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AFGHANISTAN: Fighting Unlikely to Stop For Ramadan

AbdulRohani, Najib Khelwatgar and Shir Haidar - Pajhwok Afghan News*

KABUL, Sep 17 2006 (IPS) - Pitched battles on the ground were reported daily in Afghanistan just a week before the start of Ramadan, a month of fasting and prayer for observing Muslims.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and the holiest, is due to begin on Sep. 24. More than 100 Taliban fighters were reported killed between Sep. 11 and 16, with reports of fighting coming in from Ghazni and Helmand provinces in the south, and central Maidan Wardak.

British and Canadian troops of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) together with Afghan security forces are battling a resurgent Taliban opposition. Neither the government of Hamid Karzai nor coalition forces have said they will stop the fighting during the Muslim holy month.

When they were in power in Kabul, the Taliban had observed a month-long truce against their Northern Alliance rivals in the Panjshir Valley in 1999. For practicing Muslims, the 30 days of dawn-to-dusk fasting and prayer means time for self-restraint; an opportunity to cleanse the body and soul from impurities and re-focus the believer’s self on the worship of god.

At least 38,500 foreign, mainly North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and U.S., troops are deployed in Afghanistan to prop up the Karzai government. Some 10,000 are in the south where the British-led NATO forces took over active combat duty from the U..S. last month.

On Sep.11, NATO forces claimed 92 Taliban fighters were killed in a heavy engagement in two districts of the southern Kandahar province where a massive operation has been going on since early this month.

Operation Medusa has been jointly launched with Afghan National Army forces to flush out the opposition fighters from their strongholds. The official press statement asserted that Monday’s counter-offensive was the “second major engagement” by U.S. aircraft supported by special forces on the ground.

Last Sunday, 92 insurgents were killed in another battle between NATO forces and the Taliban in Kandahar province, taking the number of opposition casualties to 500 since Sep. 2.

But Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi told Pajhwok Afghan News that only 14 fighters have been killed so far in the combat operations that were sometimes hand-to-hand encounters.

On Sunday, Kandahar governor Asadullah Khalid told local journalists that the fighting in Panjwayee and Zhirai districts was over and that displaced residents can return to their homes.

However, the NATO statement said Operation Medusa was continuing on Monday and strongly recommended that residents should not return, until Afghan security forces and ISAF formally announce that it is safe to do so.

In Helmand on the same day, police chief Nabi Jan Mallahkhel claimed NATO and Afghan forces had recaptured Garmsir district from the Taliban after a two-day battle in which 20 rebels, including a commander named Mullah Shahid, were killed. The rebel fighters had wrested control of the area bordering Pakistan four days ago, which officials had then described as a “tactical retreat” by government forces.

But Taliban spokesman Ahmadi challenged the government’s claim, and said Garmsir was still under their control. He insisted that NATO and Afghan troops had suffered heavy casualties in a failed attempt to retake the district, which the Taliban had captured for a short time two months ago and lost after a bloody battle.

The two sides have challenged every attack and counter attack, issuing contradictory statements on casualties and fire power. Sometimes, after U.S. fighter planes strafed an area, the Taliban have denied their fighters were present, and claimed the casualties were innocent people caught in the fighting.

Like in Sangin district, Helmand, last week. Ahmadi told Pajhwok Afghan News that 20 civilians were killed in overnight bombing raids. He claimed that his fighters were nowhere in the area that was targeted by coalition aircraft.

On Sep.16, Taliban fighters said they had surrounded and would soon attack Paron, capital of northern Nuristan. However, provincial governor Tamin Nuristani was quoted saying that government forces were prepared to resist the rebels.

Meanwhile on Sep. 13, the defence ministry spokesman Said Ishaq Payman said a dozen Taliban fighters along with arms and ammunition were detained in the central Maidan Wardak province. Two rocket launchers, five small arms, an anti-tank mine, seven mortar shells and nine daggers were seized.

On Sep. 14, Ghazni governor Haji Shir Alam Ibrahimi told a news conference that 20 fighters including a local Taliban commander Amin and an Iranian national were arrested. But local Taliban commander Mohammad Anas Sharif told Pajhwok Afghan News that they had lost only three fighters. Also, “there is no foreigner with us, nor do we have a commander by the name of Amin,” he added.

The Taliban had ruled Afghanistan until late 2001, when they were ousted by U.S.-led forces in the wake of the Sep. 11 aerial attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

Last week, NATO commanders in Afghanistan had requested a members meeting near Brussels to consider a request for 2,500 additional troops who would constitute a reserve battalion of ground troops for ISAF. But no formal offers were forthcoming. (*Released under agreement with Pajhwok Afghan News)

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