Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Marines Target Al-Qaeda Camps In Afghanistan

As Afghan and US forces complete an operation that targeted a Taliban stronghold in northern Helmand province, another area has been identified as a Taliban safe haven that hosts al Qaeda training camps. The Baghran district in northern Helmand hosts several camps run by al Qaeda's paramilitary Shadow Army, several military and civilian sources told The Long War Journal. Hundreds of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters have rotated through the Baghran camps. The Shadow Army, or the Lashkar al Zil, is al Qaeda's paramilitary force that closely operates with the Taliban and other jihadi groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The trained fighters are then sent to conduct operations against Afghan and Coalition forces in Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces. "Some relatively well-trained Talibs come out of these camps," an intelligence official said. "They are trained to operate in small units, and expertise on IED [improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs] and suicide attacks are passed on to some fighters." Some of the complex attacks in Kandahar and Uruzgan are thought to have been carried out by fighters trained at the Baghran camps, including the Feb. 2 suicide attack inside a training center for police reservists in the town of Tarin Kot in Uruzgan province. Twenty-one Afghan police were killed and seven more were wounded in the suicide attack. Baghran, the northernmost district in Helmand, is located in a remote and mountainous region, and serves as an ideal sanctuary for the Taliban and al Qaeda operating in southern Afghanistan. There are no Coalition forces present and the region is largely unpatrolled. The district was the scene of a major US airstrike in August 2007 that targeted what the US military called a "sizable meeting of senior Taliban commanders." Hundreds of Taliban fighters and leaders were said to be gathering in a village in Baghran to conduct a public execution of two "spies." Mullah Dadullah Mansour, at the time the military commander in the south, and Mullah Abdul Rahim, a senior commander in Helmand who operates from Pakistan, were both reportedly in attendance. Both leaders survived the strike. Locals claimed that more than 50 civilians were wounded but the US military maintained that only Taliban fighters were killed or wounded. The district of Nad Ali in Helmand also serves as a safe haven for the Taliban and al Qaeda and hosts camps for the Shadow Army.In that district, Afghan and Coalition forces recently completed a four-day operation in the village of Marja, which was described by the US military as a "key militant and criminal operations and narcotics hub in southern Afghanistan" and "a main command node." According to Quqnoos, an English-language Afghan news outlet, Marja has been under Taliban control for more than a year and a half. The military said more than 60 Taliban fighters were killed during the operation as the Taliban "mounted an ineffective and uncoordinated defense" of the village. No Afghan or US troops were reported killed during the fighting, and more than 223 tons of narcotics and 37 tons of materials used to make explosives were seized. Afghan and Coalition forces cordoned the town's main bazaar, where Taliban command and control centers and narcotics and bomb factories were located, and then called in airstrikes to destroy the buildings. US and Afghan military officers deemed the operation a major success. "The commandos thoroughly demolished a vital operational, logistical, and financial hub for the enemy and completed this mission victorious as the militants and criminals crawled away defeated and operationally-neutered," Ministry of Defense spokesperson Major General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said in a US military press release. But Afghan and US forces did not remain in Marja to deny the Taliban and al Qaeda the opportunity to reestablish control of the region, according to a report in Quqnoos. "The troops have left the area after the operation and the area is again under the control of the Taliban," said Daud Ahmadi, the spokesman for the governor of Helmand. A US military officer said the raid in Marja is the best that can be done at this time because too few forces are available to secure all of the territory in southern Afghanistan. "Until the additional troops are available, search and destroy operations like the one in Marja are the best we can do," the officer said. "The operation succeeded in its limited objective, and that command center needed to be taken out, but we won't make serious headway in the south until we can hold the ground in places like Marja."

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