While the southern city of Kandahar reels from a series of suicide attacks, Kabul is enjoying a respite because of a little-publicized operation that officials say disrupted Taliban suicide training cells and scattered hundreds of fighters.
After 115 suicide attacks this year nationwide, including a rash of bombings this fall that killed almost 40 people in Kabul, the Afghan capital hasn’t suffered a suicide attack in two months.
Military officials had feared a bloody winter campaign in Kabul, saying 300 to 500 Taliban fighters had massed 60 miles north of the city in this isolated valley from which the earlier wave of attacks was launched.
But the operation in the Tagab Valley early last month wiped out three training compounds and drove out the Taliban fighters, U.S. Army Special Forces Lt. Col. Lynn Ashley told The Associated Press this week.
U.S. and NATO commanders are portraying the joint U.S.-Afghan operation as a model for taming the Taliban as it rebounds from its ouster by the U.S.-led invasion five years ago.
The militants had been able to gather so close to the capital partly because of the region’s rough terrain, Ashley said. Minor operations had been conducted against them, but never a full-scale push.
20 fighters killed
Abdul Satar Murad, governor of Kapisa province, said about 20 fighters — some of whom had come from Pakistan — were killed in the weeklong operation and the rest left the region.
After five suicide attacks in Kabul during the first eight months of the year, fighters had stepped up their offensive, with eight suicide bombings in September and October, said Maj. Dominic Whyte, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.
Two bombings in particular raised the specter of Baghdad-type violence: one on Sept. 8 near the U.S. Embassy that killed 16 people, including two U.S. soldiers, and another near the Interior Ministry on Sept. 30 that killed 12 Afghans.
The Taliban has launched seven suicide attacks within 11 days this month in the Kandahar region, its former power base, and Ashley said the assumption had been that Kabul was its next target.
But denying them Tagab Valley as a safe haven “will definitely lessen their ability to mass when they come out in the spring like they normally do,” he said in an interview at the U.S. base at Bagram.
Hearts and minds
About 250 U.S. special and conventional forces along with more than 800 Afghan troops and police launched the offensive. Murad, the governor, was closely involved in its planning and execution, heightening its success and cutting down on civilian casualties, Ashley said. The operation came with a hearts-and-minds effort in which medics treated hundreds of Afghans and passed out food supplies.
The U.S. has since built a small military base on a high plateau and is spending $3 million to improve its winding dirt access road. Work, previously delayed by security concerns, is moving fast, while Ashley says other projects such as a new cell phone tower have also moved ahead.
Murad said no police posts in his province have been attacked since the operation.
“Tagab was a key base for the Taliban,” Murad said, “but now NATO and coalition forces patrol regularly “and I’m sure the Taliban will not come back.”
The Afghan-U.S. cooperation in Tagab was held up as an example by Gen. David Richards, the top NATO general in Afghanistan, and by U.S. Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry.
‘Still we are afraid’
Afghan officials “needed to take ownership and they needed to do most of the (work) to liberate the valley,” Ashley said. “Our Special Forces teams enabled that to happen through their expertise and through close air support.”
Kabul, meanwhile, has calmed somewhat, but jitters remain.
“The situation has improved, but still we are afraid because the enemy, whenever it finds an opportunity, will do something,” said Faruz Ahmad, a 44-year-old moneychanger.
Ashley hopes not.
“As the people realize the government of Afghanistan is there to stay,” he said, “they won’t accept the Taliban back.”