Taliban Targeted Afghan Police in Warduj District
Taliban insurgents have reportedly captured or killed large numbers of Afghan government forces in the remote and usually quiet northeastern corner of the country for the second time this year, officials said Thursday.
According to Dawlat Mohammad, the governor of Warduj district, insurgents ambushed a police convoy in the district on Wednesday, killing 10 policemen and taking 16 others prisoner.
A text message sent to journalists from a Taliban official claimed that the insurgents had killed 25 policemen and captured 12.
But on Thursday, the spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, Sediq Seddiqi, disputed both the insurgents’ claims and those of the Warduj governor, saying no police officers had been captured.
The disputed reports were symptomatic both of an increasing casualty rate among Afghan forces and growing government sensitivity about such information. Last year, Afghan officials reported that Afghan National Army soldiers were being killed at the rate of more than three a day, while deaths of police officers were about six a day, twice as high.
(By comparison, coalition casualties have never reached two a day, and are now fewer than one a day.)
While hard figures are scarce this year, a number of public comments have suggested a significant increase in casualties on the government side. This month the newspaper The Guardian quoted Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the American military commander, as saying that Afghan forces were losing 100 a week. “I’m not assuming that those casualties are sustainable,” General Dunford was reported to have said.
If that trend continued, it would represent a substantial increase over last year’s reported 2,970 deaths for Afghan security forces, including both police officers and soldiers.
On July 22, the interior minister, Gen. Ghulam Mujtaba Patang, addressing Parliament during impeachment proceedings against him, defended himself by saying he had been preoccupied with the rising death toll. “From March 21 up to now, I swear to God, 2,748 police have been martyred,” he said.
Afghan government officials later disputed General Dunford’s figures, and General Patang’s office issued a clarification saying his number referred to wounded as well as dead.
Mr. Seddiqi said Thursday that casualty figures had not yet been compiled nationwide, so he was not able to give numbers. “I can say there has been a slight increase in the number of casualties,” he said. He attributed that to Afghan authorities’ taking on greater responsibility as NATO and the Americans have less of a combat role, running more operations and more aggressive ones, and preparing for elections next year by trying to improve security conditions. “I can’t give you the exact percentage of that increase, but it is slight,” he said.
In Wednesday’s episode, Mr. Seddiqi insisted that no policemen had been taken prisoner in Warduj district, in Badakhshan Province. Mr. Seddiqi said the authorities there had been conducting an operation to clear Taliban fighters from the area and had killed 47 insurgents in the district. He acknowledged that the police had sustained some casualties, but declined to give details until a briefing after the current operation was over.
“So far we have cleared 90 percent of the district of the Taliban’s presence,” he said.
Warduj district is also where the Taliban killed one Afghan soldier and captured 22 others in an ambush in March. After negotiations with tribal elders in the area, six of the soldiers were released unhurt, but 16 others were killed by the insurgents.
Warduj district lies along the highway leading into the Wakhan Corridor, an area of very high mountains bordered by China and Pakistan. Until this year, Badakhshan was one of the quietest areas in Afghanistan.
“The district governor does not have information about what is really going on in Warduj district,” Mr. Seddiqi said. “He isn’t in there; how could he know?”
Governor Mohammad, speaking by telephone from his office in the district government building, said that 10 bodies of policemen killed in the attack had already been delivered to the district police headquarters nearby.
“The Taliban beheaded two of the captured police, and they are threatening to behead all the others,” the governor said.
His account was partially confirmed by the provincial police chief in Badakhshan, Imam Udin Mutmaeen, who said that nine policemen had been killed in the ambush on Wednesday and that an unspecified number were missing.
In addition to a general rise in casualties, attacks in which large numbers of Afghan government forces are killed have become increasingly common. When American troops were more involved, it was rare for an attack to kill more than a few soldiers, at least in part because of air support, which Afghan forces do not usually get on their own.
In April, for instance, Taliban insurgents overran an outpost in Kunar Province, killing all 13 Afghan soldiers there. In May, Afghan forces beat back a Taliban offensive in the strategic Sangin district of Helmand Province, but lost 19 soldiers and policemen in the fight. And in Panjwai district of Kandahar Province in May, an Afghan company lost a fourth of its force, with 20 soldiers wounded or killed.
Government officials have reported even higher death tolls among Taliban attackers.
Abdul Matin Sarfraz contributed reporting from Kunduz, Afghanistan, and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul.