Monday, September 04, 2006

Heavy toll as NATO attacks Taliban

Heavy toll as NATO attacks Taliban
By Carlotta Gall
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: September 3, 2006

KABUL Afghan and NATO forces have mounted a large-scale operation against Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan just west of Kandahar amid fears that the rebels were preparing a major offensive against the city. Four NATO soldiers were killed and seven were wounded in heavy fighting, Afghan and alliance officials said Sunday.

The NATO civilian spokesman in Afghanistan, Mark Laity, said reports from the field were estimating that 200 Taliban fighters had been killed. In addition, he said, 80 Taliban were reported captured by Afghan troops and 180 people were seen fleeing from the area.

An Afghan spokesman earlier put the figure at 89 Taliban dead. It was not clear if there were any civilian casualties among them. Death toll estimates in general have been impossible to verify.

NATO also lost 14 British military personnel who were killed when an air force Nimrod spy plane crashed Saturday while the alliance and Afghan forces mounted the drive against the rebels, Reuters reported.

In a separate development regarding Afghanistan, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, announced over the weekend that the opium harvest this year had reached the highest levels ever recorded in the country, showing an increase of almost 50 percent over last year.

He described the figures as "alarming" and "very bad news" for the Afghan government and for international donors who have poured millions of dollars into programs to reduce the poppy crop since 2001.

Costa said the increase in cultivation was fueled by the resurgence of Taliban rebels in the south, the country's prime opium-growing region.

Hundreds of Taliban fighters have been massing in the two districts of Panjwai and Zhare, just west of Kandahar, and moving around the area for months, raising the level of violence with attacks on and near the main highway and sparking fears in Kandahar of an imminent attack.

"The Taliban presence in Panjwai is undoubtedly having a large psychological effect on Kandahar and has to be dealt with," a senior NATO officer said last week. NATO officials said they had planned a long and slow operation to clear the area of Taliban fighters.

That would allow Afghanistan to establish security so that displaced families could return home in safety and reconstruction could begin.

Heavy fighting in May and sporadic violence since then have forced hundreds of families to flee the area and seek refuge in Kandahar city. Aerial bombing by NATO and a suicide car bomb in the busy bazaar of Panjwai have caused dozens of civilian casualties in the area in recent months.

On Friday, NATO forces in Kandahar Province, which are mostly Canadian troops, began targeting the area with 40 artillery and airstrikes, said the Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, General Zaher Azimi.

Then at dawn Sunday, Afghan and NATO forces began a ground offensive. They immediately encountered mines, but cleared the area and moved forward slowly, Azimi said. The main fighting occurred around Pashmul village in Zhare district, he said.

"This is completely different from other operations," Azimi said. "We are going very slowly. We will not abandon again the places we are capturing." The operation will take weeks, Azimi said.

NATO and the Afghan authorities said they had warned the local population of the approaching operation, in an attempt to avoid civilian casualties. NATO said it had told people to leave the area, but the governor of Kandahar said people were told not to allow the Taliban into their houses and not to go out on the roads.

A NATO spokesman, speaking at a news conference earlier in the day, said that NATO forces had encountered a "substantial number of insurgents in that area" and that the Taliban had built defenses in some areas to fight NATO and government troops.

The governor of Kandahar, Asadullah Khalid, said by telephone, "Pashmul is very close to the main highway from Helmand to Kandahar, and it is populated by different tribes, so that is why it was very important strategically to the Taliban."

He said that he had wanted to move against the Taliban for months but that the Afghan police were too weak and that NATO and Afghan forces often were occupied elsewhere.

As the insurgents have stepped up their attacks, they have also encouraged and profited from the drug trade, promising protection to growers if they worked to expand their opium operations.

Costa, the UN anti-crime official, said at a news briefing Saturday, "This year's harvest will be around 6,100 metric tons of opium - a staggering 92 percent of total world supply. It exceeds global consumption by 30 percent."

He said the harvest increased sharply, outpacing the previous record of 4,600 metric tons, recorded in 1999 while the Taliban governed the country. The area of land planted with poppy increased by 59 percent, to 165,000 hectares, or about 400,000 acres, in 2006, compared with 104,000 hectares in 2005.

"It is indeed very bad," Costa said in an interview. "You can say it is out of control."

President Hamid Karzai expressed disappointment at the results in a statement over the weekend and urged the international community to expand its commitment to strengthen the Afghan police and law enforcement agencies.

The Bush administration has made poppy eradication a major facet of its aid to Afghanistan, and it has criticized Karzai for not doing more to challenge warlords involved in opium production.

This year, the Bush administration expressed concern that Afghanistan was in danger of becoming a full-fledged "narcotics state," where drug lords call the shots in governing the country.

On Saturday, a State Department spokeswoman, Joanne Moore, had no immediate comment on the report, but pointed to a fact sheet on the department's Web site that outlined efforts to support Afghanistan's counternarcotics campaign.

The increase in cultivation came mainly on the strength of the insurgency in the south, which has left whole districts outside control of the government, and on the continuing impunity of everyone involved, from the farmers and traffickers to corrupt police and government officials, Costa said.

Afghanistan is already the world's largest producer of opium, and 35 percent of its gross domestic product is estimated to come from the narcotics trade.

Most of the heroin made from Afghan poppies is sold in Europe and Asia, drug officials say.

"The southern part of Afghanistan was displaying the ominous hallmarks of incipient collapse, with large-scale drug cultivation and trafficking, insurgency and terrorism, crime and corruption," Costa said.


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