Reuters on Tuesday, April 01, 2003
KABUL – As American forces get ever deeper involved in military action against Iraq, an old foe is trying to take advantage. Afghanistan’s former Taliban rulers are seeking to open a new front against U.S. and allied troops with a series of rocket attacks and ambushes in the past two weeks.
The Taliban campaign, which Afghan government officials say is being orchestrated from Pakistani territory, has claimed the lives of two American soldiers and a foreign aid worker in a week, and threatens to undermine aid work throughout southern Afghanistan.
“We are concerned about an upsurge in activities from across the border into Afghanistan,” said a senior Afghan official.
“In the past few days, small groups of people have been apprehended, well equipped and well armed, and with money, sent over to capitalize on the Iraqi situation.”
The Taliban was ousted in 2001 by U.S.-backed opposition groups and a massive U.S. air campaign, but much of the radical militia’s leadership melted away into the Afghan mountains or across into Pakistan.
The U.S. military has been warning for weeks that “enemy” forces were trying to regroup and might launch attacks to coincide with the start of war in Iraq. The arrival of spring, the traditional Afghan fighting season, has also fueled fears that the Taliban would try to stage a comeback.
Those fears seemed to be borne out last week with the roadside killing of an El Salvadorean Red Cross employee in the south of the country, the first death of a foreign aid worker in Afghanistan for at least five years.
And it was underlined when a Taliban commander gave a telephone interview the next day # the first of its kind since the militia was chased from its southern stronghold of Kandahar in December 2001.
Mullah Dadullah, one of the group’s leading military commanders, vowed the movement would fight until “Jews and Christians, all foreign crusaders” were expelled.
Echoing a February statement purporting to have come from fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, he appealed to government officials to abandon the U.S.-backed administration.
“We warn Afghan government officials, whether they are senior or junior, not to stand beside the puppet and slave regime…otherwise they will be treated like Americans,” he said.
Senior Pakistani journalist, Rahimullah Yusufzai, who has long-standing contacts with the Taliban, interviewed Dadullah and says he has no doubt the threat is serious.
“His boldness to agree to an interview in his own voice is very significant,” Yusufzai said. “The Taliban are more focused in the last few months, and after the attack on Iraq, they feel they can strike hard.”
Resentment against the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is growing in the south and east of the country, where their hunt for remnants of the al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden and its Taliban protectors has been most intense and promised foreign aid has been slow to arrive.
The Americans insist their Afghan activities will not be affected by the war in Iraq and have launched two major operations in the past few weeks.
Yusufzai says the Taliban have few fighting men and resources, but can mount an effective guerilla campaign, especially with the tacit support of fellow Pashtun tribesmen.
“They can easily reorganize and make life difficult for the Afghan authorities and the Americans. But they would not be able to force a change # the majority of Afghans don’t want more fighting.”
A day after Dadullah’s interview, a large group of suspected Taliban rebels engaged government forces north of Kandahar, but dispersed after bombing by European F-16 warplanes.
To the west, two American soldiers were killed in a roadside ambush in Helmand province, while on Sunday, a rocket landed at the headquarters of the international peacekeepers in Kabul.
The blast caused no injuries, but the accuracy with which it struck its target left peacekeepers talking of the most “sophisticated” attack they have faced in the capital.
In the corridors of government and among senior U.S. military officers inside Afghanistan, there is frustration that Pakistan has not done more to arrest Taliban leaders hiding on its soil.
“It’s a source of irritation to say the least,” said the senior official. “We have Taliban leaders with criminal records in Pakistan’s cities…given free rein to plan and stage attacks across the border.”
Within the aid community, the death of the Red Cross worker has left a deep sense of shock, and is likely to place further restrictions on organizations’ ability to reach vulnerable people in Afghanistan’s volatile southern badlands.