The Zabul triangle
[ politics - november 05 ]
In the last days of September, an Afghan insurgent blew up eight army recruits in a suicide attack on a Kabul training centre, and two American soldiers were killed by small-arms fire in Kandahar and Kunar, two of the provinces most affected by the continuing resistance to the government of President Hamid Karzai. Suicide bombers are still a rare weapon in the arsenal of the Taliban insurgency, but it was the crash of a Chinook helicopter south west of Dai Chopan in Zabul province on 25 September that gave a more telling indication that the insurrection in Afghanistan may be entering a new phase.
The chopper and its crew of five was returning from a mission in support of an “ongoing operation”, the Pentagon reported, but there was no evidence that Taliban or Al Qa’ida forces had brought it down. This was the third helicopter to bite the dust since January and, because Chinooks are used to ferry groups of troops to hard-to-access forward bases, the crashes swelled American losses to 79 so far this year, the highest annual death toll since the US-led coalition drove the Taliban from power in 2001.
With 18,000 men and women on the ground, the US forces maintain a far lower profile in Afghanistan than in Iraq, where around 150,000 American forces are stationed. But with a ratio of two support staff to every active soldier in the field, 79 fatalities out of a total fighting strength of 6,000 was more than a dent in the bodywork of an army known both for its cautiousness and technical superiority. By contrast, the Taliban and their allies have killed 325 Afghan police officers and three times that number of civilians since January in what many observers view as a re-invigorated insurgency in the months leading up to the parliamentary elections on 18 September.
A sandstorm in April was responsible for the first Chinook crash near Ghazni, which can be confidently filed as an accident. The second, during a mission to rescue four missing US Navy SEALS in Kunar province in June, was the result of hostile fire, though whether from rocket-propelled grenade or ground-to-air missile is unknown. Seventeen men died in the attack.
The results of an enquiry into what led the third Chinook to crash in Zabul will be significant, therefore, because they will confirm whether the Kunar strike was a lucky accident, or the first in a pattern of attacks that could make air transport more risky in the parts of Afghanistan still controlled by Taliban or Al Qa’ida elements.
Although anti-government forces failed to disrupt September’s legislative elections, Taliban commanders and government officials have independently confirmed what the US command in Afghanistan has long feared: Afghan insurgents are being cross-pollinated with the more ruthless and effective tactics employed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qa’ida in Iraq organisation, and other Iraqi resistance groups.
In mid-September, Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry spokesman, Lutafullah Mashal, told Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist who has interviewed Osama bin Ladin on four occasions, that Iraqi Arabs had travelled to Nuristan and Kunar provinces to provide Taliban militants with advanced bomb-making training, and that SAM ground-to-air missiles of Russian and Chinese origin were now being smuggled across Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan at a cost of $2,500 each.
Mohammed Daoud, a Taliban commander in Khost interviewed by Newsweek later that month, said he had spent four weeks in Iraq learning to use remote-controlled detonators and to make the armour-penetrating, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have made operations so dangerous for US ground forces in Iraq. A second Taliban commander, Hamza Sangari, told an identical story though the two did not apparently know one another and therefore could not have colluded in the details of their stories. Both men reportedly made the one-month journey through Baluchistan and Iran to the Ashaq al Hoor training camp in Iraq at the personal invitation of Osama bin Ladin’s “chief envoy to the insurgents in Iraq”, Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi.
Sangari told Newsweek‘s Afghan journalists that he had been taught how to make more damaging IEDs by disassembling rockets and RPG rounds, removing the explosives and propellants, and repackaging them with powerful, high-velocity ‘shaped’ charges. Previously, the Taliban had relied on anti-personnel and anti-tank mines left from the Soviet era to make IEDs.
Newsweek has been wrong before about Afghanistan, most notably in May when it had to retract a report that US guards in Guantánamo Bay had desecrated a Koran in order to demoralise prisoners. The subsequent rioting claimed 16 lives in Nangarhar province. But the Sydney Morning Herald appeared to confirm the US news magazine scoop when it quoted a security contractor in Kabul on the Taliban’s apparently improved technology. “Their detonators are so sophisticated, they can sit back two kilometres and explode an IED remotely through a simple wire antenna hanging from a bush next to a device that might have been planted days or weeks earlier.”
