Battling a Resurgent Taliban in Southern Afghanistan

Afghanistan is experiencing the worst fighting involving the Taliban since the fundamentalist Islamic movement was overthrown in late 2001, and much of the conflict has been focused in southern Afghanistan. News of rioting in Kabul following a deadly accident involving a U.S. convoy is spreading throughout the country. Robert Siegel talks with Ivan Watson, reporting from the Afghan city of Kandahar.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And now to NPR's Ivan Watson, who drove today from Kabul to Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. The fighting there in the past few weeks has been some of the worst involving the Taliban since the regime was overthrown more than four years ago.

And Ivan, Pam Constable has described that outburst of anger against U.S. and other foreign targets in Kabul. Is that anger surprising to you?

IVAN WATSON reporting:

No, because we saw some of the same back in February. Recall the controversy over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, which were printed in European newspapers, and we had several days of riots all around the country with fatalities. A number of Afghans were killed in that and foreign troops on the ground here were attacked both in Kabul and in other cities around the country.

SIEGEL: Now were there any other signs of today's rioting in Kabul outside the capital as you were driving toward Kandahar?

WATSON: No, my drive down was quite peaceful. The only sign I saw was having lunch in a Kandahar restaurant and Afghans were watching this on TV. So whatever has happened in Kabul, the news is getting out and perhaps there could be some kind of reaction in the days to come around the rest of the country.

SIEGEL: What's the latest on the fighting against the Taliban in that part of Afghanistan?

WATSON: Well there was an air strike reported last night. The coalition is claiming that as many as 50 Taliban may have been killed when a compound was bombed in neighboring Helmont province. However the deputy governor of that province has gone on record saying that it was a mosque that was bombed. If this is true it could set off more public anger against the coalition coming barely a week after a series of coalition air strikes killed as many as 34 civilians here in Kandahar province. That's according to a local human rights association.

There was also a battle over night between Canadian troops and Taliban fighters. The Canadian military says that one Taliban fighter was killed and five Canadian soldiers were wounded, four of them lightly. One is going into surgery, I believe.

SIEGEL: How do you understand this recent increase in the intensity of fighting in that part of Afghanistan? Is it more activity, more aggressive activity by the Taliban, or is it more aggressive counterinsurgency by U.S. or other allied forces? What's going on?

WATSON: It's a number of different factors. You know one of the first things that Afghans tell me, both in Kabul and down in Kandahar, is they blame a lot of this on the government of Hamid Karzai. They say he's just, the government is not doing the job down here. They complain about corruption, about tribalism in the appointment of local officials, about nepotism, for instance. Many accuse Hamid Karzai's brother of being a negative force here in the city of Kandahar.

And they say that the Taliban has taken advantage of that, that it is capitalizing on the frustration in the public at the Afghan government. Also there are other issues like the attempts to try to reduce the cultivation of poppy throughout these provinces, that that may be driving some people to attack Afghan forces and coalition forces.

And it is quite bad. We're hearing about hundreds of schools that have been shut down by threats coming from the Taliban, and a nearly daily drumbeat of roadside bombs and assignations and ambushes of Afghan forces and coalition forces in this area.

SIEGEL: What are you hearing from coalition spokesmen there about plans to combat what the Taliban is doing?

WATSON: Well they're predicting a long, hot and bloody summer here, the worst since the Taliban's overthrow. NATO is moving into this area trying to relieve some of the burden from the U.S. military and take over command of the operations here. I'm on a base where NATO is right now building up its forces. I'm with Canadian troops and the Dutch are moving in right now and the British as well. And they say that the Taliban may be testing them right now trying to break the political will of public opinion back home in the NATO countries.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Ivan Watson speaking to us from the coalition air base outside of Kandahar in Afghanistan. Ivan, thanks a lot, take care.

WATSON: You're welcome, Robert.

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