Suicide bomber kills 45 at volleyball match in Afghanistan
By Samiullah Paiwand
GARDEZ, Afghanistan Sun Nov 23, 2014
(Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed 45 people at a volleyball match in Afghanistan on Sunday, a provincial official said, as foreign troops withdraw from the country after more than a decade of fighting.
Mukhles Afghan, spokesman for the governor of Paktika province, said at least 50 more were wounded in the attack in Yahya Khel district, where residents had gathered to watch a tournament final.
He said most of the casualties were civilians.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack, in which provincial spokesman Afghan said the bomber walked into the crowd of spectators and detonated his explosive vest.
"Sadly we have 45 people killed and around 50 others wounded in this suicide attack," the spokesman said.
Casualties were high because the crowd was so dense, since many people had come from nearby districts to cheer on their team. No other details were immediately available because of the remoteness of the location.
The Taliban and other jihadist militants have unleashed waves of suicide attacks and assassinations in Afghanistan this year, as foreign forces pull out after 13 years of war.
About 12,000 international troops will remain in Afghanistan next year to train and support Afghanistan's security forces.
Paktika was the site of one of this year's deadliest attacks on civilians in July, when 89 people were killed by a bomb in a crowded market.
The province has an active Afghan Taliban insurgent presence and lies along the porous border with Pakistan's lawless North Waziristan region, used as a base by both the Haqqani militant network and the Pakistani branch of the Taliban.
The Pakistani army for months has been waging an offensive against militants in North Waziristan, driving many refugees and militant fighters across the border into Afghanistan.
This year has been one of the bloodiest years of the war for Afghan civilians, according to the United Nations, which recorded nearly 5,000 deaths and injuries of civilians in the first half of the year.
About three-quarters of those were blamed on the Taliban and its allies.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Maria Golovnina and Andrew Roche)
An Hour’s Drive outside Kabul, Taliban Reign
By Azam Ahmednov
Nov 22, 2014
Afghan forces responding in August after a Humvee was ambushed by the Taliban in the Tagab district of Kapisa Province. CreditAndrew Quilty for The New York Times
CHARKALAH, Afghanistan — The explosion ripped through the floor of the Humvee, tearing a hole in the armored vehicle and injuring the district governor. The crack of Taliban gunfire followed.
Seeking cover, the Afghan police convoy sped behind a mud compound and unleashed a hail of bullets. Undeterred, the Taliban fighters edged closer. As bullets smacked around his head, an Afghan soldier in a white head scarf crouched behind a waist-high wall trading shots with the insurgents, a cigarette tucked in his lips.
“This is our daily life,” said the police chief of Tagab district, a mostly Taliban-controlled patch of Kapisa Province about an hour from Kabul, as rounds struck the compound’s edges, showering his men with dirt. “Everything is like this — you can see it with your own eyes.”
In areas like this, it is the government that operates in the shadows, following the dictates of the Taliban in order to stay alive. Afghan soldiers in Tagab district will not leave their base except for one hour each day starting at 9 a.m., when the Taliban allow them to visit the bazaar as long as the soldiers remain unarmed.
Afghan National Police driving to the scene of the ambush of the Humvee, which injured the district governor of Tagab. Credit Andrew Quilty for The New York Times
The situation in southern Kapisa Province has quietly become one of the greatest challenges of the war for the new government of President Ashraf Ghani. In the absence of international troops or their air support, the Taliban have eclipsed the legitimacy of government forces there and in several other parts of the country, in what many see as a worrying portent for the coming years.
It is trouble spots like Kapisa, and several others where insurgents have directly confronted security forces and district centers, that helped drive the American military to lobby President Obama toapprove a more aggressive role in 2015 than just training and advising. The new authorization would also allow more American air support of Afghan forces, after a year of record-high casualties at the Taliban’s hands.
As they racked up more victories this year, the Taliban grew noticeably bolder.
