Taliban attack epitomises the dangers of West's exit strategy

 

The mortar rounds came in from the hills, spraying shrapnel and debris as they sank into the red earth; long bursts of machinegun and Kalashnikov fire followed, all aimed at the helicopter landing strip. The attack just missed its target – the helicopter in which the local governor was leaving after a public meeting to celebrate the defeat and expulsion of the Taliban from this area.

The helicopter scrambled away, as did a second one in which a group of journalists were due to travel, with just two passengers on board. The rest of us ran to a disused school which was being used as headquarters by Afghan and Nato forces for the mission to clear insurgents from the villages in this harsh and unforgiving stretch of Ghazni province.

The firefight lasted for the next hour and ten minutes, rounds from heavy Soviet-era machineguns mounted on armoured personnel carriers manned by Poles and Afghan forces answering incoming Taliban rounds. A few of these fell on a track leading to an old fort of the Gilzai tribe, 300 yards away, where senior officials had been telling a crowd of around 500 villagers at a shura (public meeting) about the bright future which lay ahead for them, now that the enemy had been forced to flee.

The Polish pilots of Russian made Mi-24 'Hind' helicopter-gunships dived and banked overhead. The firing from the ridges began to die down and finally ended when a howitzer found its mark to cheers from the troops. But, in one of the last exchanges, a Polish instructor with the Afghan police fell injured, possibly from Kalashnikov shots.

By the standards of this vicious war, this was a relatively minor skirmish. But what it did show was how difficult and unpredictable it is to gauge success in an insurgency: the Taliban, despite been driven back from here, are very much alive to fight another day.

What happens at districts like Zana Khan is of intrinsic importance as the West charts its exit strategy from this long and costly war. Earlier this week, General John Allen, the American head of international forces in Afghanistan, stated that the Taliban were in retreat, their leadership in Pakistan divided and the dispirited foot soldiers deserting in large numbers. The Afghan security forces, he and other senior American and British officials believe, will be able to maintain the government's writ across Afghanistan with help from abroad.

Operation Shamshar was aimed at hitting four insurgent positions in Zana Khan, where Highway 1 is used to transport people and goods to market and needed to establish governance and commerce in this unstable part of Afghanistan.

But as Jamshed Ghawse, a 31-year-old local journalist, pointed out: "The problem is the foreign troops and our security forces never stay for long. When the Taliban come back they take revenge on all the people they blame for co-operating with the government.

"Sure, some very bad Pakistanis come over but you have a lot of local people as well who are Taliban. Villagers go to the Taliban to get disputes settled as it's cheaper and quicker than going to the courts. They deal strictly with criminals.

"But if the Government was effective, and stayed in the area, the local Taliban would give up their guns."

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