Coalition Aims at Heading off Taliban Advance towards Kabul
“Operation Mountain Thrust,” the biggest coalition offensive since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, has taken US-led forces deep into the remote mountains of the south. Its primary purpose is to abort the revived Taliban’s drive to retake Kabul the capital, and the key city of Herat.
The operation was launched Thursday, June 15, by a combined 11,000-strong force of 2,300 American, 2,000 British, 2,000 Canadian and 6,000 Afghan soldiers. It is being fought in the southern mountains of Uruzgan. Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul. All four provinces border on Pakistan. The Taliban offensive of recent months has left 40 foreign troops dead this year, most of them American. In the past month, more than 600 people have been killed, mostly rebels, in attacks in the four provinces which were launched ahead of the NATO takeover of control from US forces.
The commander of American forces in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, said Monday, June 19, “We are going to continue putting heavy pressure on insurgent sanctuaries and known areas of operation to rid this country of those who seek only to destroy and prevent progress.”
He warned that Operation Mountain Thrust would go on through the summer and was not limited in time.
US spokesmen noted that Sunday, June 18, was the first time coalition soldiers had ventured into the Bagham Valley north of Helmund. They landed by helicopter, surprising the Taliban, which had not expected them to reach so far into the remote mountains. The force quickly set up artillery and fortified positions primed to block off Taliban movements and cut its mainline supply routes below.
Taliban spokesman Qari Muhammad Yousef reacted to this thrust by commenting: “We have anti-aircraft guns and thousands of fighters” in the four provinces “and we will use every strategy to hurt them.”
As for the American surprise landing atop the mountain ridges, Yousef claimed: “We received information regarding such attacks in advance and also received information about the said operations.”
debkafile‘s counter-terror sources conclude that, beyond the verbal sparring, a harsh reality has developed in southern Afghanistan: four and a half years after its eviction, the Taliban has made a comeback in roughly one-third of the country or even, according to some sources, one half.
The insurgents’ tactical gains in the four provinces are important because –
Helmund and Kandahar abut on Pakistani Balochistan, the present location of al Qaeda’s center of operation and a section of its main route for shuttling fighters and arms to and fro from Pakistan to Iran and hence to Iraq.
Kandahar is adjacent to the border of Pakistani Quetta Pishin, whose indigenous tribes and clans collaborate closely with al Qaeda.
Zabul, the fourth province targeted by the coalition offensive, is separated by an unmarked, porous border from the semi-autonomous Pakistan tribal lands of North and South Waziristan, which have fallen largely under Taliban and al Qaeda domination.
Operation Mountain Thrust therefore faces three problems which it has little hope of curing:
1. The bulk of Taliban strength is not out in the open in the four regions targeted but tucked away safely across the border in Waziristani sanctuaries. However hard the coalition may hit the insurgents in southern Afghanistan, they will still retain plenty of reinforcements in reserve and out of reach. The Taliban can either send them across into Afghanistan or wait until the fall of 2006 when the first mountain snow halts Mountain Thrust and then recapture the territory they lost in the summer.
2. Even further out of reach of the coalition offensive are the Taliban’s backers, thanks to which the rebel forces enjoy broad leeway for their military operations in Afghanistan.
The most important is the Pakistan intelligence agency, SIS, which has reverted to its former support for the Taliban, feeding the Afghan insurgents with arms, money and intelligence data.
The second are the opium farmers and marketers. Taliban provides protection for the poppy fields and the drug’s smuggling routes to Pakistan and Iran. In Pakistan, al Qaeda’s smuggling networks take over part of the produce from the Taliban and handle its consignment to the Middle East, Europe and the Far East.
The Taliban finds a third mainstay in disaffected Afghan tribes and clans which have turned against President Hamid Kharzai because of the corruption eating into his regime in Kabul. Government services do not reach the remote four provinces of the south and they are kept short of minimum needs for food, running water, electricity, education and medical care.
3. In the view of debkafile‘s military experts, the coalition force of 11,000 men is far below the strength required to take on a guerilla force, which is not concentrated in two or three bases, but scattered across 200,000 square miles of wild terrain, rugged mountains, steep valleys, and dry rivers. The formidable task they face recalls the ordeal experienced by US forces in the deserts of western Iraq in their forays to root out al Qaeda and Sunni guerrilla enclaves. Those enclaves are still in place.
Because of these difficulties, the US-led force is focusing on controlling the mountainous Bagham Valley north of Helmund Province, which commands the main roads heading north to the capital and west to the key city of Herat near the Iranian border. This strategic location offers the Taliban its best potential jumping-off point for the capture of Kabul and Herat and is therefore worth fighting for. For Operation Mountain Thrust, the most urgent mission is to cut off Taliban routes to those strategic cities and only then to start uprooting them from the southern Afghanistan.