Afghanistan Update: New Offensive Targets Taliban

U.S.-led forces have recently launched their biggest military operation in Afghanistan since the Taliban was ousted from the capital of Kabul five years ago. Alex Chadwick speaks with Declan Walsh, reporting from Afghanistan for Britain's Guardian newspaper, about ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and concerns that some prominent officials in the Afghan government have participated in serious human rights violations.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up: how the French national soccer team plays for more than just the game. First, Afghanistan and the biggest military operation since U.S.-led forces defeated the Taliban government five years ago in the opening of the war on terrorism.

Coalition forces said today that they've killed 40 insurgents in Afghanistan's southern region, where Taliban loyalists have been counterattacking in recent months. Declan Walsh is a correspondent with the UK's Guardian newspaper. He joins us by cell phone from Kandahar in Southern Afghanistan.

Declan, welcome to the program and what about this operation? How many coalition forces are involved?

Mr. DECLAN WALSH (Reporter, The Guardian): Approximately 11,000 coalition forces are involved, Alex, spread across about four provinces here in the south. And we're expecting most of the conflict is going to take place in a mountainous stretch that goes across three of those provinces: Helmand, Uruzgan and Zabul. And there are also pockets here in Kandahar province where there has been some very fierce engagements between U.S. and Canadian coalition forces and the Taliban over the last number of months.

CHADWICK: When we refer to coalition forces here, these are U.S. soldiers, Canadians, British and soldiers from Afghanistan, yes?

Mr. WALSH: That's right, yes. And we're in a transition period here, as far as the coalition command is concerned. Next month, NATO is due to take command of six of the southern provinces from the U.S. This operation is seen as a way of crippling the Taliban in advance of that NATO deployment next month.

CHADWICK: Well, is that what the military says? Have they stated a clear goal, we think we might be able to drive the Taliban out of this region? Eleven thousand soldiers in a unit, that sounds like a lot, but stretched over several provinces in the mountains? I don't know, what can they really accomplish?

Mr. WALSH: Well, that's a good point. The coalition commanders are saying that they're concentrating on the Taliban hideouts. And there are a number of remote areas in those mountains where the Taliban are able to move freely, where they have some degree of support from the local population. The coalition says that it's focusing very tightly on those areas. It wants to flush them out. And it says that it's going to follow up the military operations with development activity, things like roads and schools, to increase people's confidence in the central government.

CHADWICK: Can you tell at all if they have any regard for the Taliban? Are the Taliban coming in and ruling by force there or is there some residual loyalty to the old Taliban government? Do they like the Taliban?

Mr. WALSH: It's a difficult question to answer. I was in the town of Qalat recently, speaking to elders there. A lot of them say that they are not supportive of the Taliban, that they feel that the central government has failed them in many ways. And often this problem is further complicated by issues of tribal rivalries and ethnic problems between various areas. This is the sort of complex web of problems that the coalition faces.

And you'll remember that when the Taliban came to power in 1996, it was at the end of a period of Civil War when factions from the Mujahideen groups had been battling each other for years and had effectively ground the country down. People supported the Taliban because they brought stability. Now they say they will support the coalition if it can prove that it will provide stability and some degree of development as well.

CHADWICK: Here's another complicating factor that you write about in the Guardian and the Boston Globe, a report from the UN Commissioner for Human Rights that's been withheld for more than a year. It talks about atrocities conducted over decades really by several people who are now holding positions of authority within the current Afghan government. This report has still not been made public. Why is that?

Mr. WALSH: This report is what's known as a mapping report. It effectively looks at the 23 years of conflict, of serious conflict, between 1978 and 1991, and through the prism of human rights. Terrible things happened, of course - massacres, mass rape, extensive torture - by a number of different forces. Starting from Soviets, Afghan Communists and through to the Mujahideen and the Taliban.

The sensitivity of this report is that some of the people who are named in it - particularly the Mujahideen commanders - still have positions of great influence in the society today. And human rights workers who have helped compile this report now are starting to feel quite annoyed that the UN has sat on this for the last 18 months.

And they're saying that the UN and the Afghan government are worried about the political sensitivities of, if you like, naming and shaming these individuals, and highlighting again alleged war crimes, which still have not been dealt with in Afghan society.

CHADWICK: Declan Walsh in Kandahar for the Guardian newspaper. Declan thank you.

Mr. WALSH: My pleasure.

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