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Afghanistan: Hot Winds in Winter

Rahul Bhonsle, New Delhi, India, December 27, 2006

International flags in front the Olympic Sports Center during the NATO Summit in Riga, Latvia, last month. (Photo: Attila Kisbenedek / AFP-Getty Images)

Afghanistan saw a drop in the level of operational activity and violence last month due to the early onset of winter. The time will thus be utilized for consolidation and taking stock of the results achieved. NATO forces will be utilizing this period for turning over troops while the Taliban will be recuperating from the serious losses it has suffered throughout the region and outlining its strategy for the coming year.

The level of attacks in Afghanistan rose this year with Stratfor, a private research company, indicating that there were 80 suicide attacks claiming 200 lives compared to just about 20 attacks in 2005. The targets shifted from local political leaders and groups to Western troops in the hope that this would put pressure on local governments, which are less than committed to the cause of reestablishing order in Afghanistan, to call for a withdrawal. The Taliban is reported to have moral and military control over half of Afghanistan especially in the South and the East, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. However, Stratfor believes that this may not be entirely true and that its control is essentially limited to the ability to conduct disruptive activities rather than physical control and governance. Other independent reports also indicate that the Taliban is not running any effective governance activities in the area but only seems to have local networks operating in its favor. As a guerrilla force is primarily concerned with control over the populace rather than territory, this is considered significant.

Over 100 people are reported to have been killed in suicide attacks in September and October; during the same period last year, no suicide attacks were reported. In addition, 17 suicide bombers were captured during the period. A large number of these bombers are reportedly being trained in Pakistan. There are also reports of the transfer of IED (improvised explosive device) expertise from Iraq to Afghanistan of late.

The Taliban is quick to exploit its control of poppy cultivation, the ethnic and tribal loyalties and the excesses committed by the NATO forces particularly in terms of air strikes to win over the local populace. It is also able to pay at least three to four times the sum paid by the Afghan government to police and military personnel to its fighters as reported in the Security Trends.

Britain's Musa Qala Truce. There is lot of skepticism about the Musa Qala truce, which is said to be an experiment by the British with the hope that the locals will be able to keep the Taliban out of the area. While there is no surety of this happening, as the Taliban with their ethnic affinity can force the local elders to break their agreement, it is a better arrangement than pounding villages with aircrafts and helicopters, which the British had been engaged in so far. The key issue is that these areas should not become sanctuaries for the Taliban and for this purpose certain surveillance arrangements will have to be worked out with the locals, as their verbal assurances cannot be relied upon.

A report in the Times of London by Michael Smith has outlined the details of the truce. It is a secret agreement with the elders in the area that proscribes the Taliban as well as British forces from operating in Musa Qala, Sangin, Nowzad and Kajaki of Helmand province. The British platoon posts in the area were acting as "magnets" for the Taliban, which struck at regular intervals with mortars and rockets causing a number of civilian casualties and disrupting their daily routine. Of the 2,000 people living in Musa Qala, 400 had to be evacuated from the district center.

In what has been called deal making in Lawrence of Arabia fashion, Brig. Ed Butler flew into Musa Qala protected only by his personal bodyguards and attended a shura of town elders to negotiate a withdrawal. A deal for the cessation of fighting in case the Taliban left the area was agreed upon. The emphasis by both sides has been on cessation of fighting and not a cease-fire, which in the battle for moral ascendancy assumes importance. Afghans have an anathema for cease-fires. The British soldiers would be replaced by Afghans in the town provided the Taliban did not launch any attacks on the district centers. It was reported that 29 British servicemen died in Afghanistan in September and October. Eight were killed in Musa Qala defending against Taliban attacks on the platoon posts.

Trend Analysis. The Helmand area has been pro-Taliban as the reach of the Afghan government has been limited. The aim of deployment in the area has been to ensure that governance reaches the people. The British have been making efforts to rebuild the houses destroyed in the campaign but this has apparently not satisfied the locals as there are reports that there has been large-scale corruption in these deals. The British practice of deploying in platoon strength is such areas invited Taliban action. The posts should be at minimum a company as this has the requisite leadership, command and control, reserve  and fire power to combat a larger threat. However, given the shortage of troops and due to pressure from the Afghan government the British were forced to deploy as they did. Now that the hostilities have ceased, the British should rapidly start rebuilding and reconstruction work in these key areas, where such work is possible in winter.

Development Issues

The Second Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan was held in New Delhi on Nov. 18 and Nov. 19. The aim of the conference was to focus on the energy, transport, business and agriculture needs of the country and reassure support to the Afghan government from the international community particularly regional countries. That the conference was held in India was significant as this implied a reduction in the resistance from Pakistan, which has considered Afghanistan as its own turf. However, the realization is perhaps slowly dawning on Islamabad that a stable government in Kabul would be better than instability, which has ravaged the area for over two to three decades now.

