Experts: Attack on troops shows Taliban danger
AFP, Sunday 17 Apr 2011
Afghan military officers and experts comment on Taliban’s new intimidation tactics, which include the up-close murder of Afghani transition forces and foreign troops

Two suicide attacks in two days which killed a police chief and five foreign troops in Afghanistan show the Taliban's ability to land heavy blows without even engaging in direct combat, experts say.

As spring brings warmer weather across the country, the traditional fighting season is getting under way, which Western officials say will provide a litmus test of their strategy in the near ten-year war following a US troop surge.

But experts warn that Friday's killing of the police chief of Kandahar and Saturday's army base blast which left five foreign troops and four Afghans dead again highlight that the Taliban can score points without battlefield gains.

Insurgents appear to have stepped up their campaign against the security forces with at least nine suicide bombings in the past five days -- while eight foreign troops died on Saturday, the deadliest day for NATO since June 2010.

This comes just three months before foreign troops start handing control of security to Afghan forces in seven safer parts of Afghanistan ahead of a full transition by 2014 which should allow international combat troops to go home.

General Helaluddin Helal, an Afghan military analyst, said he believed that the Taliban had been weakened and, as a result, were now using targeted attacks to try and sow fear among international and Afghan government forces.

"The Taliban are using intelligence and trying to carry out a psychological campaign," he told AFP.

"They are not capable of any direct fight and they carry out suicide attacks to show the people and the government and its allies that they are strong enough to attack your key people and places."

A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Lieutenant Colonel John Dorrian, added that targeted attacks were one way in which the Taliban were expected to try and claw back lost ground, particularly in the south.

"The insurgents took significant losses in the past year, 2010, and what they will try to do is re-infiltrate those areas," he said. "One of the ways they will attempt to do this is through assassinations."

The Taliban frequently try to infiltrate the Afghan security forces with militants, meaning they can get much closer to high-profile targets than would usually be the case.

Both the killing of Kandahar police chief Khan Mohammad Mujahid and the assault at the Afghan army's eastern headquarters in Laghman province were committed by attackers in Afghan security force uniforms.

The Taliban claims the latter was carried out by one of its members who joined the army a month ago. Investigations have been launched in both cases.

Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir said such attacks were possible because of poor screening processes for new Afghan army recruits.

"The officials who recruit the police and army do not perform a proper and thorough background check of all the police and army officers and soldiers," he said.

"They don't detect it when people join with the intention of eventually committing attacks."

Defence ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi insisted there were "intelligence filters" in place to screen candidates who wanted to join the Afghan army, and that these were being beefed up.

He added: "In Afghanistan's situation, one cannot say if something is going to happen or not... if a person breaches the filters, this will be fixed and we're working on that."

This year's fighting season is now starting and was described by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates last month as an "acid test" of what he said was progress made since a US troop surge announced in December 2009.

However, as well as cautioning about the Taliban's ability to mount targeted attacks against international and Afghan forces, some experts say progress made by pro-government forces has been stronger in the south than in the east.

Reports suggest that the Taliban recently took control of at least one district in Nuristan province, near the Pakistani border where Taliban fighters have safe havens, from Afghan forces after foreign troops pulled back.

Dorrian denied this, insisting ISAF troops were "on the offensive" and determined to "disrupt their efforts to establish a foothold."

But Mir said pro-government forces needed to take more "strong and durable" action against the Taliban in the east, scene of a rash of recent suicide attacks as well as the one in Laghman, to match efforts in the south.