Nato’s battle to subdue the Taliban in southern Afghanistan intensified at the weekend when the international force said it had killed 94 Taliban fighters in air strikes and ground attacks in the Kandahar region, bringing the toll from nine days of combat to more than 420 deaths.
Further east, in Paktia province, a suicide bomber with explosives strapped to his chest killed the provincial governor, Abdul Hakim Taniwal, his nephew and a bodyguard. A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the assassination and warned of more. “We have prepared a group of self-sacrificing attackers,” Muhammad Hanif, one of several individuals who claim to speak for the Taliban, told Associated Press.
Mr Taniwal, a former minister of mines, is the first governor to be killed since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Paktia borders Pakistan, whose president, General Pervez Musharraf, pledged last week to stop Taliban infiltration from bases in the country’s tribal belt.
In Kabul, a US military spokesman warned that “at least one” cell of suicide bombers was seeking targets in the city. “Their primary mission is to seek coalition or international troops and hit them with suicide bombs,” said Colonel Tom Collins. He said the squad remained “very much a threat”. On Friday, a massive suicide bomb killed 16 people, including two American soldiers, outside the US embassy, underscoring the insurgents’ ability to strike in the capital.
The fighting in southern Afghanistan has been sparked by Operation Medusa, a Nato-led sweep of the region that has triggered Afghanistan’s most intense fighting since 2001. Western officers and analysts say combat in Helmand and Kandahar, where British and Canadian troops are stationed, is more intense than in Iraq.
Nato’s estimate of Taliban deaths – 420 in nine days – accounts for almost half of some earlier estimates of the insurgents’ entire force. The toll cannot be verified as the battle zone is closed to reporters and the Taliban often bury their dead within hours. Five Canadians and one American have been killed.
If true, the Taliban casualty figures could suggest that either the insurgent ranks have swelled enormously or heavy civilian casualties have been inflicted.
Major Scott Lundy, a Nato spokesman in Kandahar, offered a third explanation. The term Taliban now refers to several layers of fighters composed of an ideologically driven hard core surrounded by a mix of hired local guns, drug smugglers and ordinary criminals, he said. Intelligence estimates put the size of the force at “several thousand”.
He admitted there had been “some civilian casualties” but said Nato had gone to considerable lengths to warn of the operation, including dropping leaflets over Panjwayi, one of the worst affected districts, and sending messages through local leaders. Nato members meet on Wednesday to consider an urgent request for between 2,000 and 2,500 extra troops to bolster the embattled mission.
Meanwhile, a British officer who quit the army after returning from Helmand last month has gone public with a dismal portrayal of the British mission. Captain Leo Docherty, the former aide-de-camp to the British commander Colonel Charlie Knaggs, told the Sunday Times the Afghan campaign was “a textbook example of how to screw up”.