Taliban Resistance on the Upsurge in Afghanistan

Nearly a year after President Bush declared the Taliban had been ousted from power, Afghanistan has seen its bloodiest year yet since the American occupation. NPR's Philip Reeves, in Kabul, discusses the Taliban's recent resurgence.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In Afghanistan, the status of a US Navy SEAL who has been missing for several days remains in doubt. The Taliban, which has stepped up attacks on US-led forces and civilians in recent months, claimed that the SEAL was their prisoner. Now today, a professed Taliban spokesman has said that the SEAL has been killed. The US military has not confirmed that claim, nor has the military confirmed that the SEAL is in custody of the Taliban. A search for the commando is under way in the remote eastern mountains of Afghanistan. This has been the most serious episode for US forces in that country since they drove the Taliban from power in 2001. NPR's Philip Reeves joins us from Kabul.

Philip, thanks very much for being with us.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

You're welcome.

SIMON: And please tell us what we know about these Taliban reports? The US commando has been missing for 11 days now.

REEVES: Yeah, and a man who purports to be a spokesman for the Taliban says that the missing SEAL was this morning, in his words, `executed,' and that the body was dumped on top of a mountain. Now this same man has been saying for some days that the missing US Navy SEAL was taken prisoner and would after being interrogated be killed. The commando's a member of a four-man team of US SEALs who ran into trouble in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Two of these were killed and one was rescued.

Now the US military says it's looking into these reports, but it says it has no proof that the commando is dead or even a Taliban prisoner. It's saying that the search continues.

SIMON: Do we know what that mission was in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan?

REEVES: Yeah, this four-man team were part of an operation to hunt down al-Qaeda and Taliban and other Islamist militants in Kunar province. Now that's a wild sort of area of mountains and forest, which has long been a stronghold for the militants. The team came under fire; they took injuries and radioed for help. The US military sent in assistance, including a Chinook helicopter, which you recall was shot down by the militants. Eight other SEALs and eight Army airmen were on board that helicopter. They all died, and this was the US military's heaviest single loss in a combat operation since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

SIMON: Philip, help us understand, or try to, the significance of the Taliban's attacks on military and civilians in recent months.

REEVES: Well, the violence has intensified markedly, and it came after a period of optimism amongst Afghan and US officials in the aftermath of the relatively successful presidential elections in October. There usually is an increase of militant violence when the winter ends and the mountain passes clear. But this is worse than usual. I mean, even today, government officials reportedly in Paktika province are saying that a senior pro-government cleric has been stabbed to death by Taliban insurgents. That would be the third attack on Islamic clerics who support the government of Hamid Karzai in less than a month and a half.

SIMON: Is there some growing concern that this increase in violence could have some effect on September's legislative elections?

REEVES: Yes, there is. US and Afghan officials have been warning for quite a while that the Taliban and al-Qaeda would try and disrupt the elections, and there are real concerns about that. Now these elections are for the lower house of the National Assembly and for provincial councils, and they consider it a pretty crucial step in Afghanistan's transition to a permanent democratic government under the Bonn agreement.

But there are other issues also here, which are really dominating the realm of public debate too. There's concern also at the same time about the booming opium business, for example, and the slow pace of reconstruction and questions actually whether the Parliament, when it is finally elected, will hold significant powers or not. So this is still a difficult period for Afghanistan.

SIMON: NPR's Philip Reeves in Kabul, thank you very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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