Outpost attack in Afghanistan shows major boost in militant strength

Insurgents' ability to breach the post in Kunar Province is seen as a significant escalation in the fight.

Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

A deadly attack on a remote NATO outpost in the eastern province of Kunar is being viewed as a serious escalation in the fighting between the insurgents and the international forces stationed in Afghanistan – and a possible shift in the insurgents' tactical capability. The high casualties sustained by international forces in recent attacks have also increased the prospects that international troops could launch cross-border strikes into Pakistan with increasing frequency.

In contrast to their traditional hit-and-run tactics and reliance on use of explosives, bombs, and suicide attacks, militants directly engaged soldiers at the outpost, in the village of Wanat, in a style that had not been seen for more than a year. A wave of insurgents attacked the outpost from multiple sides and some were able to get inside, killing nine US troops and wounding 15. The attack was the worst for US troops since June 2005, when 16 Americans were killed after their helicopter was shot down.

"The attack on Sunday was a carefully planned one, with upward of 200 insurgents, to give it weight of force," Capt. Michael Finney, acting spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, said in an interview. Captain Finney said the attack was ultimately repelled with on-the-ground fighting as well as air power.

Superior planning

But the battle, analysts say, exhibited the capacity of the insurgents, beginning early in the morning and continuing throughout the day with militants firing machine guns, rocket -propelled grenades, and mortars.

Haroun Mir, the deputy director for Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, said the attack's superior planning was clear evidence of the presence of Al Qaeda troops in the area. Recent incidents have pointed to an increased capability of the insurgents, marked first by a major jailbreak in Kandahar in June and the influx of Taliban fighters into Kandahar Province in the south.

Analysts have also noted activity of the insurgent group Hezb-i Islami and the Taliban in Nuristan Province, which neighbors Kunar Province.

Mr. Mir said that "the recent attacks show that the Al Qaeda is involved in the planning and execution of the attacks. Until now the Taliban have been avoiding direct confrontation and after 2006 they were using IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and bombs. Now for the first time they are engaging directly. Once the bodies of the insurgents are recovered from the area I am sure Pakistani and Arab fighters will be found among them."

Mir argues that the sudden shift of tactics and the apparent rapid enhancement in the sophistication of the attacks by insurgents point to an external capability. The attack on Benazir Bhutto and the Serena Hotel in Kabul were indicative of better planning and coordination that could not have come from the Taliban alone, he argues.

"They are traditional fighters," he says. "Not thinkers. Recent attacks have also revealed the involvement of police and this is not the Taliban style at all."

Recent reports have indicated increased activity of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the bordering regions of Pakistan. Last week saw the death of a top commander of Al Qaeda in Khost Province in southern Afghanistan. Abu al Hassan al Saeedi was reportedly a Yemeni leader who was killed in fighting with American forces, according to the local news agency Pajhwok. Killed alongside him was Umer Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, considered one of the top militant leaders in Afghanistan.

Reports emanating from Pakistan also note the emergence of the involvement of Al Qaeda. Regional expert Kathy Gannon reported from Pakistan on Sunday that a conclave of militant and terrorist groups, held in Rawalpindi in June, had agreed to focus on Afghanistan.

The conclave included groups with a history of fighting in Kashmir against the Indian government such as Hezb ul Mujahideen, Jaish-e Muhammed, and Lashkar-i Tayyaba, the last two with links to Al Qaeda. Rawalpindi is where the Pakistani Army is headquartered.

Pakistan's involvement in fueling terror tactics across the border, or at the very least tolerating the use of its territory for the launch of these tactics, is increasing tensions between the international community and the Pakistan government.

"This is our biggest achievement: We have finally convinced the international community of the real role of Pakistan, especially its military and intelligence agency," an Afghan government spokesman said on condition of anonymity. International military forces stationed in Afghanistan on the Pakistan border have increasingly resorted to retaliatory strikes across the border.

Strong rhetoric by Afghanistan

The strong rhetoric of President Hamid Karzai last month regarding his right to hot pursuit as well as the unannounced visit to Islamabad by US Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen are being viewed as evidence that there will be more cross-border actions by international forces into Pakistani territory.

The increasing fears of cross-border strikes prompted Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gillani, to remark that no country would be allowed to launch strikes in Pakistan.

Diplomatic sources here suggest that while the issue of cross-border pursuit could be a gray area in international law, Afghanistan's use of "the right to self-defense" would be used as a justification should the necessity of entering Pakistani territory become a reality.

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