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Feb 5th, 2010

Late update

U.S. Offensive Aims to Turn Page in Afghan War

Image: British soldiers wait to be transported to a Helmand base
British soldiers wait to be transported to a base in the provincial capital Lashkar Gar in Camp Bastion, Helmand, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2010. The U.S. and allied partners believe they have a better shot at blunting the growth of the Taliban. (Photo credit: Baris Atayman / Reuters)

Feb. 5, 2010

KABUL — A new and possibly decisive chapter of the Afghan war is unfolding. The U.S. is preparing a major attack on the Taliban, the militants are being squeezed in their Pakistani sanctuaries, and the Afghan government is trying to draw them into peace talks. …

Much could still go wrong. Even if all the cards fall in NATO’s favor, the conflict will likely persist for years.

But the U.S. and its partners now have a better shot at blunting the growth of the Taliban, the austere Islamic movement that rebounded four years ago after being driven from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion after it refused to severe links to al-Qaida.

If NATO recaptures the momentum, it could encourage the militants in time to seek a political settlement, which U.S. officials believe is the only way to end the conflict.

Deploying Obama’s mission

For now, attention is focused on what will be the first big test of President Barack Obama’s surge — an assault by thousands of U.S. Marines and soldiers on Marjah, a southern Afghan city of 80,000 people and the hub of Taliban logistics. Aid teams are supposed to follow the troops to re-establish public services and government control in hopes of winning public support.

It will be the first major combat operation since Obama last December ordered 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, gambling on turning the tide of war. Other NATO countries added 7,000 more.

The Taliban, mindful that Obama also pledged to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in mid-2011, claim to be undaunted by the surge.

“The number of Taliban fighters is increasing day by day, not only in the south but in the north of Afghanistan as well,” says Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi. “It doesn’t matter if the Americans increase the number of soldiers, the Taliban will continue to pursue jihad,” he told The Associated Press.

Insurgent forces have grown steadily in Afghanistan — from fewer than 400 in 2004 to nearly 30,000, by NATO estimate. …

Uncertain future

For years, it has been hard to see any glimmer of hope amid rising casualties, roadside bombs and suicide attacks in a chaotic country with a centuries-old tradition of banishing foreign armies.

Last year, according to AP’s count, at least 499 U.S. and NATO service members died in Afghanistan, almost as many as in the previous two years combined, and U.S. officials warn of more bloodshed to come. …

Taliban shadow governments now operate in nearly all 34 provinces. Taliban courts mete out Islamic justice and settle village property disputes often faster — and many Afghans say more fairly — than the government’s own judiciary.

Related video

Video shows Taliban punishment (MSNBC, Feb. 5, 2010) — New video emerges from Pakistan’s tribal belt showing Taliban militants flogging two men and a teenage boy.’s Dara Brown reports. (02:11)

Last month, Taliban suicide fighters stormed the center of Kabul [link added], paralyzing the capital for hours and sending government officials fleeing to bunkers before the attackers were all killed.

Mullah Mahmood, a village elder and former Taliban commander in Ghazni province, said his district has seen an influx of militants returning from Pakistan. They patrol on motorbikes in groups of 10 to 15, run Islamic courts and require families to contribute one man to their ranks, he told the AP.

“The pressure from the Pakistani army and drones is causing people to come here,” he said. “This year they have new Japanese motorcycles, weapons and bullets. Villagers are providing food.”


However, the Taliban have had little success in recruiting outside the Pashtun community, the largest ethnic group with about 40 percent of the population. Although disenchantment with the Karzai government extends nationwide, so far the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks have shown little enthusiasm for the Taliban, which massacred many of them in the 1990s.

Richard Barrett, chief of the U.N.’s al-Qaida and Taliban monitoring team, says the movement may be approaching the limits of its expansion, but there are signs it is becoming more cohesive. It is developing a command structure that extends from the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, to commanders in the field.

Previous attempts at reconciliation faltered, in part for lack of funding. The U.N. says only about 170 ex-militants left the insurgency last year under local peace plans.

“We’ve done a good job bringing them in,” said Sana Gul Kochai, the head of the reconciliation program for the eastern province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan. “But of course they become disappointed and demoralized when they don’t get land or jobs.”

Are peace talks possible?

Qari Fazel Rahman Farouqi, who fled Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and led a cell attacking NATO supply convoys in Pakistan, said he was willing to take a chance on reconciliation. …

Karzai also hopes to draw the Taliban into peace talks, but U.S. officials are skeptical because the insurgents are sure they are winning the war — a certainty the U.S. military hopes to change in the upcoming offensive.

Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations and an adviser to the U.S. military on Afghanistan, says one of the risks of robust peace overtures is that the Taliban will take them as a sign of desperation.

“One of the things the other side is trying to find out is how committed are we to succeeding,” Biddle said.


Related reports on this site

Operation Moshtarak Has Begun (Feb. 13, 2010)

Marines Mass for Marjah Assault (Feb. 10, 2010)

Afghanistan Fog of War (Jan. 31, 2010)

Deadly Day in AfPak War Zone (Jan. 23, 2010)

Taliban Attack Caught on Camera (Jan. 22, 2010)

Taliban Siege Rattles Kabul (Jan. 19, 2010)

Deadly Day in Afghanistan (Jan. 11, 2010)

Afghan Soldier Kills U.S. Troop (Dec. 29, 2009)

Outside the Box in Afghanistan (Dec. 20, 2009)

Public Opinion on Afghan Surge (Dec. 17, 2009)

Iraq, AfPak Have Little in Common (Dec. 5, 2009)

Obama Rolls Dice on AfPak War (Dec. 2, 2009)

Afghanistan Tougher Than Iraq (Nov. 28, 2009)

Escalating Afghanistan Violence (Nov. 20, 2009)

Iraq-AfPak War Update (Nov. 8, 2009)

Afghan War Closes in on Kabul (Oct. 28, 2009)

14 Americans Dead in Afghanistan (Oct. 26, 2009)

U.S. Troops ‘Sitting Ducks’ (Oct. 19, 2009)


U.S. officers faulted in deadly Afghan attack (MSNBC, Feb. 5, 2010) — MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan and NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski discuss a Pentagon report on a recent Taliban assault in Afghanistan which faults outpost commanders for not doing enough to improve the base’s defenses or to analyze intelligence that the enemy was planning a major assault. (05:41)

Afghan War Expands to Region (Oct. 8, 2009)

Afghanistan: The 8-Year War (Oct. 7, 2009)

Deadly Day for U.S. in Afghanistan (Oct. 4, 2009)

Afghanistan War Strategy Review (Oct. 3, 2009)

‘Tiring’ of Afghanistan War (Sept. 25, 2009)

Afghanistan “Mission Failure” (Sept. 21, 2009)

9 Coalition Troops Killed (Sept. 19, 2009)

NATO HQ in Afghanistan Attacked (Aug. 15, 2009)

Mumbai-Like Strike in Kabul (Feb. 12, 2009)


Earlier report

Suicide Bomb Kills 6 in Afghan South

Blast comes as coalition forces gear up for major offensive

Feb. 4, 2010

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A suicide car bomber detonated his explosives near a hotel in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, killing at least six people and wounding nearly two dozen, officials said.

The blast in Kandahar happened as NATO and Afghan forces are preparing for a joint offensive against Taliban militants in the neighboring province of Helmand in a major bid to break the Taliban stranglehold on the south. …

The blast occurred in a busy commercial area near a major road that is frequently used by U.S. officials and other dignitaries in Kandahar, the main commercial center of the south. …

NATO has sent reinforcements into Kandahar, 260 miles southwest of Kabul, fearing the Taliban were encroaching on the city of 800,000 people. At the same time, the international community launched a program of economic aid and development projects. …

New offensive

A start date for the Marjah offensive has not been released for security reasons. But U.S. and Afghan commanders have said it will be soon.

The operation will be the first major offensive since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and many of the Marines set to participate arrived as part of the surge. Marjah is the largest city in the south under Taliban control.

Unlike past operations, the plans for Marjah have been widely publicized by U.S. and Afghan commanders in hopes that many civilians and Taliban fighters not deeply committed to the insurgency will leave the town.

Joint forces raided Taliban compounds in the village of Khushan in Helmand’s Nad Ali district on Wednesday morning, killing 32 militants, according to provincial government spokesman Daoud Ahmadi. …

McChrystal: Making progress

Meanwhile, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said Thursday the security conditions there are no longer “deteriorating.”

Gen. Stanley McChrystal acknowledged the Taliban has made strides and said he is “not prepared to say we’ve turned a corner.” Yet he said the Afghan government and U.S. forces are making progress that leaves him feeling more optimistic about than he did last summer, when he said conditions were backsliding.

