Are the Taliban seeking new safe havens? | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 26.06.2014
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Are the Taliban seeking new safe havens?

Hundreds of Taliban fighters have stepped up their attacks against security forces in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. Experts say the militants might be looking for new safe havens in the war-torn country.

In 2010, US-led NATO and Afghan forces launched "Operation Moshtarak" to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan's Helmand Province. The operation was described as the biggest offensive targeting mainly the province's Marja District. By the end of the operation the militants suffered heavy causalities. However, many members of the group managed to escape to Pakistan's tribal areas where their long time allies, the "Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan" have sanctuaries.

Four years later, experts see similarities between the 2010 offensive and the latest attacks launched by the Pakistani army in North Waziristan. Islamabad started the military offensive in mid-June targeting the Islamist militants after the Pakistani Taliban and an Uzbek militant group launched a brazen attack on Karachi airport, the country's largest. It is believed that some of the region's most feared militants use North Waziristan as a launching pad for attacks within Pakistan as well as against NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistani troops walk on a hilltop post near Ladha, a town in the Pakistani troubled tribal region of South Waziristan along the Afghan border.

Islamabad started the military offensive in mid-June targeting the Islamist militants after the attack on Karachi airport

Former Afghan military general Hilaluddin Hilal believes the Taliban are now looking for new safe havens as the Pakistani military is hunting them down in Waziristan. "They [the Taliban] want to capitalize on the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the Afghan forces to gain control over areas that ensure their existence and provide them with income sources," Hilal told DW.

Taliban militants have been fighting a guerilla war against Afghan and US-led NATO forces since they were removed from power in late 2001. Many leaders of the Islamist group are believed to have taken refuge in Pakistan's tribal areas. Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are two different groups with close ties, common interests and ideologies.

Pakistani journalist Shamim Shahid says the Taliban operating in the Pakistani-Afghan border areas support one another. "Our information shows that with the launch of the military operation in North Waziristan, the Afghan Taliban who had safe havens in the area have moved back to Afghanistan and launched an assault against the people in Helmand Province," Shahid told DW from the district of Bannu where more than 450,000 local residents from Waziristan have taken refuge.

"Whenever there is an operation against the Taliban in Pakistan or Afghanistan the group loses its sanctuaries in one place and starts looking for new ones on the other side of the border," Shahid explained.

Seeking territory

Just a few days ago, more than 800 Taliban insurgents started a major offensive in Helmand Province stepping up their assaults on the districts of Sangin, Kajaki, Musa Qala and Nawzad. Defense and interior ministry officials told reporters in Kabul on June 26 that the battle was still ongoing. According to official reports, 30 Afghan security forces have been killed and 40 others wounded so far. Taliban casualties are reported to be in the hundreds.

But unlike many other Afghan experts, Dawood Muradiyan from the Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies believes the fighting in Helmand is not related to military operations in North Waziristan. He relates the ongoing battle to presidential elections in the war-torn country.

"The recent surge in Taliban attacks is mainly related to the electoral and political crisis in Afghanistan. They [Taliban] want to pressure Kabul and face them with a military challenge at a time when they already face a political one," Muradiyan explained.

The first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan is facing a crisis, with one of the candidates threatening to reject the result of the by-election ballot count, citing widespread fraud.

A common enemy?

Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan.

Some analysts doubt the fighting in Afghanistan's Helmand Province is related to military operations in North Waziristan

Afghan defense ministry spokesman General Zaher Azimi, told reporters in Kabul that the Taliban were now adopting battle tactics from the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) by carrying out wide scale attacks involving hundreds of fighters. ISIS has recently raised international concerns with its quick territory gains in Iraq.

"The solution for the Taliban problem is that they should be recognized as a common threat by Afghanistan, Pakistan and US," Muradiyan said, adding that the militant group should not be divided by officials into different categories of extreme, moderate, Pakistani or Afghan. "There should be a similar position against the group the same way there is one position against ISIS in the Middle East among Tehran, Baghdad and Washington."