U.S. and Afghan troops seized a key Taliban figure after a four-hour gunbattle — part of a strategy that NATO officials said Thursday had eliminated more than 100 insurgent leaders in the past four months.
The campaign to disrupt the Taliban's midlevel command structure is moving into high gear just as a new Afghan government is poised to offer economic incentives to lure low-level foot soldiers off the battlefield — a twin approach to pressure the Taliban's top echelon into seeking peace.
The campaign against the Taliban leadership — a strategy used successfully against both Sunni and Shiite insurgents in Iraq — is intensifying at a time of rising violence and growing concern in Washington and other allied capitals over the direction of the war. The 120,000-member NATO-led force is awaiting the arrival of a new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, who has warned of hard fighting this summer.
Surprise attacks against the Taliban leadership are carried out mostly by U.S. special operations troops, whose numbers in Afghanistan have tripled in the past year. Between April 1 and June 25, 110 Taliban figures, including shadow governors, commanders and their deputies and bomb makers, have been captured and 32 killed, according to Lt. Col. John Dorrian, an operations spokesman at NATO headquarters in Kabul.
He said another 500 insurgents have been killed or apprehended in the nearly daily operations — largely in the south where the Taliban are strongest.
"Intelligence is reporting that the insurgency is having difficulty replacing the leaders who have been taken off the battlefield," NATO chief spokesman Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz said. "One insurgent recently captured told the assault force that captured him that he was ... tired of running."
The latest reported capture happened Wednesday night when a prominent local Taliban leader was seized and 31 insurgents killed at a compound in the remote Baghran district in the northern part of Helmand province.
Taliban fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns before troops ordered a precision airstrike on their compound. Troops seized several other insurgents as well as dozens of automatic weapons, grenade launchers and 20 pounds of opium, NATO said. There were no Afghan or NATO casualties, the alliance said.
NATO routinely declines to identify captured Taliban leaders for security reasons. But Dawood Ahmadi, spokesman for the governor of Helmand province, said those captured included Mullah Nazar Mohammad, the Taliban district chief of Now Zad, and Mullah Malang, a Taliban commander in Baghran.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi denied that Malang, a longtime insurgent leader in the area, had been apprehended. "He is safe and sound with us," he told The Associated Press in Kandahar, the group's birthplace.
Other strikes in the south include the May 30 air attack that killed Haji Amir, one of the two most senior Taliban leaders in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province who led dozens of attacks after escaping from jail in June 2008. Last week, a local Taliban commander, Zia Agha, and his deputy known only as Faizullah were killed in an air strike as they planted a roadside bomb near Kandahar.
Focus on Helmand, Kandahar
Special operations raids are focused on the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where NATO and Afghan forces are ramping up security. On Thursday, they opened 11 checkpoints to ring Kandahar city, hoping to prevent Taliban insurgents from traveling into the city where they have assassinated and attacked Afghan officials and government supporters.
As efforts to dismantle the Taliban's midlevel leadership structure intensify, the Afghan government is working to persuade the lower-level Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons and return to their villages. This week, President Hamid Karzai signed a decree to launch the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program, offering protection, jobs, literacy and vocational training plus development aid for their villages.
NATO officials and Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a top Karzai adviser who crafted the program, have said that insurgents in seven of Afghanistan's 34 provinces — Herat, Helmand, Uruzgan, Paktia, Baghlan, Balkh and Day Kundi — have expressed interest in signing up for the reintegration program. To join, insurgents must renounce violence, declare their respect for the Afghan constitution and sever ties with al-Qaida or other terrorist networks.
"The future of the reintegration process is promising," Maj. Gen. Philip Jones, director of a reintegration unit at NATO headquarters in Kabul, told reporters Thursday. "There continue to be small pockets of reintegration occurring around the country and a few larger groups are starting to express interest in it as well. People realize that this program is a benefit to entire communities."
Insurgents are being urged to give up the fight at a time that violence is on the rise. Convinced that they are winning, the Taliban say they have no interest in reconciliation talks or the reintegration program, which Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said amount to empty promises from Karzai's "puppet" government.
Taliban: 'No interest in reconciliation'
"We have no interest in reconciliation with the enemy who has occupied Afghanistan or the puppets supporting foreign forces," Mujahid told AP. "We don't care about our own lives. For the past nine years, we have sacrificed for the Islamic system and the freedom of Afghans."
Not all special operations raids have been conducted in the south.
In April, Afghan and international troops in the northern province of Kunduz killed the Taliban's shadow provincial governor, Nur Mohammed, as well as an insurgent commander, two advisers and a deputy commander. A month later, a joint force killed the shadow governor of Baghlan province, his deputy and his successor in a series of operations.
Last week, the top Taliban commander for Logar province, Ghulam Sakhi, was killed while trying to escape a compound disguised as a woman, NATO said.
Associated Press Writers Mirwais Khan and Heidi Vogt in Kandahar and Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.