Zabul may be significant for other reasons, however. Compared with the anti-government operations in Kunar, Khost and Kandahar, all of which have revolving-door exits across the frontier with a Pakistan tolerant of the destabilisation of Karzai’s Afghanistan, the resistance in Zabul is remarkably freestanding. Part of the province is contiguous with the frontier, but the heart of resistance lies among the 10,000-foot mountains and valleys further west where Zabul merges imperceptibly into the province of Uruzgan.
A map of this oasis of unreconstructed Taliban rule can be obtained by drawing a line from Argandab, 150 miles north of Kandahar, northwest to Dai Chopan, where the US helicopter came down, to Uruzgan; and then another southwest from Uruzgan to Tirin Khot, where the elusive Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, grew up, to Derawat, ancestral home of the Popolzai clan of the Durrani Pashtuns from which, ironically, Hamid Karzai derives his tribal legitimacy as ruler.
This lopsided triangle of fortified homes and dustbowl farms has proven obdurate in the face of US attacks since Operation Mountain Viper in September 2003 when a brigade of the 10th Mountain Division was airdropped to clear Dai Chopan of enemy forces. Two years on, it is still a death trap. After a pitched battle near Spin Ghar left nine Afghan soldiers and 40 Taliban dead in May, a US military spokesman contrasted the courage of Zabuli fighters with the hit-and-run tactics practised by guerrillas elsewhere in Afghanistan. “They were well-trained, well-armed people and they didn’t flee,” he said. “They stood and fought.”
The battle at Spin Ghar yielded the highest number of enemy dead in nine months, according to military sources, though it was needless in practical terms since the Taliban could easily have melted away into the mountains. Why did they stand and fight?
On 21 August, four US soldiers were killed and three others wounded when an IED hit their convoy near Dai Chopan while engaged “in offensive operations to provide a safe environment for elections”. Over a month later, the crash of the Chinook transport nearby indicated the coalition operation in Zabul was going to continue long after the polling stations closed their doors.
It is considered rash to speculate on the whereabouts of Osama bin Ladin, but the rules are more relaxed about the location of Mullah Mohammed Omar, his host from 1996-2001 and the Taliban’s former supreme leader. He was last seen in January 2002, accelerating on a motorcycle into the hills of northern Helmand province, a few miles west of his hometown, to escape encirclement by a combined US-Afghan force.
Never reliably photographed - unlike his erstwhile guest - Mullah Omar has lived a charmed life since the fall of the Taliban, seemingly untroubled by informants seeking to cash in the $10 million bounty on his head. A man of few words, he rarely comments on the progress of the insurgency, leaving the task to Abdul Latif Hakimi, his little-believed spokesperson, who was arrested by Pakistani intelligence in Quetta, Baluchistan on 4 October.
Speculation as to the mullah’s current whereabouts tends to converge on Waziristan, a tribal territory across the border with Pakistan that is ruled by a Taliban-like administration. Bin Ladin and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are also suspected of hiding there.
Until the earthquake devastated Kashmir in early October, Pakistan had been waging a ferocious - and largely secret - campaign to rid the region of Al Qa’ida and Taliban forces, and to suppress indigenous support for their cause. It was first launched in March 2004 with the intention of capturing a “high-value target”, thought to be al-Zawahiri himself. Although that turned into a will o’ the wisp, the military built up its strength in North and South Waziristan to 70,000 men, supported by Cobra gunships, heavy artillery and, reportedly, Predator drones.
In late September 2005, Lt. General Safdar Hussain, their commander, told CBS’ 60 Minutes that 266 Pakistani soldiers had been killed since the start of the campaign and a further 600 wounded. If these figures are anywhere near accurate, they suggest that the insurgency in Waziristan is every bit as violent, if not more so, as the one in Afghanistan.
With one wing of the Taliban seeking to maximise its impact through a new association with the more successful Iraqi insurgency, it is tempting to view Mullah Omar as the historical throwback that he always appeared, only more isolated now. Nevertheless, he remains a high-profile figure in a target-poor environment in US eyes, given its lack of success in tracking down bin Ladin or al-Zawahiri.
His capture or killing would do little to stem the neo-Taliban’s acquisition of better weapons and skills, but it would deflate the residual support that exists for a movement that - unlike the Karzai government - did ensure individual security and a stern social compact under sharia law.
Faced with the ferocity of the offensive in Waziristan, any terrorist with an instinct for self-preservation will have rotated across the border to Afghanistan where US military operations are more predictable. If Mullah Omar was indeed ever there, he is more likely now to be clasped in the hospitable embrace of the Zabul triangle where US forces increasingly fear to tread.