‘We want to talk to the Taliban. But they would rather kill themselves
Control of Kandahar is key to withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the coming US offensive there will be a bloody one, writes Kim Sengupta, The Independent.
The first sign of the attack was somewhat mystifying: a tractor suddenly going up in flames on farmland beyond the base.
But there no ambiguity about what followed. A group of men charged, the first blowing himself up as he reached the fence, the others behind opening up with rifle fire. At the same moment, the first of a salvo of rockets launched from a distance landed inside Kandahar airfield.
It lasted no more than a few minutes. Once the tractor packed with explosives had prematurely detonated there was little chance of the Taliban fighters getting through, their suicide vests exploding as the Western troops cut them down. As the gunfire ended, and the smoke and fire began to clear, body parts and dismembered heads could be seen lying amid the unused arsenal – rocket-propelled grenade launchers, hand grenades and Kalashnikovs.
There was no intrinsic military gain for the insurgents in the assault, a fortnight ago, with only a 4ft-wide hole in the fence to show for five deaths. There was little chance of escape for the fighters even if they had turned back, with a dozen warplanes and helicopters already overhead. But it had propaganda value with some news reports declaring a “complex operation” which “led to a fierce hour-long firefight”. The fact the target was Nato’s airbase at Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban and scene of the next major US-led offensive, gave it greater resonance.
“But what a waste of lives, blowing themselves up at a fence, what’s the point of that?” asked Group Captain Ash Bennett, of the RAF Regiment, whose troops provide security at the base, later on. “Why don’t they talk to us instead? Then we can see where we can go from here. At the end of the day this thing will have to be settled by talking.”
Whatever the ideal, though, there is little doubt that there will be a lot of bloodletting in Kandahar before the talking begins. Clearing Kandahar and its hinterland was one of the main goals of General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, before his sacking by Barack Obama. It is now the first big test for General David Petraeus, his successor.
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