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21 Afghanis Killed in a Suicide Bombing, Pakistan Closes NATO Supply Line, Taliban Rules Through a Shadow Government

Rash of Bombings in Afghanistan

By ADAM B. ELLICK Published: December 29, 2008

Nashanuddin Khan/Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan --

A day after a suicide bomber killed at least 16 people, including 13 schoolchildren, in a region bordering Pakistan, a new rash of bombings shook different areas of Afghanistan on Monday, killing two civilians north of Kabul and two more in Kandahar Province.

Men inspected the wreckage of a suicide car bomb on Sunday in Khost Province, Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bomb, which was detonated next to a school.

Several Afghan provinces have been centers of violence.

The explosion on Sunday detonated outside a local government compound in Khost Province and wounded 53, local government officials and coalition forces said. The bombing, near the border with Pakistan, occurred next to a school, and many children were among the wounded.

The Taliban fighters claimed responsibility for the attack.

Coalition forces provided a video showing about 15 children walking on the street as they were engulfed by a ball of fire. Mark Larter, a spokesman for the coalition forces, said the death toll also was based on reports of troops at the scene. Two police officers were among the dead.

The number of suicide bombings in Afghanistan has fallen sharply since 2006, mainly because of better intelligence and a proliferation of security checkpoints. But in Khost Province, which borders the tribal area of Pakistan’s North Waziristan, a wave of violence continues to overwhelm security officials.

On Monday morning, moreover, a suicide car bomber in a black Toyota Corolla killed two civilians and wounded 15, including two American servicemen in Chire-kar, the capital city of Parwan Province just north of Kabul, U.S. forces and local government officials said

The attack occurred outside of the local governor’s office, and most of wounded were government employees, said Abdul Jabar Taqwa, the governor. Mr. Taqwa said he entered the compound only two minutes before the blast, and was unharmed. He said he noticed a U.S. convoy on the road near his office.

Several hours later, in Kandahar Province, a remote-controlled bomb exploded at a marketplace in Spin Boldak district, killing two civilians and wounding 19. Five of the wounded are in critical condition, said Zalmay Ayobi, spokesman for the governor of Kandahar. The bomb targeted a passing police vehicle, but missed.

Despite the overall drop in the number of bombings, suicide attacks around the country have become more technically sophisticated and have grown in scale, including Sunday’s attack, in which a huge fireball towered over the compound’s security blockade.

In November 2007 in Baghlan Province, north of Kabul, a suicide bomb laced with ball bearings killed more than 70 people, including six members of Parliament, and wounded more than 100, mostly children.

Sunday’s blast occurred as local leaders and tribal elders gathered inside the government building to discuss security and elections, said Tahir Kahn Sabari, the deputy governor of Khost Province. At the nearby school, the bomb rattled students, ages 6 to 12, who were receiving certificates on the last day of the school year.

(Puppet) president Hamid Karzai condemned the attack, saying those responsible “are not aware of the Islamic teachings which outlaw the killing of innocent people.”

A day earlier the police acted on intelligence to locate a suicide car bomber as he tried to enter the city of Kandahar, said Matiullah Qait, provincial chief of Kandahar. Police vehicles chased the driver, and when he reached a security checkpoint west of the city, he detonated his explosives, killing three policemen and one civilian.

Also on Saturday, a roadside bomb killed two Canadian soldiers and two Afghans working alongside them in a dangerous region of southern Afghanistan, Canada’s military, quoted by The Associated Press, said on Sunday. Four other Canadian soldiers and one Afghan interpreter were wounded in the blast.

On Saturday night, a rare missile attack fell on Kabul, killing three teenage sisters, their family and the police said. The rocket likely was fired from west of the capital, near Wardak Province, where militants have developed a stronghold since last year. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.

Sangar Rahimi and Taimoor Shah Noori contributed reporting.

Pakistan closes NATO supply line to Afghanistan

By Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Pir Zubair Shah

International Herald Tribune, December 30, 2008

Islamabad, Pakistan:

Backed by helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery, Pakistani security forces on Tuesday shut down a crucial supply line for NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan as they launched an offensive against Taliban militants who dominate the Khyber Pass region.

NATO uses the Khyber Pass, an ancient trade and military gateway that cuts through the mountains on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, to transport the majority of provisions for troops fighting the resilient Afghan insurgency. Supplies are ferried from Karachi in Pakistan 700 miles north to Peshawar, and then trucked 40 miles westward through the pass and into Afghanistan.

But Taliban fighters, including forces led by an upstart lieutenant to the warlord Baitullah Mehsud, have taken over the area between the pass and Peshawar, and now routinely attack convoys with rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles.

Many drivers in the convoys have already quit making the trip because the route is so deadly. Militants also ransacked a half-dozen supply depots in Peshawar this month, burning 300 cargo trucks and Humvees destined for NATO troops.

The attacks — and the Pakistani government's inability to quell them — have sent American military officials scrambling to secure other supply routes into Afghanistan through Russia and Central Asia. NATO officials said that they believed that shutting down the route through the Khyber Pass during the military offensive that began Tuesday would not deprive them of necessary supplies.

"Over all, it's a temporary irritation," said a NATO spokesman in Kabul, Captain Mark Windsor of the British Royal Navy. "There will obviously be a minor effect in the short term, but it's for the long-term good of our operation."

However, Tariq Hayat, the top civilian official in the Khyber Agency, the formal name for the Pakistani district between the Khyber Pass and Peshawar, said there was no timetable for the operation, which he said would continue until "I am satisfied that the area is clear of all lawless and miscreant elements." Hayat declined to say how many troops were involved in the offensive, but he said they were drawn almost entirely from the country's paramilitary Frontier Corps. Pakistani Army soldiers are standing by in reserve should they be needed, he said.

