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New strategy in Taliban's offensive

Kidnappings are the Taliban's new weapon of choice in Afghanistan.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 11, 2007



ISLAMABAD, Pakistan

Like any modern fighting force, the Taliban have learned the benefits of emotional warfare.

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As the Taliban's spring offensive gets under way, kidnappings have become their new weapon of choice, targeting a growing chink in NATO's armor: Across Europe, the United States, and Canada, public opinion for the war in Afghanistan is sliding.

That disenchantment is proving as devastating as any bomb. Last month, after the Taliban kidnapped Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, the Italian government nearly collapsed when opposition parties raised a storm of protest. Out of fear that Italy's parliament might decide to withdraw its 1,950 troops – what could have been a hefty blow to NATO's mission – President Hamid Karzai traded five Taliban prisoners for Mr. Mastrogiacomo's release, a stunning and highly criticized victory for the extremists.

And when Mr. Karzai refused to negotiate for Adjmal Naqshbandi, Mastrogiacomo's Afghan translator, the Taliban won again. Mr. Naqshbandi was beheaded on Sunday, prompting expressions of outrage and betrayal for the apparent double standard and further driving a wedge between Karzai and the Afghan public.

Now, buoyed by the "Italian deal," the Taliban say they have kidnapped a total of two French aid workers and 13 Afghans. The Taliban also threatened to kill four Afghan medical personnel this week if a similar deal is not struck for the release of more Taliban prisoners.

An end to catch and release

In the weeks to come, the Taliban's greatest weapon is likely to be its emotional assault on international will.

"I hope the international community, who has forces in Afghanistan and has supported us, knows our position, and they will not insist on dealing with the terrorists," says Sultan Ahmad Baheen, the spokesman for the Afghan foreign ministry, by telephone from Kabul.

To head off the Taliban's offensive, NATO and the International Security Assistance Force launched Operation Achilles in March, a maneuver that will eventually involve 4,500 NATO troops and 1,000 Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in the country's volatile southern province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold where Mastrogiacomo was kidnapped. It is the largest such combined operation to date, including firefights and air assaults, and resulted this month in NATO's retaking of the key town of Sangin in Helmand.

Kidnappings are nothing new to the war in Afghanistan. In the past, the Taliban showed a willingness to release captives, particularly foreigners, as long as they were proved not to be spies. But since 2005, Taliban militants have kidnapped and killed at least seven foreign hostages. Last month, they also killed Mastrogiacomo's driver, Saeed Nagha.

Just as they have gotten more brutal, so too have the Taliban become more clever: Mastrogiacomo's capture resulted, for the first time, in the public release of Taliban prisoners.

"There seems to be the assumption, which I would say is wrong, that [the Taliban] can speed up the collapse of NATO's resolve if they terrorize foreigners as much as possible," says noted Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid.

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