On Kabul’s doorstep, Taliban emboldened by US withdrawal

As US president Barack Obama outlines America's withdrawal from Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents are reportedly growing in confidence.
Former Taliban fighters display their weapons as they join Afghan government forces during a ceremony in Herat province on May 2, 2012. Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan are reportedly growing in confidence as the US continues its on-going withdrawal from the country. Aref Karimi/AFP Photo
Former Taliban fighters display their weapons as they join Afghan government forces during a ceremony in Herat province on May 2, 2012. Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan are reportedly growing in confidence as the US continues its on-going withdrawal from the country. Aref Karimi/AFP Photo
KABUL // Encouraged by the impending withdrawal of Nato troops from Afghanistan, Taliban fighters near Kabul are increasingly able to hold ground and use heavy weapons against government forces.

An insurgent commander and local residents from the province of Maidan Wardak all told The National that rebels in the area are gaining confidence and adopting bold new tactics as the US and its allies prepare to leave the country at the end of this year.

They described a situation in which weapons including B-12 rockets and DShK heavy machine guns are being used more regularly because the militants can retain territory and have become less reliant on hit-and-run techniques. It is the kind of scenario Western officials have sought to discount in their public statements about the war, but one that many Afghans believe will be replicated elsewhere in the months ahead.

This week US President Barack Obama announced plans to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014, when most foreign forces will have withdrawn. These will gradually pull out until fewer than 1,000 remain at the end of 2016.

Qazi Mohammed Osman — a pseudonym — heads a small unit of Taliban insurgents deployed to carry out special operations in the Sayed Abad district of Maidan Wardak, less than an hour's drive from the Afghan capital. He gave a vivid account of how fighters in the area gradually regrouped after the Taliban regime suffered a catastrophic defeat in the 2001 US-led invasion.

Decimated nationwide and fearful of air strikes, he explained that it took years of lying low before they were confident enough to hit back. Only when their colleagues began to resist in provinces such as Kandahar, Helmand and Khost did they also start to make a move. Even then, they only attacked at night.

“Later on, after three or four years, the fighting started in the day time in our province. It would last for five or ten minutes, then stop,” he said. “Now, praise be to God, the Taliban are at the stage where they can fight front line to front line. Before they were fighting with light weapons, but now they are able to fight with heavy weapons.”

Wardak is a mountainous region situated to the west of Kabul with a majority ethnic Pashtun population that relies largely on farming for an income. The main road connecting the capital to southern Afghanistan runs through the province, making it strategically crucial.

Growing alarm over the deteriorating security there meant it became a key focus for the Obama administration from 2009 onwards. After years in which only a small contingent of foreign soldiers operated locally, thousands of US troops were sent to Wardak and neighbouring Logar province to try to stabilise the situation.

Now, in large parts of Wardak, the Taliban are reaping the benefits of the on-going withdrawal, with only a small number of US forces remaining there.

Like elsewhere in Afghanistan, even the threat of air strikes has significantly diminished — a fact Osman happily admitted. In his late 20s and a graduate in Sharia Law from Afghanistan's Nangarhar University, he described how one region in particular had fallen to the insurgents.

The Tangi Valley is a picturesque area of apple orchards and wheat fields connecting Wardak and Logar. According to Osman, the militants can move freely there and have de-facto control of the area.

“Last year the Americans left, all their bases were emptied and the Afghan army was left behind,” Osman said. “Now at both entrances to the valley there are [Afghan soldiers] but the valley itself is free. Eighty or ninety per cent of the area is with the Taliban and from there they can fight.”

He told The National this meant insurgents operating in the valley were able to use it as a staging post for DShK attacks and for firing B-12 and BM-1 rockets at government and military compounds in Sayed Abad district centre and nearby Sheikhabad. He added that the Taliban also operate with virtual impunity in another district of Wardak called Jaghatu.

Heavy weapons are not new to the rebels locally and they have been used to devastating effect in the past. In August 2011, a Chinook helicopter was shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade in Tangi, killing all 38 people on board — most of them US Navy Seals.

However, the insurgents once worried that using rockets and heavy machine guns on a regular basis slowed them and made them more vulnerable. That now seems to have changed.

Osman said the vast majority of the weapons were left over from the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, with local people ignoring a nationwide disarmament programme carried out after 2001 and selling or giving their stockpiles to the Taliban instead. Some are also smuggled in from Pakistan and Iran, while others are seized from Afghan forces. Osman said his weapon of choice is a US-issue M4 carbine he captured in battle.

Interviewed separately, residents of Wardak said they had noticed a growing confidence in the Taliban. And while some people clearly welcome the insurgents' presence, others are worried the bloodshed will escalate.

Hazrat Gul, a high school student, said he had witnessed militants transporting a heavy machine gun on a trailer fixed to the back of a tractor. After stopping and firing off a few rounds, they hid the gun and moved on.

“It has made the situation a lot worse because now after evening prayers no one can go out. Even if they are sick or have other problems they still cannot go out from their homes,” he said.

Zmarak, a businessman in Sayed Abad, summed up the feeling that the Taliban are in the ascendancy.

“Now only Kabul is safe. The rest of the land is not safe at all,” he said. “It is obvious their morale is very high.”

Earlier this year a Pentagon sponsored review of the war warned that the Taliban retained bases near the capital in Logar and Wardak.

The report, conducted by the CNA think tank, said the security situation would become “more challenging” after 2014, with the insurgency developing into a “greater threat”.

Earlier this month the Taliban announced the start of the movement's annual spring offensive, declaring it an individual's religious obligation to continue armed jihad until all foreign troops are expelled from Afghanistan and an Islamic state is established. Among the targets listed were officials, members of parliament, judges, translators and contractors.

The Taliban recently captured Yamgan district in the north-eastern province of Badakhshan, although it has since been retaken by Afghan forces. Fighting is expected to escalate across the country in the weeks ahead, but officials in Wardak insist the government can cope.

Al Haj Mohammed Hazrat Jan Hotak, a provincial councillor said: “When the weather gets warm the insurgents' movements increase. I am worried but our national security forces have multiple plans for this.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: May 28, 2014 04:00 AM

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