Afghanistan A Hot Winter Passes By

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Two major clashes occurred during the month between the Taliban and NATO. The first was in the area of Paktika on the Eastern border in the district of Bermal. NATO forces claimed to have killed 150 Taliban infiltrating from Pakistan in two large groups. Heavy air and artillery fire power was employed to engage the insurgents. NATO forces indicated that these groups were tracked and then engaged effectively. Pakistani forces were reportedly informed.

The second clash took place in Helmand province where British forces have been deployed. The fighting broke out in the Kajaki district where the British launched a major operation in which reportedly 30 Taliban were killed.

Rise of the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar faction is also noticeable. Hekmatyar in an interview to Geo Television recently claimed that he had helped Osama Bin Laden escape from Tora Bora caves in 2001 but had not maintained any contacts subsequently with the group. The Hezb e Islami which is active in Eastern Pakistan had attempted to ally with the Taliban as per Hekmatyar who had spurned the offer. Hekmatyar also threatened a Soviet style defeat of the Western forces in Afghanistan.

Pressure on Pakistan

Afghan government and Western agencies mounted pressure on Pakistan government for supporting the Taliban. A number of accusations were leveled against the Taliban by US as well as NATO officials. The Afghan government uncovered an erstwhile Taliban spokesman captured in Helmand who claimed that Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader was in hiding in Quetta in Pakistan supported by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. A claim which Pakistan has consistently rejected.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on a visit to Afghanistan also indicated that the number of attacks from across the border had increased after the famous truce in North Waziristan in September 2006. United States military officials also indicated that cross border attacks had increased over a period to almost thrice the number even accusing Pakistan’s border guards of ignoring the infiltration. (Hindustan Times, 18 January 2007).

Carlotta Gill reporting for the New York Times reproduced in Indian Express (22 January 2007), claimed that there was open support for the Taliban in Quetta. A number of families in Quetta indicated that they had sent their sons as suicide bombers due to pressure from Pakistani intelligence agents. Some of the villages near the Pakistan Afghanistan border in Balochistan in Pishin district such as Karbala is said to be the main support of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The village as per Gill’s report has well constructed precincts raising suspicions of funds from varied sources. The traditional Pakistan concept of strategic depth by keeping the Afghanistan situation on the boil or under a government which is aligned towards Islamabad is Pakistan’s strategy as per Gill’s report giving references of western diplomats. Boards indicating Long Live Mullah Omar are also reported in the Hajji Ghabi Road in Quetta. Pakistan is reported to be manipulating the West’s interests in the region by carrying out strikes as the most recent one at Zamazolla in Southern Waziristan on seeing greater Western pressure or prior to visits of senior US officials to Afghanistan.

The support of retired Pakistan intelligence officials as the influential former chief of the ISI Hamid Gul to Taliban is open. However the current intelligence officials seem to be under better control of the government unlike in the heady days of the ISI under Gul when the agency was seen as a state within a state in Pakistan.

In the Western province of Afghanistan the influence of Iran is evident. This is reported to have created tension between the Shia and Sunni factions in the key city of Heart. The influence of Iran in creating a Sunni – Shia rift is said to be a greater danger than the Taliban in this area.

Taliban Activities

Taliban reportedly claimed that they would open schools in the six southern provinces under their control firstly for boys and later girls, though the teaching will be based on the Shariah. (Hindustan Times, 18 January 2007).

India’s Soft Power in Afghanistan

India increased assistance to Afghanistan by $ 100 million, which makes a total package of $ 750 million which will be paid directly to the beneficiaries. How this can be achieved without a sizeable presence in the region is not very evident. Community outreach projects as schools will be the main form of support. India’s larger role in the region is however contingent upon transit passage to the country by Pakistan which is reluctant to grant the same. (Indian Express, 24 January 2007). India is already the fifth largest donor in Afghanistan.

India is also actively sponsoring Afghanistan to be an active member of SAARC. The foreign minister thus visited Kabul to invite President Karzai for the SAARC summit in April.

The Indian community was warned to stay away from the volatile southern region of Afghanistan such as the Khost area. The Indian Foreign minister, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee highlighted this to the Indian community during a visit to Kabul. The rise of the Taliban contributing to this threat was also indicated by the Minister. The area of concern was denoted as Kandahar, Paktika, Khost, Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar and Nuristan. (Indian Express, 25 January 2007). Security-risks.com has been consistently providing increasing risks in these areas (except Laghman) for the past six months on its web site, www.security-risks.com. Security measures proposed include launching of an online registry, meakabul.nic.in to support the 3000 odd Indian community in the country.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.