Brains, not brawn, in Afghanistan

Posted in Broader Middle East , Afghanistan | 29-Apr-08 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

Newly-graduated Afghan soldiers march during a ceremony in Kabul on April 24, 2008.

KARACHI - Sunday's brazen attack on a military parade in the Afghan capital Kabul at which President Hamid Karzai was officiating marks the beginning of a new phase in the Afghan insurgency in which attrition will be the focus.

Taliban fighters armed with machine guns and grenade launchers sent salvos into the back of the stage on which Karzai was seated with a host of Afghan and foreign dignitaries gathered to mark the 16th anniversary of the fall of the last communist government.

Three Afghans and three Taliban were killed. Sunday's event was also aimed at showcasing the Afghan army's new training and equipment, mainly from the United States. It had been planned for weeks and security was at maximum levels, yet the Taliban came within 500 meters of the stage.

Sunday's attackers penetrated no fewer than 18 security rings around the parade's venue and they used their latest weaponry - small mortars that are only manufactured by a few Western countries, including Israel. In Al-Qaeda adds muscle to the Taliban's fight (Asia Times Online, April 19, 2008) it was reported how the Taliban will use specialized weapons to launch precision attacks on high-profile targets.

Asia Times Online contacts say the armed men belonged to legendary Afghan mujahid Jalaluddin Haqqani's network and were facilitated by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami network in Kabul. Hekmatyar is an Afghan warlord and politician par excellence.

Ironically, Sunday's parade celebrated the victory of the mujahideen over the communists, which in turn led to several years of the country's worst-ever factional fighting until the student militia - the Taliban movement - seized power in 1996 and kicked out all the mujahideen leaders from governance.

The parade was attended by senior North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and United Nations officials, tribal leaders, diplomats and parliamentarians and was the most high-profile assault by anti-Western coalition militants since the suicide attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul on January 14.

The incident serves as a sharp reminder to people in the capital that the Taliban are not a spent force, as senior US commanders in Afghanistan like to relate.

Last week, Karzai criticized US-led coalition forces for their conduct in the "war on terror" in Afghan villages, alleging the real terrorist threat lay in the sanctuaries of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan.

These differences highlight the complex nature of the struggle in Afghanistan, and the constant changes both sides make as they try to exploit and bleed each other's weak spots.

The Taliban, for instance, have forgone their traditional direct-confrontation offensives against NATO's powerful war machine, while NATO is becoming less reliant on indiscriminate large-scale aerial bombing.

The Taliban tried to chop off NATO's supply lines through Khyber Agency in Pakistan, and this time NATO responded with intelligence rather than bullets, managing to get the Taliban's key patron in the agency to change sides. (See Taliban bitten by a snake in the grass Asia Times Online, April 26, 2008.)

Lessons of the battle of Nuristan
This month, US-led troops and Afghan security forces, backed by air power, reported they had killed a "significant" number of militants in a fight in the northeast province of Nuristan.

Initial reports said the attack involved Hekmatyar's fighters. However, the operation was conducted by a special Taliban guerilla group commanded by Shaheen Abid, whom Asia Times Online interviewed last November at Nawa Pass on the Pakistan border with Afghanistan. (See Death by the light of a silvery moon.)

In a change from previous years, NATO has made it a priority to understand the workings of the Taliban. So it was able to identify Abid as the leader of the attack, and tracked him back to Nawa Pass, where he was placed under surveillance.

On April 22, Abid's group launched another attack, on the Afghan National Army in eastern Afghanistan. But this time his movements were followed, and while returning to Nawa Pass he and nine of his group were killed.

By being smart, rather than relying on "smart bombs", NATO has eliminated a highly skilled Taliban combat group.

Similarly, commanders such as Haqqani have refined their methods, in Haqqani's case by orchestrating suicide attacks and missions such as Sunday's in Kabul.

Indeed, the Taliban have lined up a stream of attackers to target Kabul to rattle the Afghan government and NATO forces in coming days and weeks.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at