Western Afghanistan, a new worry ?
By Golnar Motevalli
Herat province in west Afghanistan is seen as one of the country’s safest areas. It is one of the largest, most prosperous Afghan provinces — its capital’s wide, smooth and tree-lined boulevards are a far cry from Kabul’s crumbling skyline.
But the past few months have seen a sharp increase in violence.
Last month a cabinet minister and former militia leader, Ismail Khan, was the target of a bomb attack in Herat city. A day earlier, Herati traders took to the streets to protest against rising insecurity in the province.
Khan, who is seen by many Heratis as an icon of the anti-Taliban and anti-Soviet mujahedin, was unharmed, but three civilians were killed.
The district of Guzara in Herat has seen a spate of Taliban attacks, including the shooting dead of three men and the hanging of another and an ambush on a policeman’s home in which his teenage son was killed.
Since July at least 29 civilians have been killed in insurgent-linked attacks in Herat. Foreign troops, mainly Italians and Americans, are hit by roadside bombs or ambushed on a weekly basis.
While these attacks do not put Herat on a par with southern provinces such as Kandahar or Helmand — where the Taliban have grass-roots support in many areas — they still point to a considerable rise in instability in Herat, when compared to the same period last year.
Although the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, focusses mainly on the insurgency in the Pashtun tribal belt of the south and east, in
an interview with CBS news recently, he said the spread of violence to the mostly Tajik north and west was worse than he had expected.
Some analysts, including Ahmed Rashid, a prominent authority on the Taliban, have warned that the Taliban has been pushing further westwards and northwards for the past year in an effort
to consolidate gains already made in northern provinces such as Badghis and Kunduz — where there are mainly European troops.
Iran might also have reason to be alarmed. Last month, three Afghan policemen at a checkpoint very close to the border with Iran were killed in a Taliban ambush about two months after they attacked an Iranian engineering company, killing one employee.
U.S. military and Afghan officials have said that the rise in Taliban attacks in the west is partly a result of July’s U.S. operation “Strike of the Sword” in southern Helmand province, which has pushed Taliban fighters to the west and north.
Farah province, which is sandwiched between Herat and Helmand, has also seen a sharp spike in violence since the U.S. operation and the Taliban now command checkpoints in districts
such as Bala Boluk. In April I accompanied U.S. and Afghan army patrols in Bala Boluk, but on my second visit to Farah in August, I was told the entire district was now pretty much a no-go zone.
Could Herat’s Guzara district, where much of the Taliban-related violence has taken place in the past months, be on the same slide into Taliban control?
And are the Italian troops, who make up the bulk of main foreign force in Herat, and whom the Taliban perceive as weaker than their U.S. counterparts, capable of containing the growth of the insurgency in the west?
[Pictures of a mosque in Herat and a bombing]