He said that there had been no casualties during the offensive among Pakistani forces but that he had received a report that several children and a woman had been killed by an artillery shell.

Ibrahim Khan, who lives near the supply route in the village of Jamrud, said troops came through his village at 3:30 a.m., using loudspeakers to warn residents to stay inside. Helicopter gunships patrolled all day until the afternoon, he said.

Taliban Shadow Gov't Pervades Afghanistan

Resurgent Force Controls Much Of Countryside, Reaching Close To Kabul; U.S. To Boost Troop Numbers
WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan, Dec. 27, 2008

Two months ago, Mohammad Anwar recalls, the Taliban paraded accused thieves through his village, tarred their faces with oil and threw them in jail.

The public punishment was a clear sign to villagers that the Taliban are now in charge. And the province they took over lies just 30 miles from the Afghan capital of Kabul, right on the main highway.

The Taliban has long operated its own shadow government in the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan but its power is now spreading north to the doorstep of Kabul, according to Associated Press interviews with a dozen government officials, analysts, Taliban commanders and Afghan villagers.

More than seven years after the U.S.-led invasion, the Islamic militia is attempting — at least in name — to reconstitute the government by which it ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

Over the past year in Wardak province alone, Taliban fighters have taken over district centers, set up checkpoints on rural highways and captured Afghan soldiers. The Taliban in Wardak has its own governor and military chief, its own pseudo-court system and its own religious leaders who act as judges. Bands of armed militants in beat-up trucks cruise the countryside, dispensing their own justice against accused spies and thieves.

"After night falls, no police drive through here," the 20-year-old Anwar said, urging an AP journalist to return to Kabul before the militants drove into view.

Two miles down the road, a policeman named Fawad manned a checkpoint, wearing the traditional shalwar kameez robe so he could pretend to be a simple villager in case of a Taliban attack.

"There are more and more Taliban this year," said Fawad, who like many Afghans goes by only one name. "The people of the villages are not going to the government courts. The Taliban are warning them that no one can go there."

In a growing number of regions, Taliban fighters have put in place commanders who serve as self-described governors and police or military chiefs of provinces.

A 10 percent "tax" — a forced payment at gunpoint, Western officials say — on rich families, or donations by poorer families of food and shelter for fighters.

A military draft that forces fighting-age males to join the Taliban for months-long rotations.

A parallel judicial system run by religious scholars who impose such punishments as tarring, public humiliation and the chopping off hands.

The closing of Afghan schools or the forcing of schools to replace science with more religious study.

Manned Taliban or militant checkpoints to demand highway taxes and search vehicles for government employees or foreigners.

The increasing "Talibanization" is taking place in wide areas of countryside where the U.S., NATO and government of Hamid Karzai don't have enough troops for a permanent presence. Recognizing this, the U.S. plans to send its newest influx of troops in January into Wardak and Logar, right next to Kabul.

Some Western officials argue that the rise of a shadow government is nothing more than the return of different emboldened warlords. They suspect militants simply stepped in where they saw a void in areas not reached by the Karzai's government, and it is still not clear if they have a coherent strategy. U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, has noted deep fault lines between Afghan insurgent groups.

It's not clear just how far the shadow government goes. Taliban officials and analysts boast that there are now Taliban shadow governors in almost every Afghan province.

"Three years ago the Taliban had no control in Afghanistan. They were spread too thin. Now they have power. They have soldiers. They have governors, district chiefs and judges. It is a very big difference from what you saw in 2003 or even 2005," said Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan.

The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, which provides safety information to aid organizations operating in the country, said that by a conservative estimate, anti-government militants operate in more than 35 percent of the country, and that the number is growing.

In 2007, Taliban fighters attacked foreign troops only in small formations, worried that bombing runs by fighter aircraft would result in huge battlefield losses. But over the last year, that has changed.

Recently, some 300 Taliban fighers massed for an attack in the Bala Murghab district of Badghis province. About 250 insurgents took part in an attack on a government center in Paktika province in late November. And earlier this year some 200 militants attacked a small U.S. outpost in the east and killed nine soldiers.

An hour's drive south of Kabul in Logar, the Taliban took over the district of Baraki Barak just before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in September. They rented shops and armed men wandered the streets, residents say.

They ordered barbers with TV sets to throw them away and kicked the satellite dishes on some houses to the ground.

After Friday prayers on the 25th day of Ramadan, Taliban fighters announced they were going to implement shari'a law. They warned that anyone working for the government would be considered a spy and killed.

"Everyone with links to the government fled the area," said a shopkeeper in Baraki Barak who spoke only on condition he wasn't identified for fear of the Taliban. 

In Helmand province, perhaps Afghanistan's most Taliban-dominated region, Mullah Mohammad Qassem was appointed as the Taliban police chief last spring. Qassem said each of Helmand's 14 districts has a Taliban government leader and police chief, and courts across the province implement strict Islamic or sharia law.

The Taliban in Helmand have no relations with Karzai's government, he said. "We are more powerful than them. Even most of the capital of Helmand is under our control."

Every week Taliban judges hold court after Friday prayers, said tribal elder Mohammad Aslam from the district of Sangin. In the Kajaki area of Helmand, the site of a large U.S.-funded dam project, militants tax houses with electricity, he said. Trucks using the highways are also taxed.

Aslam estimates that 90 percent of people in Helmand side with the Taliban. Echoing a common complaint of Afghans across the country, Mohammad Aslam labeled the Afghan government "corrupt."

"No one can trust them," he said of government officials. "Whenever we have a problem, we go to the Taliban and the Taliban court."

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