“I feel differently now,” he told reporters in Istanbul.

McChrystal’s comments stand in contrast to those of officials in Afghanistan and other countries who say the Taliban’s influence is expanding and that the situation there has worsened.

Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization — a federation of Central Asian states created by Moscow — said on Thursday that Afghanistan was “explosive” and “catastrophically deteriorating.” His comments were reported by Itar-Tass, the Russian news agency. …


Late update

Bombs Hit Pakistan Bus, Hospital; 25 Dead

Image: Damage caused by a bomb blast
Two bombs exploded in Pakistan’s largest city Friday, Feb. 5, 2010, one outside the hospital treating victims from an earlier attack on Shiite Muslim worshippers. (Photo credit: Shakil Adil / AP)

Feb. 5, 2010

KARACHI, Pakistan — Suspected Sunni militants bombed a bus carrying Shiite worshippers and two hours later attacked a hospital treating the victims, killing 25 people and wounded 100 on Friday in a strike on Pakistan’s largest city.

The blasts in the southern city of Karachi were the latest sign of the instability tearing at the nuclear-armed nation, which the United States regards as key to its hopes of defeating a related Taliban insurgency across the border in Afghanistan. …

Full story


2/20/10 Update: Pakistan violence continues

A Pakistani bomb disposal squad member removes a s...
A Pakistani bomb disposal squad member removes a suicide jacket from a body of an attacker at the premises of a local police station in the northwestern town of Mansehra on Feb. 20, 2010. Three policemen were wounded in a gunfight when two suicide bombers stormed into a police station in a northwestern Pakistani town, police said. (Photo credit: Sajjad Qayyum / AFP — Getty Images)



Motorbike Bomber Kills 20 in Iraq Holy City

The Associated Press and Reuters via
Feb. 3, 2010

KARBALA, Iraq — A bomb on a parked motorcycle exploded early Wednesday on the outskirts of the holy city of Karbala, killing at least 20 Shiite pilgrims and wounding 110 others, officials said.

The blast was the latest in a string of attacks this week that have targeted pilgrims making their way to an important Shiite religious observance in Karbala, raising fears of a spike in attacks when the pilgrimage culminates Friday.

The bomb exploded at about 11 a.m. in an area known as Ibrahimia, near the east entrance — one of three — into Karbala, the official said. The city is located 50 miles south of Baghdad. …

Two other bombings

Earlier Wednesday, two separate roadside bombs targeting Shiite pilgrims exploded in Baghdad, killing one and wounding seven others, a security official in the capital said. …

Wednesday’s attacks follow a suicide bombing two days earlier north of Baghdad that killed 54 Shiite pilgrims.


Sectarian pilgrimage violence continues

Blast Kills 40 at Height of Iraq Shiite Pilgrimage

Image: Residents gather near a damaged vehicle at the site of a bomb attack in Kerbala
Residents gather near a damaged vehicle at the site of a bomb attack in the holy city of Kerbala. (Photo credit: Mushtaq Muhammed / Reuters)

Feb. 5, 2010

BAGHDAD — Twin car bombs tore through a crowd of Shiite pilgrims packing a highway as they walked to a holy city south of Baghdad on Friday for a major religious observance, killing at least 40 people and wounding more than 150, Iraqi officials said.

It was the third deadly bombing this week hitting the ceremony in which hundreds of thousands of Shiites have been converging on the city of Karbala. Friday’s attack struck during the culmination of the pilgrimage. …

Full story


Related report on this site

Iraq Mass Casualty Bombing (Feb. 1, 2010)


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — February 5, 2009 (#1)

Image: burned trucks
Pakistani drivers gather next to burned trucks, torched by militants on the outskirts of Landi Kotal, a town close to the Pakistani tribal area of Khyber, after being stranded in Pakistan by the bombing of a key bridge on the main supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (Photo credit: Qazi Tariq / AP)

Iraq Fighters Flood Afghanistan

One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported that with the reduction of violence in Iraq following a U.S. troop “surge” and other measures, foreign militants were flooding into Afghanistan to join Taliban insurgents battling Afghan and international troops.


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — February 5, 2009 (#2)

Obituary: Bruce Wollmering, OSB

One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported that Father Bruce Wollmering OSB, monk and priest, died suddenly on February 4, 2009 at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn.

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