Afghanistan: insurgency spreads

A suicide attack in front of a mosque in Zaranj, capital of Nimroz province in southwest Afghanistan, killed 16 and wounded more than 30 others April 17. The attack took place as worshipers were preparing for evening prayers. At least two other suicide attacks have hit Nimroz this month, including an attack April 1 that left two police officers dead in Zaranj, and another on April 12 that killed two Indian road construction engineers and their Afghan driver in Khash Rod.

Suicide attacks in Afghanistan spiked last year, with more than 140 such missions. In central Ghazni province, militants ambushed a patrol of Afghan and foreign troops April 17 in Gilan district, and the ensuing clash left nine Taliban fighters dead, authorities said. A roadside bomb struck a Canadian military on that day near Spin Boldak on the Pakistani border. No one died in the blast, but NATO authorities declined to say whether any soldiers were wounded.

The insurgency has left more than 1,000 people dead so far this year, most of them militants, according to an Associated Press tally of figures provided by Afghan and NATO officials.

Meanwhile, NATO acknowledged that a privately-contracted helicopter had mistakenly dropped ammunition and other supplies intended for Afghanistan’s police force in an area where Afghan officials reported they were picked up by the Taliban. (AP, April 17)

The insurgency appears to be spreading from the south, the Taliban’s traditional stronghold, to the heretofore relatively peaceful north. Three German ISAF soldiers were injured in a roadside blast in northern Kunduz province March 27, the latest in a string of deadly attacks in the relatively peaceful northern provinces. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on a website used by insurgents.

Only days prior to the bombing, Taliban fighters ambushed a police convoy in the Pul-i-Archi area of Kunduz, killing a police commander and wounding several of his bodyguards. Insurgents also killed two Afghan crew members of a demining company in the Archi district on March 24, only days after five Afghan deminers were killed in an ambush in neighboring Jowzjan province. Eight other employees were wounded in the attack. Other recent attacks in Jowzjan, including the stabbing murder of the district governor of Khanaqa and an attack against a cellular antenna, highlight the Taliban’s aim to spread the insurgency into the north. A message by the Taliban’s second in command, Mullah Berader, appeared on the Internet in late March, boating that the “spring offensive” has begun.

A November 2007 suicide attack in the northern province of Baghlan, targeting a visiting parliamentary delegation, killed over 70 people, including scores of school children, teachers, security personnel and several politicians.

The Taliban’s main strategy since 2005 has been the infiltration of the isolated northwestern provinces of Badghis and Faryab, both of which have small Pashtun enclaves. Badghis province, the first northern province seized by the Taliban in 1996, has become one of the Taliban’s gateways into the north.

“We are trying to open up this route just as we did in the past,” regional Taliban commander Maulvi Dastagir told reporters in November. “Our policy is different up here. We have openly engaged the government and foreign forces in the south, but in the north we are quietly expanding our area. The government is weaker here than in the south and the mountains have provided good terrain for our operations.”

NATO’s 4,000 troops stationed in the north, led by Germany, are currently limited to reconstruction and advising activities. Germany and Spain have both repeated their desire to remain in a non-combat role and have threatened to pull out of Afghanistan if pushed into combat by other NATO partners. Switzerland recently withdrew its small commitment to the NATO mission over security concerns for its staff based in Kunduz. (, March 28)

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