Afghan military.

The insurgents began attacking with rockets and mortars at 11 p.m. Monday, and a group of militants began to move toward the airport side of the base, the Afghan military said. An Afghan commando unit encircled them, killing 13 militants, including 10 who were wearing suicide vests, General Azimi said.

A fierce battle raged through much of the night, until 7 a.m. Tuesday, said Arsala Jamal, the governor of Khost. American helicopter strikes against the militants, who were moving through a cornfield around the base, also struck a house in a village, killing two children and wounding two women and two men, the provincial police chief, Abdul Qayum Baqizoy, said.

The attack on the French also began late Monday and continued into Tuesday, after they were ambushed by an unusually large insurgent force while on a joint reconnaissance mission with the Afghan Army in the district of Sarobi, 30 miles east of Kabul, according to a NATO statement.

The French soldiers, part of an elite paratrooper unit, had only recently taken over from American forces in the area as part of the expanded French deployment in Afghanistan under President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In addition to the 10 French soldiers killed, 21 were wounded, the NATO statement said. It was the deadliest attack on French troops since a 1983 assault in Beirut killed 58 French paratroopers serving in a United Nations force.

The latest casualties bring to 24 the number of French troops killed in Afghanistan since they were first sent there in 2002.

The Taliban have seemingly made it part of their strategy to attack newly arriving forces, as well as those of NATO countries whose commitment to the war has appeared to waver, in an effort to influence public opinion in Europe. NATO countries have been under increasing pressure from the United States to increase their troop commitments to Afghanistan, which many have been hesitant to do.

The Taliban’s surge in attacks also comes at a delicate moment in American political life, as the departing Bush administration will have to hand over control of the war to a new president, whose administration will need time to get up to speed.

But Mr. Sarkozy, who has been a strong supporter of the United States, made it clear that the French would be undeterred.

“In its struggle against terrorism, France has just been hard hit,” Mr. Sarkozy said in a statement. He arrived in Kabul on Wednesday, according to Reuters, a trip he made to reassure French troops that “France is at their side.”

But Mr. Sarkozy said France would not be deterred from its Afghan mission, where 3,000 troops are serving in a NATO force of more than 40,000 soldiers from nearly 40 nations.

“My determination is intact,” he said. “France is committed to pursuing the struggle against terrorism, for democracy and for freedom. This is a just cause; it is an honor for France and for its army to defend it.”

The Sarobi District has been the scene of a growing number of insurgent attacks in recent months, most thought to be instigated by fighters loyal to the renegade mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is allied with the Taliban but not formally part of the movement.

Mr. Hekmatyar, who NATO officials say is based in Pakistan, has increased his militant activity in northeast Afghanistan and around Kabul, while the Taliban, foreign fighters and Al Qaeda have accelerated their attacks in the east, southeast and south.

The increase in insurgent activity northeast of Kabul is part of an attempt by the insurgents to encircle the capital and put pressure on the Afghan government and the foreign forces, some NATO and Afghan officials say.

Insurgent activity has also increased sharply in recent months in Logar and Wardak Provinces, south of the capital, sometimes making the main roads impassable.

The deployment of elite French troops to the area was intended to reinforce the Afghan Army and help keep the insurgent threat to the capital at bay. General Azimi, the Afghan military spokesman, said two companies of Afghan Army soldiers were sent in at dawn to assist the French.

In all, about 27 Taliban were believed to have been killed in the clash in the Sarobi District, around Uzbin, he said. Thirteen insurgents were later found dead on the battlefield, including a Pakistani fighter, he said.

Carlotta Gall reported from Bamiyan, and Sangar Rahimi from Kabul, Afghanistan. Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Paris.

Resurgent Taleban kill 10 French troops and assault US base

August 20, 2008

The Taleban have staged two of their most spectacular operations in Afghanistan, killing ten French troops in a battle just outside Kabul and launching a frontal assault on a big US base near the Pakistani border.

The attacks, which began on Monday and continued yesterday, are the latest in a series of dramatic raids by the militant group, including a prison break in Kandahar and the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, suggesting a tactical shift from multiple skirmishes to bold offensives.

They have also raised fears that the Taleban are expanding their operations in eastern Afghanistan as part of a new strategy to cut off supply routes to Kabul, the capital.

The attack on the French, of whom 21 were also injured, was one of the deadliest on foreign troops in Afghanistan since the start of the US-led war in 2001, which originally ousted the Taleban from Kabul. It was the heaviest loss of life suffered by the French since 1983 and increased pressure on President Sarkozy to withdraw from Afghanistan.

“In its struggle against terrorism, France has just been hit hard,” Mr Sarkozy said, before boarding an aircraft to Afghanistan to show support for his troops.

The French soldiers were on patrol with the Afghan National Army 30 miles (50km) east of Kabul when they were ambushed by about a hundred insurgents, sparking a gunfight that continued into yesterday, according to military officials. France has 2,600 soldiers in Afghanistan, mostly as part of the Nato International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), and has lost 24 in action or accidents since sending them there in 2002.

Mr Sarkozy dispatched an extra 700 soldiers after a Nato summit in April, when Washington asked allies to contribute more troops. Critics accused him of leading France into a Vietnam-style quagmire to regain favour with the Bush Administration.

The French are mostly deployed in Kabul province and Kapisa province, northeast of the capital, which is dominated by conservative Pashtun tribes.

Kapisa is also considered a stronghold of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Mujahidin leader who is now fighting Nato forces and is wanted as a terrorist by the US. The French were ambushed in Sarobi district, which is on the main eastern supply route between Kabul and Pakistan and is dominated by Pashtun tribes considered loyal to Mr Hekmatyar. Senior Taleban commanders told The Times this year that they aimed to cut off supply routes to Kabul. Since then the Taleban have closed in on the capital to such an extent that it is now dangerous for troops, aid workers and civilians to travel on the routes to the south, east and west of the city.

Haroun Mir, of the Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies, said that the Taleban appeared to be using the same tactics as the Mujahidin against Soviet forces.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taleban spokesman, declined to explain the aims of the Sarobi attack, but said that the French had lost 30 troops.

“Many civilians were killed when the French called in an airstrike,” he told The Times, without giving further details.

The Taleban also carried out two bold attacks over the past two days on Camp Salerno in the eastern province of Khowst, 20 miles from the Pakistani border, according to Isaf and Mr Mujahid.

Several car bombs on the base perimeter killed ten Afghans and wounded thirteen on Monday. Seven insurgents, including six suicide bomb-ers, were killed trying to attack the base yesterday, Isaf said.

Mr Mujahid said that 30 insurgents took part and had killed 40 US soldiers, but Isaf said that no Americans had died.


Oi Mac..the problem with the Russian involvement was that the Afghans were against them. This conflict is different. Nobody wants the Taleban in there..they are an obscene group who are hated by their own people. I get so annoyed at this defeatist attitude. Sympathise with the families of the dead!

kirk, Rotherham, UK

Good for the insurgents. They are defending their land.
All talk of democracy and western values… Do people really believe that rubbish.. or do they actually know they are complicit in murder and occupation for cheap transit of pipelines?

Conrad Konig, London, UK

In a word? Oil.

Thank you and good night.

Scott, Los Angeles, USA

God bless the French soldiers and their families. They are fighting for freedom from terrorism and we in the United States appreciate their ultimate sacrifice.

Wm., Madison, Wisconsin , USA

7 years and still no democracy or reelection. Hamid Karzai has been the prime minister or government head since the invasion. Only a few have been ruling and the rest mind their business so they do not caught between talebans and the ruling government. Foreigner’s come and go all the time.

Naleen Lal, Northern California,

“Struggle against terrorism”? Pull the other one. What’s going on in Afghanistan is an occupation by foreign forces. The locals don’t want to be occupied and will win in the end, as they always have. Remember the USSR’s humiliating defeat?

David MacGregor, Auckland , New Zealand

Taliban welcome back an old friend

April 7, 2008

KARACHI – Like a voice from the grave, legendary Afghan mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani has emerged from years of silence to boldly launch the Taliban-led spring offensive in Afghanistan, at the same time burying any doubts of a split between his coalition of resistance groups and Mullah Omar’s Taliban.

In a video message released last week and which is only now coming into wider circulation, Haqqani, speaking in his trademark low-pitched voice and with his hair dyed red with henna, called on the people of Afghanistan “to stand up against the US-led forces in Afghanistan and drive them out”.

The release of the message by Haqqani, who has a bounty on his head as one of the US’s most-wanted men, coincides with an important North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meeting in Bucharest, Romania, this weekend at which the divided alliance will try to hammer out a more coherent strategy in the war in Afghanistan which many analysts believe it is losing.

As Haqqani speaks on the video, he is accompanied by a background song which pledges his allegiance to Mullah Omar, laying to rest any doubts that he has set himself up as a rival to the mainstream Taliban.

Along with his son Sirajuddin, Jalaluddin Haqqani has built up a well-organized group, known as the Haqqani Network, with roots in Pakistan’s tribal areas, that, now firmly allied with Mullah Omar, will pose a dangerous challenge to the coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Haqqani soundly dismissed any notion – as touted by senior NATO officials – that the Taliban were weakened and might forego their spring offensive. “All 37 allies [in NATO] will be humiliated and driven out of Afghanistan – jihad is compulsory and will continue until the end of time; we are without resources, but we have the support of God.”

Haqqani said the Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan had come up with new plans to fight against NATO, but these did not have any room for reconciliation. “We are geared for war,” Haqqani stated.

“[President George W] Bush and his allies have decided to kill us or arrest us – they consider us as weak and think of themselves as all powerful. They think we have no place left in the world to survive – they think we are destined either to die or to be captured … they think they are wealthy nations, with their money and with half of the world behind them.

“They think they can enslave poor Afghans – bomb us with their planes and gunship helicopters – they think they have everything and we are voiceless – the media are with them and they belittle our resistance. We kill 80 and they report two or one. I promise the Afghan nation that soon we will be victorious,”said Haqqani.

The long speech by the Pashtun leader, who made his name fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and remains the most-respected tribal figure in southeastern Afghanistan, is the most sophisticated yet of the Taliban’s presentations to Pashtun people.

Copies of Haqqani’s speech have spread all over eastern Afghanistan and are available in various formats, including on cassette tape and through cell phone downloads. After being silent for so long, and having been reported dead on numerous occasions, the impact of people listening to Haqqani is immense and will undoubtedly work as a galvanizing force among Pashtuns.

This especially as NATO has in recent months worked hard to portray the Taliban as a spent force consisting of a bunch of naive young lads with no credible leader left.

“They projected the rumor that Jalaluddin Haqqani had died in Dubai [in the United Arab Emirates]. I am neither a shopkeeper nor a trader that I would travel to Dubai. Neither am I a politician who roams all around the world … the Americans thought that with their developed technology they could plant the news of my death in the media. But now the media are realizing their lies to demoralize the mujahideen,” Haqqani said.

A graphic part of Haqqani’s video shows a suicide operation carried out by a Turk-German named Cuneyt Ciftci, also known as Saad Abu Furkan. He is seen in the video blowing himself up in a delivery truck near a US base in the Sabari district of Khost province in Afghanistan on March 3. According to Western press reports, two soldiers with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and two Afghan workers were killed and six others wounded. But the video claims the killing of 63 people.

The Taliban’s new battle
The inclusion in the video of this suicide attack – one of dozens that has taken place in the country in recent years – is important as it shows an unprecedented level of planning and organization not normally associated with the Taliban.

Footage shows a professionally drawn map, like an architect’s, of a compound of the Sabari district headquarters. There is detail of the boundary walls, the protective inner walls, entry points, rooms, backyard and front portions of the newly built structure. Clearly the Taliban had contacts among the laborers or contractors. There are pictures of Taliban guerrillas sitting around the map discussing their plan to launch the suicide bomber in an explosive-laden vehicle.

This is a far cry from usual grainy Afghan videos of ambushes on military convoys in the mountains. Haqqani’s video is reminiscent of those made by the Iraqi resistance in 2004-05, when operations were meticulously planned by former officers of Saddam Hussein’s army and executed with precision.

In the many years since being ousted in 2001, the Taliban have had numerous ups and downs, from the successful spring offensive of 2006 to the failed mass uprising of 2007. Now, the Taliban have adopted a policy of preserving their strength by only hitting specific targets, rather than waste their resources in multiple direct confrontations with NATO forces.

The Taliban have also opened up a new front based in Khyber Agency in Pakistan just across the border from Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, as NATO has beefed up its presence in the traditional Taliban strongholds of Paktia, Paktika, Khost and Kunar provinces.

Last week, NATO announced the opening of an intelligence center near the Torkham border post, at the crossroad of Khyber Agency and Nangarhar province. But it was not able to thwart the biggest-ever guerrilla operation against a US base in the province a few days later. More than 200 Taliban participated in an overnight hit-and-run operation. Taliban sources claimed the killing of 70 US soldiers, but there was no confirmation of that figure from NATO or any other independent source.

According to the video, the Taliban will use as much foreign expertise as possible, as well as tapping into tribal elders and their supporters. This means that mainstream Taliban commanders like Mullah Beradar from southwestern Afghanistan and commanders who are allied with the Taliban but who keep their own identities, like Anwarul Haq Mujahahid from Nangarhar and Uzbek and Arab commanders, will join hands for a coherent overall strategy. This of course includes Haqqani and his considerable following.

A relatively new string in the Taliban’s bow is the reliance on thousands of Pakistani and other jihadis put out of “work” since the struggle in Kashmir de-escalated. They are well trained, and as they did in Indian-administered Kashmir and other parts of India, they can be expected to target key infrastructure and high-profile targets, such as government buildings.

This year’s suicide attack by the Haqqani Network on the Serina Hotel in Kabul, in which several people, including foreigners, were killed, and the attack in Khost on March 3 shown in the video, indicate one key direction in which the Taliban-led insurgency is headed.