Skip to main content

Both sides are claiming early victories in renewed fighting in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban say they are beating back NATO troops taking part in the first major offensive of the year, and the alliance says it is making steady gains.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Jamal, a Taliban sympathizer with close ties to military commanders, said the Taliban have fought running battles with NATO in Helmand during the past six days, but are avoiding direct confrontation.

"They don't want to fight," he said of Taliban fighters, turning his hand over a string of prayer beads. He wears a large turban, a thick, black beard and combat boots. "Always they use ambushes."

The insurgents say they have destroyed 20 allied armoured vehicles in that time, and lost five fighters, but those statements could not be confirmed and the Taliban are known to exaggerate claims of success.

NATO also declared success in the early part of its spring offensive, but acknowledged it had yet to expand the secure perimeter around the Kajaki dam, the central objective of Operation Achilles, which was launched Tuesday.

"That objective as yet has not been met, which is why we continue to carry out operations in that area. However, we're going through a systematic campaign here and we expect those objectives to be achieved with the ongoing operations," said Squadron Leader Dave Marsh, a senior NATO spokesman.

The Taliban say they have 10,000 fighters in Helmand, reinforced by recent arrivals from Pakistan and local recruits taken from the families of poppy farmers.

In the first six days of battle, the Taliban have attacked NATO forces by ambushing choke points in mountain valleys and by laying mines on roads, typically stacking two anti-personnel mines together and detonating them by remote control.

"What we're dealing with is guerrilla tactics verging on insurgency," Squadron Leader Marsh said. "They're using IEDs [improvised explosive devices]and mines because they can't face up to the troops. In other places it is guerrilla tactics where they take a few shots and then run away. In cases where we actually go in, that option of running away proves a little bit difficult."

Minimizing local casualties is a priority for NATO, and it says that despite Taliban claims to the contrary, there have been no civilian casualties in Helmand.

The Canadian troops involved in Operation Achilles have successfully moved into the Maiwand area in western Kandahar province. They have been conducting meetings with district elders, which they believe is the first step to winning a counterinsurgency war. But that work must be quickly followed by aid for economic development and governance, Squadron Leader Marsh said.

"We want to bring this failed state into the same century as the rest of us," he said.

The Taliban is also expanding its reach beyond Afghanistan's southern provinces. A group moved this week to Kapisa province, north of Kabul. The move comes on the heels of Taliban attacks in far-flung centres such as Herat, Jalalabad, and Bagram air base.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe