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Last Updated: Monday, 25 June 2007, 12:50 GMT 13:50 UK
Long haul fight to defeat the Taleban
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Afghanistan

British troops in Afghanistan
Foreign troops are fighting against an insurgency with many layers

The battles may be raging in Helmand province, the suicide and roadside bombs are killing people across the country, but the Taleban have been hit hard by Nato's spring offensive.

They admit themselves that the targeted killings of some senior commanders took the thrust out of their own planned spring attacks.

And their biggest loss was Mullah Dadullah - a ruthless military commander whose brutality repulsed even his own fellow Taleban leaders.

The British Special Boat Service (SBS) killed him in Helmand in May after a raid on a compound where his associates were meeting.

Success stories

There are many stories of betrayal, of his false leg being stolen so he couldn't get away, of his body being recovered from a river by his followers, but it seems careful intelligence-gathering and a lot of luck culminated in the removal of one of the most wanted Taleban targets.

And it came on the back of two other success stories for foreign forces.

THE MOST WANTED TALEBAN
Taleban fighters
Mullah Mohammed Omar: The spiritual leader of the Taleban - a reclusive man currently thought to be in Pakistan.
Mullah Berader: The commander who has probably taken over from captured former Taleban Defence Minister Mullah Obaidullah.
Akhtar Mohammad Mansour: A Taleban commander responsible for military operations in Kandahar, but based in Quetta.
Abdul Rahim: The Taleban's "shadow governor" in Helmand and a key figure in the insurgency.
Qari Faiz Mohammad: Chairman of the Taleban military council and a major financier with close links to Mullah Omar.
Mullah Mahmood Baluch: Active in Helmand and with links to smugglers, he may have been killed recently.
Naim Bareech: a man known to have links with Taleban command structures.
Dadullah Mansour: Mullah Dadullah's brother who is believed to be running southern military operations.

First the killing of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, reportedly the head of Taleban operations in southern Afghanistan, in December last year in an air strike and then the arrest of Mullah Obaidullah, the former Taleban defence minister, who is now believed to be in Pakistani custody.

"I think it is a big achievement on the part of the US and its allies, because they have been able to eliminate top commanders," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, a journalist based in Pakistan who knows the Taleban well.

"The Americans, Nato and Pakistani forces will now try to get the remaining people on the Taleban council, and if that can be done then the back of Taleban resistance would be broken."

And the commander of Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), the American general Dan McNeill, certainly believes they are on the right track.

"We're having success in killing or capturing mid or lower level battle field type leaders, I think we're having pretty good success there," he said.

"It causes some disruption in their ability to prosecute action, and we think as long as we continue with that technique we will severely disrupt them."

There's been a lot of talk of a change in tactics, and there has been an increase in the number of suicide bombs this year, a recent one in Kabul being the most deadly yet.

But this is an insurgency with many layers, with different elements and opportunists using the instability for their own personal as well as ideological reasons.

There were many suicide and roadside bomb attacks last year, and their strategy is constantly being adapted in different areas.

In Helmand province, in the south, it's guerrilla war. There are front line positions which have been held for months.

Taleban fighters snipe at British positions, they return fire with overwhelming force of artillery, rockets and air power to "suppress the enemy", which does not necessarily kill that many Taleban.

Nato forces take ground but risk Taleban fighters slipping into areas behind them - opening themselves up to the roadside bombings that have been so effective in Iraq and appear to be growing in sophistication here.

Afghan policemen inspect the site of a suicide attack in Herat
Suicide bombings have been on the rise

But it's striking to the heart of the organisation that intelligence sources believe is the only way of defeating the insurgency.

Killing high level commanders will clearly have an impact on the Taleban's direction, tactics and morale, and the international strategy is to use this to persuade less extremist Taleban fighters to give up their guns and go over to the other side - that of the government.

But reconciliation is a slow process - even Dr Najibullah Mujadidi, the deputy director of the "Strengthening Peace" programme behind the initiative - cannot name off the top of his head any major figures who have been reconciled so far.

One he did mention was Mullah Salam Zaeef, the former Taleban ambassador to Pakistan who is back in Afghanistan.

His "cooperation" is in exchange for being freed from Guantanamo Bay and being placed under house arrest in Kabul.

'Feeling sadness'

There are few incentives to give up the insurgency and his definition of what the Taleban are makes for concerning reading for Western forces.

"The Taleban is not one, they are not two, they are not hundred, they are not thousand, they are not tens of thousands, the Taleban have millions in this country," said Mullah Zaeef.

"The foreigners want to kill them all or to vanish them, but we do not want Taleban to be killed, we are feeling sadness because they are our brothers, and this is not acceptable to us."

So much for reconciliation. This is an insurgency with a life of its own now. While targeting commanders helps, persuading the people to drive the more extremist Taleban leaders out is the only way this insurgency can be beaten.



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