Taliban looks for gain in continuing Afghanistan violence

By MARTIN KUZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 27, 2012

KABUL — A suicide car bombing killed nine people and injured a dozen outside a military airfield in eastern Afghanistan on Monday, the latest spasm of violence resulting from the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base last week.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad. The victims were Afghan civilians and security personnel.

The blast occurred two days after an Afghan worker shot and killed two high-ranking U.S. advisers inside the Ministry of Interior building in Kabul.

The Department of Defense identified the victims as Air Force Lt. Col. John D. Loftis, 44, of Paducah, Ky., and Army Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II, 48, of Baltimore.

A Taliban spokesman said the suspect belongs to the Islamic militia; the shooter remains at large. The slayings prompted the United States and several coalition countries to remove hundreds of advisers who work in government ministries in Afghanistan’s capital.

The Taliban also said Monday that one of their operatives killed five coalition soldiers by poisoning food served at Forward Operating Base Torkham in eastern Nangarhar province, less than three miles from Pakistan.

U.S. military officials denied the claim. Lab tests revealed traces of bleach in food taken from the base’s chow hall, they said, but there were no reports of illness. Soldiers will eat pre-packaged rations as a precaution until the completion of an investigation into the incident.

The Taliban, who last week called for violence against “invading forces” in retaliation for soldiers at Bagram Air Field burning several copies of the Quran, have a history of embellishing their role in attacks on coalition troops and inflating casualty figures.

But the timing of the latest statements could derail efforts to nurture peace negotiations among the Taliban, the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition. In particular, the militia’s taunts will test the resolve of U.S. political and military leaders as the country withdraws most of its troops over the next two years.

Amid deepening discontent in America over a conflict in its second decade, and a struggling national economy burdened in part by war spending, negotiating with an enemy containing elements that appear eager to prolong the ongoing unrest could prove untenable for U.S. officials in a presidential election year.

“The Taliban knows the Americans are running out of time,” said Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, a nonprofit policy organization. Some factions within the militia “could be using the protests over the Quran burning to sustain an instability that will make it harder for peace talks to take place.”

Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, described prospects for peace as “pretty shaky.”

“You have a situation that could be unraveling,” she said. “You have so many parties around the peace table and so many that are not at the table. What’s happening now could lead to fragmentation among the [insurgent] groups, the Afghan government, the [coalition] countries.”

Pentagon officials said Monday the widespread violence following the Quran incident would have no effect on overall U.S. strategy.

Regional commanders were ordered to take necessary force-protection measures but keep their troops in the field operating with Afghan security personnel, Defense Department spokesman Capt. John Kirby said. U.S. advisors, recalled from government ministries in Kabul, are working with Afghan counterparts by phone and email, he added.

More than 35 people have been killed and at least 200 injured since reports spread a week ago that soldiers at Bagram had partially burned copies of the Quran removed from the base’s detention facility. Detainees had written “extremist” messages in the books that the soldiers brought to an incinerator for disposal, according to coalition officials.

Most of the bloodshed has occurred during clashes between Afghan security forces and protesters at demonstrations that have drawn thousands of people in Kabul and across the country. An Afghan soldier shot and killed two U.S. soldiers during a protest near a coalition base in Nangarhar province Thursday.

Seven U.S. military trainers were injured Sunday when a demonstrator lobbed a grenade into a base in Kunduz province. The United Nations pulled staff from Kunduz in response to an attack on its compound there a day earlier.

At a news conference Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai again appealed for peace, a message echoed by Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, during an appearance on CNN.

“Tensions are running very high here,” Crocker said, “and I think we need to let things calm down, return to a more normal atmosphere and then get on with business.”

But as the violence continues, doubts fester about the chances for stability, said Davood Moradian, a former Karzai adviser.

“What’s going on right now is a perfect environment for the Taliban,” he said. “They want the protests to go on. This is the Taliban’s idea of peace.”

Twitter: @martinkuz


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