The South Asia Channel

Daily brief: Taliban attack Kandahar air field

Going for broke In the third major strike against a NATO target in less than a week, late Saturday night Taliban insurgents fired rockets and launched a ground attack against Kandahar air field in southern Afghanistan, the first such coordinated attempt, suggesting a resilient movement determined to carry on high-profile assaults in spite of limited ...

TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images

Going for broke

In the third major strike against a NATO target in less than a week, late Saturday night Taliban insurgents fired rockets and launched a ground attack against Kandahar air field in southern Afghanistan, the first such coordinated attempt, suggesting a resilient movement determined to carry on high-profile assaults in spite of limited chances of success (WSJ, AJE, Tel, Reuters, Independent, FT, Wash Post, WSJ, Times). One of the rockets reportedly hit a main shopping area in the air field known as the ‘boardwalk’ and several coalition troops and civilian personnel were injured.

Earlier on Saturday, U.S. soldiers and Afghan police staged a series of raids in the western part of Kandahar city with the goal of dislodging insurgents in a preview of the summer campaign (LAT). The much-publicized coalition offensive in Kandahar is reportedly scheduled for next month and will involve up to 10,000 soldiers (Australian). Karen DeYoung writes, "Although operations initiated last winter in southwestern Helmand province will continue, and new troop deployments are scheduled this year for northern and eastern Afghanistan, little else will matter if the news from Kandahar is not good" (Wash Post). "There is no Plan B" if the Kandahar operations are not successful.

John Burns has a think piece looking at Kandahar over the years, accompanied by a brief primer for the province (NYT, NYT). The price of opium in Afghanistan is up from $79 per kilogram a year ago to $94 per kilo this spring, as crop yields affected by blight and bad weather are down as much as 75 percent (NYT). For more on how the Taliban is financed, click here (NAF).

Third date’s the charm?

Afghanistan’s heralded peace jirga has been postponed a second time, after initially being scheduled first for late April or early May, then again for May 29 (AFP, WSJ, AP). The 1,200 community representatives from across the country and some 200 international guests will now arrive on May 29 and 30, and the jirga itself — expected to roll out Afghan government incentives for insurgents to lay down their arms — will occur on June 2.

On Saturday, insurgents on motorcycles surrounded and killed a pro-government tribal elder who was planning to attend the jirga in the northern Afghan province of Faryab (AP). The Post considers the Taliban’s campaign of targeted assassinations, writing that in the first four months of 2010, 27 Afghan government officials or Afghans working with international contractors in Kandahar city were killed, compared with 15 in the same period in 2009 and six in 2008 (Wash Post).

The Taliban and the Afghan government have denied involvement in reported peace talks, as several members of the Afghan parliament and representatives from Hezb-i-Islami, Jamaat Islami, and Jumbesh Islami ended the Maldives meeting with a closing statement promising more talks (NYT, AP, AJE).

Washington is continuing its own efforts to persuade Taliban fighters to work with the Afghan government by relying on pledges from local elders that the insurgents will not return to the battlefield (NYT). As a point of clarification, the U.S. and Afghan governments use "reconciliation" for Taliban leadership and "reintegration" for militant footsoldiers. Bonus must-read: Steve Coll on the peace process in Afghanistan (New Yorker-subscription).

The war across the pond

Last night, Britain’s top bomb disposal officer, Col. Bob Seddon, resigned amid his concerns that previous cuts have left his staff "overstretched and undermanned" in Afghanistan (Tel, Guardian, BBC, Independent, Dawn/Reuters). Col. Seddon will leave his post in January 2011; roadside bombs are the top killer of troops in Afghanistan.

Britain’s new Defense Secretary Liam Fox is under fire from Afghans for describing Afghanistan as a "broken 13th century country" in an interview with the London Times (Times, Times). Fox, Foreign Secretary William Hague, and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell visited British troops in Helmand province over the weekend, where Fox was pressed on a Tory pledge to double troops’ operational allowance in Afghanistan (Tel).

The drones go on

Between four and ten people were killed late Friday night in a suspected U.S. drone strike west of Miram Shah, the main town in Pakistan’s northwest tribal region of North Waziristan (CNN, Geo, AP, CNN, AFP, Reuters). Pakistani airstrikes over the weekend killed as many as 103 alleged Taliban fighters, including five local commanders, in the deadliest day yet in ongoing military operations in Orakzai (ET, Geo, Daily Times).

The Election Commission of Pakistan announced earlier today that it will launch sweeping reforms "designed to promote democracy and stability" that will change the way the head of the electoral body is appointed, and ensure comprehensive voter registration and electoral rolls (Reuters).

On the menu: terror?

Pakistani authorities have arrested at least six men on suspicion of alleged ties to Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square car bomber, and the U.S. Embassy warned that terrorist groups may have "established links" to Hanif Rajput Catering Service, an upscale catering firm in Pakistan (AP, AJE, Reuters, NYDN). Two of the six detained have reportedly proudly admitted helping Shahzad, one of whom angrily accused his interrogators of "siding with the infidels" (AP); relatives of three of the men deny their involvement with the plot, including the father of the U.S.-educated co-owner of the catering service, Salman Ashraf Khan, who was allegedly friends with Shahzad (AP, Reuters, Wash Post).

Pakistani law enforcement sources say the Pakistani major arrested in connection with the Times Square case had cell phone contact with Shahzad the day of the bombing attempt, including a call as he was allegedly parking his would-be car bomb (LAT). The AP looks at the path between Pakistani militants and the west; for more, read Paul Cruickshank’s recent research paper on the ‘militant pipeline’ (AP, NAF).

The Times profiles Karachi’s connections with the tribal regions, writing, "The chaos and crime that bedevil Karachi, mainly the result of gang warfare among armed wings of the political parties, create a near perfect place for fighters of the Pakistani Taliban to plan and to hide. Amid this violence, the Taliban organize, recruit and raise funds" (NYT).

Travel agents report that bookings between the U.S. and Pakistan are down, and U.S. visa applications for travel from Pakistan also seem to be in decline, as more Pakistanis are seeking residence and employment in countries like South Africa, Britain, Canada, and Australia (Wash Post).

Beckham, a real team player

British football star David Beckham visited British troops in Helmand over the weekend, receiving a lesson on how to handle heavy weaponry, wearing body armor, and posing for pictures with soldiers (AFP, Tel). The former English captain commented, "I’ve represented my country many times on the field, but what these guys do representing our country is really amazing."

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