Taliban waging larger attacks in eastern Afghanistan

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Until recently, guerrilla attacks in Afghanistan were hit-and-run assaults launched by small bands of gunmen. But fierce battles over the weekend brought an unprecedented show of force: Hundreds of fighters stormed into two towns and overran police stations.

The expanded attacks put more pressure than ever on a fragile U.S.-backed government struggling to rebuild a country following the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001.

Afghanistan's government vows it will do all it can to fight the more ambitious attacks, though it's not clear if the guerrillas are "getting stronger or just getting bolder," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad.

"What we see is that they have equipment and they seem to have money and they seem to be encouraging their followers to continue their campaign," Samad said.

The increased violence comes amid reports that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the ousted Taliban regime, has reorganized his fighters into regional commands around the country to carry out attacks.

On Sunday, more than 200 suspected Taliban insurgents crossed the border from Pakistan and overran the police station in Paktika province's Barmal district, killing eight officers, presidential spokesman Jawid Luddin said.

Afghan security forces killed 15 of the attackers, who later fled the area, said Paktika Gov. Mohammed Ali Jalali.

In a second assault later Sunday, another large group of attackers set fire to a police station at Tarway, a border village farther south, said provincial police chief Daulat Khan. Four officers were captured by the attackers, who retreated to Pakistan.

Luddin said "foreign elements" -- Urdu and Arabic speakers -- were involved in the cross-border assaults.

He said the attacks were "a major concern" that would be raised Thursday, when Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri visits Kabul.

It was impossible to independently verify the reports from Afghanistan because of the remoteness of the region. Eyewitnesses were not available because those who stayed to fight were killed or captured by the attackers.

The weekend violence was the latest in a wave of attacks that have underscored just how unstable Afghanistan remains, despite the presence of 11,500 coalition troops in the country.

Last Wednesday, 64 people were killed in various attacks around the country. Those deaths included casualties from a bus bombing that killed 15, a battle between feuding warlords, and another skirmish with insurgents.

Taliban members in hiding and western intelligence sources said Mullah Omar has divided Afghanistan into military areas of control, designating specific commanders in the southern and central provinces.

The same sources say attacks in the eastern provinces of Paktika, Paktia, Nangarhar and Kunar are being coordinated by Jalaluddin Haqqani, former Taliban minister of frontier affairs, and the former governor of Nangarhar province, Mullah Abdul Kabir.

The Taliban are also said to be coordinating with renegade rebel leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, while operatives of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida network are believed to be training insurgents.

Samad said Taliban guerrillas are receiving support from Pakistan, particularly communities in that country's northwestern tribal belt where political parties sympathetic to the Taliban hold sway.

Samad said Afghan authorities were deploying extra troops along the border, but the country doesn't have the resources to fight the insurgents on its own.

The government relies on military support from the U.S.-led coalition, which patrols volatile areas and can call in bombers and fighter jets to troubled areas.

The coalition has been able to pursue insurgents largely as they see fit inside Afghanistan, but have no authority to operate in Pakistan.

The Pakistan government withdrew its support for the Taliban and joined the U.S.-led war on terror in 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Despite that, the conservative tribal belt that runs along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan is still believed to be a haven for Taliban, who share ethnic and religious links to Pakistani tribesmen.

"Having a safe haven (in Pakistan) ... being there and not feeling threatened, has emboldened them," Samad said of the guerrillas.

Pakistan says it is doing all it can to prevent guerrillas from operating and has deployed thousands of troops along the frontier.

"They have to do much more than they already are," Samad said. "Their deeds have to match their words."

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