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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Taliban to launch war in the cities

TALIBAN fighters are preparing for a campaign of urban warfare, say Afghan and Western intelligence, and have established cells in the cities of Afghanistan from which to launch a campaign of explosions and suicide bombings.

While military chiefs have been declaring victory in the south of the country and claim to have killed more than 3000 Taliban over the northern summer, diplomats in Kabul warn that security in Afghan cities is deteriorating fast. "This could turn into another Iraq," one said.

Suicide bombs were almost unheard of in Afghanistan until last year, with only five since the fall of the Taliban in December 2001. But this year has already seen 81, which killed or wounded more than 700 people.

One report from Afghan intelligence warns that 35 suicide bombers have infiltrated the cities and are planning to launch simultaneous strikes during this week's Eid holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan.

"The Taliban have changed strategy because their other tactics have failed," said Mark Laity, spokesman for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.

"As a result, we believe they've resorted to the weapons of the weaker party -- suicide bombs, hit and runs, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and mines."

The main targets are foreigners, particularly NATO convoys, three of which were hit last week in the south.

A British soldier was killed in one in Lashkar Gah on Thursday, along with two children.

Until recently, Kabul was an oasis of calm, but the bombings have turned it into a nervous place where drivers try to pull off the roads when they see a military convoy.

The appearance of masked police has not reassured local residents in a country where police earn just $90 a month and are thus easily corrupted.

Discussions have already begun about creating a green zone, where foreigners could be protected. Consultants such as Crown Agents and BearingPoint say it is now more difficult to recruit staff to Kabul than Baghdad because of the lack of protection.

Some diplomats threaten to withdraw unless they are provided with a fleet of armoured vehicles.

It is a shocking turnaround from five years ago when, in stark contrast to Iraq, foreign troops were welcomed by cheering crowds after almost 30 years of civil war.

However, Afghans have become disillusioned by deteriorating security. Hold-ups are once again common on the highways.

On a three-hour journey from Jalalabad to Kabul, I had to cross three roadblocks where police had slung concertina wire across the road and were demanding bribes. In Farah province, Taliban won local support after they beheaded a group of highwaymen who the local government had failed to stop.

Taliban militants have also started targeting government officials. Abdul Hakim Taniwal, the governor of Paktia province, was killed by a suicide bomber last month. The following day another bomber killed six people at his funeral.

In London, the former chief of the British military said yesterday the country's armed forces risked defeat in operations in Afghanistan due to a lack of clear strategy. Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge, former chief of the defence staff, attacked Britain's military operations in Afghanistan.

"I don't believe we have a clear strategy, either in Afghanistan or Iraq," he said.

"Deep down inside me, I worry that the British army could risk operational failure if we're not careful in Afghanistan."

The Sunday Times, AFP
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