Taliban handpick their targets

Taliban militants are targeting Afghan government officials in yet another nod to Iraqi insurgents, marked by a spike in assassinations and attempted attacks in recent weeks that coincide with a greater reliance on suicide terrorism and the use of imported bomb technologies.

The killings appear to represent a systematic campaign to undermine the weak government of President Hamid Karzai, both to create fear in urban centers with a heavy security presence and distant provinces that have in past months experienced the bloodiest fighting since the hardline movement was ousted five years ago for harboring al-Qaeda operatives.

“This really is a deliberate campaign to assassinate Afghan officials,” Barnett R Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Asia Times Online. “We have seen well-placed suicide bombers operating more effectively than they ever have before.”

Suicide attacks have killed seven government officials so far this year, with many near misses. The upward trend began when Paktia provincial governor Abdul Hakim Taniwal, a Karzai confidant, was killed along with two aides on September 10 outside his office by a suicide bomber, followed by another strike at his funeral service the next day that claimed six lives.

A district police chief, an intelligence officer and an administrator in the eastern province of Nangarhar died on October 9 when a roadside bomb ripped through their vehicle en route to check on a school that had been torched.

Last month, a gunman killed Safia Ama Jan, the director of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kandahar province, a Taliban stronghold, after which four other female state employees opted to quit their posts. Two other provincial governors have since escaped assassination attempts, including one last month in which a suicide bomber killed 18 people outside the governor’s compound in Helmand province. This week a provincial councilman was slain in Kandahar, prompting the council to double the amount of bodyguards on hand.

Targeted killings are not entirely new to Afghanistan: Karzai himself survived a September 2002 assassination attempt by an alleged former Taliban member in Kandahar just months after assuming power. Such ambush tactics were previously used by mujahideen to lethal effect against pro-communist Afghan government officials during the jihad against the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.

Over the summer, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops clashed with a bolder, regrouped Taliban force in pitched battles across hard-scrabble swaths of the southern and eastern provinces that were reported to have killed hundreds of fighters. Military officials concede there has been “a slight upward trend” in “hit and run” attacks against government targets, but insist civilians – at 155 killed, and counting – remain the most common victims in what can often only be described as indiscriminate violence.

“Based on the significant defeat dealt them in Kandahar this summer and elsewhere after trying to take on [the International Security Assistance Force – ISAF]) more or less conventionally, we do have evidence and intel to suggest that insurgents have reverted to hit-and-run tactics to include attempts against officials,” Major Luke Knittig, an ISAF spokesman, told Asia Times Online.

Incidences of suicide terrorism, once virtually unknown in Afghanistan, have more than doubled since last year and the use of remote-detonated technologies as advanced as any used in Iraq, according to experts, is proliferating as foreign jihadis provide training and bounties to poor Afghan recruits the state has failed to protect. Additionally, videos of beheadings are in circulation and the Internet has become a prolific outlet for Taliban propaganda.

The increase in attacks has prompted officials in volatile areas to beef up security details and set up new checkpoints around government agencies, while many staff simply refuse to show up for work or have abandoned their jobs. The perpetrator of the September 30 suicide bombing outside the Interior Ministry in the heart of Kabul was reportedly looking to detonate his explosives near a group of state employees before being confronted by a police officer.

Faced with mounting concerns across a country where all but two of 34 provinces have recorded violent attacks, despite the presence of 20,000 NATO troops and a similarly sized US force, Major Knittig cited the work of provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) charged with providing security and developmental aid in areas the state cannot reach. PRTs were stationed next to governors’ compounds, he said, to enhance protection of officials along with an increased emphasis on joint patrolling.

Asked whether more could be done to fight targeted killings, another military source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that several government officials “enjoy popularity and status outside their appointed or elected position and as such are less than desirable as targets”.

Rubin, who spent time with Taniwal five weeks prior to his death, maintains that stemming targeted killings is “not a military issue” but a matter of turning up the pressure on neighboring Pakistan to clamp down on Taliban bases in lawless tribal areas within its borders where militants are organizing and staging attacks.

He said the assassinated governor had no doubts Pakistan continued to support the movement, and coalition forces would be best served by pressuring Islamabad to prevent cross-border infiltration and extradite seized fighters to Afghanistan. Instead of a heavy-handed solution, Taniwal advocated integrating Taliban elements into civil society as a political party, comparable to the Jamaat e-Islami, an Islamic political movement in Pakistan.

The Taliban leadership has different plans. Fugitive leader Mullah Omar, now believed to be hiding near Quetta in Balochistan province, southwestern Pakistan, pledged on Monday that the movement would escalate its offensive to a “surprising level” as winter draws closer, a time when fighting traditionally comes to a halt.

“By the will of Allah, the fight will intensify in the coming few months,” the one-eyed leader with a US$10 million bounty on his head said in a statement posted on the Internet. “Our predictions about the war have proved right in the past. I am confident that our fight will gain a strong foothold in the near future.”

Jason Motlagh is deputy foreign editor at United Press International in Washington, DC. He has reported freelance from Saharan Africa, Asia and the Caribbean for various US and European news media.