These days, the Kapisa police chief says, the insurgents mass in larger numbers than even six months ago. They already control a crucial stretch of a highway leading into Kabul, and some local officials believe the militants are trying to carve a large area of Taliban rule across the lower two-thirds of the province.
Southern Kapisa has always been difficult terrain. France paid a heavy price to secure the area before pulling out early in 2012, two years before the rest of NATO forces, following a suicide attack that killed four soldiers. The French have lost 88 soldiers since 2001, many of them in volatile Kapisa.
Since then, the battle has intensified, in part because of unwillingness among Afghan forces to pursue the enemy. The police and military stay tethered to their checkpoints, which even then is not always enough to keep violence at bay. This summer, Taliban forces attempted to overrun an outpost in Tatarkhel, a village in Tagab, setting off a three-day gun battle that killed at least four police officers.
The police in the province, with assistance from United States and Afghan Special Forces, are attempting to flush the area of insurgents. But the efforts have been hampered, not least of all because of their partnership with the Afghan Army.
To the American military commander in charge of eastern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, Kapisa is a source of deep concern. The Afghan Army’s lackluster performance has left police forces isolated and has hobbled efforts to drive out the insurgents.
In February, an insider attack by Afghan soldiers killed two American Special Operations soldiers and injured several others.
After an ambush on American Special Forces in Tagab that killed one soldier and wounded several others, the Americans sent more soldiers to the area.
The Americans were in the district center planning an intensified operation when the Taliban began shelling the area. Moments after the attack started outside, it continued from within.
Two Afghan soldiers positioned near the exit sprayed automatic fire across a line of the American Special Forces soldiers standing in the room. The attack killed two Special Forces soldiers and wounded four others before the attackers were killed.
Initial suspicions were that the Taliban had infiltrated the ranks. But interviews with Special Forces soldiers and commanders in the area suggested that factions within the Afghan Army in Tagab had already been working closely with the insurgents. On at least one occasion, the Americans believed the Afghan Army was firing on their position during an operation in the district.
After the February attack, the American Special Forces stopped conducting joint operations with mainstream Afghan Army units in southern Kapisa. Instead, they focused on working with the police.
American Special Forces soldiers who have operated in the area describe a disciplined Taliban force that has been able to operate freely. Its ability to issue and execute orders is exacting, and ambushes are orchestrated with precision.
And the insurgents have layered their security in a way that has hampered attempts to clear them away from the arteries that snake through the valleys of Kapisa.
It was from one of those valleys that the attack on the Tagab district governor and the police was launched.
The convoy had been passing through Nejrab district, another insurgent hot zone, on its way from Tagab toward the provincial capital of Kapisa. The police chief had offered a New York Times reporter a tour of Tagab district center, but the trip could not continue when the ambush occurred. Instead, the police chief and his forces joined the battle.
As the firing continued and drew closer, the Afghan forces threw everything they had at the insurgents. They lobbed grenades, fired rockets and emptied clips, but never left the road.
For the most part, they refused to enter the valley and pursue the Taliban. When informed about two officers who did decide to move into the thick jungle, the police chief shrugged and let out an expletive.
All the while, villagers trapped in the crossfire huddled behind the giant mud wall, trapped.
“Why are they fighting here? They can’t fight them face to face,” Abdul Gafar said of the Afghan forces, as he crouched protectively over his 3-year-old grandson, Jawad.
Mr. Gafar said that in Nejrab, at least, the deals with the Taliban were less clear than in neighboring Tagab. Still, he noted: “When a firefight breaks out, they shoot at anyone who moves.”
He grew quiet when a local police officer walked past. “If I say a word, they will beat me,” he whispered.
After more than an hour, the gunfight shifted from sustained firing to periodic bursts. A police officer yelled down to the villagers that they could go home, but the villagers would not move.
The security forces were still on guard, waiting for the next volley. At a loss, the officer then offered to escort the civilians away.
“How can I go?” Mr. Gafar said. “I am scared of you guys, too.”
Haris Kakar contributed reporting.