In a speech, the Indian prime minister assured the support of India to the Afghan government. The admission of Afghanistan to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was an important development this year and underlines its strategic significance as a buffer state between Central and West Asia, China and the Indian subcontinent. India's extended vision of prosperity was also highlighted by the prime minister, which includes the littoral states that should benefit from the 8-10 percent growth envisaged in the country. Indian efforts to promote trade with Afghanistan by establishing the Zaranj-Delaram highway linking the Garland Highway, the Mazar e Sharief-Kabul-Kandahar-Heart axis with the ports in Iran however has been delayed. The project is now likely to be completed by December 2008.

Information Warfare

Al Qaeda has taken up cudgels on behalf of the Taliban. It is threatening individual nations such as Canada to withdraw its forces or face attacks at home on similar lines as the Madrid or London train bombings. This is not likely to be mere coercion and needs to be taken seriously, as Al Qaeda is generally known to follow up its threats. Canadians who are playing a major role in Afghanistan with their deployment in the most critical area of Kandahar have suffered the ire of Al Qaeda as well as the Taliban, which also issued a general threat against all European countries who are part of the NATO offensive in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda's information campaign is certainly very timely as there is increased pressure on the conservative government in Canada to withdraw its troops from a conflict that is not seen as of core vital interest to the country. The likelihood of an increase in the level of commitment with Leopard tanks and F-18 fighter aircraft being inducted in the theater has increased the level of resentment. Given the commitments during the NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, recently, any withdrawal by Canadian or other NATO contingents from Afghanistan is not foreseen in the future.

NATO in Afghanistan: An Assessment

Forty-nine NATO soldiers have died, a majority of them Canadians. The measure of success by NATO in Afghanistan is evident by its forcing the Taliban to resort to hit and run operations and suicide strikes as opposed to the military operations they were undertaking at the beginning of the year. This was also the first time that the United States has placed its troops under NATO command. The battle has been won but the war is far from over as NATO forces are facing increased resistance from the local population in the area of Kandahar partially due to the massive helicopter and air bombardment.

The need to undertake measures to ensure that aid and assistance reaches the people in the remote areas is paramount for the success of the NATO mission. The winter is critical in that it is likely to indicate the level of determination of the Taliban in pursuing the option of hit and run and suicide operations. Spring will be even more ominous as it will denote to what extent the Taliban has rejuvenated itself and is able to return to the conventional mode.

NATO forces must rotate their troops and get additional troops (and encourage aid agencies) so that the work of rebuilding the country starts in earnest particularly in the south. The caveats imposed by many countries have greatly hampered full-scale employment and effective utilization. General Richards, the British commander has been blunt in stating this even to the media. It is reported by the Economist that when General Richards wanted the NATO strategic reserve battalion from France to be redeployed in September at the critical phase of the operations in the South, the French government declined because of its requirement in the Balkans. With a British general leading the NATO contingent, it was not likely that France could have readily acceded to this request. NATO is also faced with a number of inter-operability problems such as a lack of high altitude helicopters and compatible radio sets.

NATO's original commitment to Afghanistan was as a stabilization mission rather than a counterinsurgency operation. However, increasingly, Southern Afghanistan resembles a war zone. There is a need for joint coordination with the large number of agencies operating in the area from different countries, with differing languages and varied agendas. Coordinating them on the ground is essential to bring about stability.

The disagreements and pressures within the NATO alliance in waging the war in Afghanistan were also evident with the U.S. ambassador castigating the nations of NATO such as France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Turkey for their unwillingness to deploy troops in the very active southern areas, thus the pressure is mainly on British and Canadian troops. This has considerably reduced the flexibility of the NATO forces in Afghanistan as they find that at critical times they are short of troops and no amount of firepower can make up for the deficiency of what is commonly known as boots on the ground. The NATO shortfall is said to be up to 15 percent or 2,500 troops, according to U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe. In addition, there was a need for helicopters, transport aircraft and communication equipment. The shortfall will be partly made up by a Polish contingent of 800 due to arrive in January. The American policy of confrontation is seen as being in direct opposition to the European policy of engagement through consensus. The Americans want counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations to be given priority, while the Europeans prefer stabilization and peacekeeping.

Prognostications for the Year Ahead

Taliban commanders have been threatening to increase the intensity of operations in the spring. The Stratfor report indicates an interview with Mullah Dadullah, one of the Taliban's top commanders, in which he states that the Taliban has 500 suicide bombers who can be deployed at any time and 12,000 combat-ready Taliban fighters. This could be an empty boast but it cannot be ruled out entirely. Even if the strength envisaged were one-third of what the Taliban commander claims, it would necessitate deployment of at least 80,000 troops by NATO and the Afghan Army combined in Southern and Western Afghanistan. At present, this is restricted to just about 40,000 to 50,000 leaving a clear gap of 50 percent. Unlike in conventional warfare, in counterinsurgency operations, firepower cannot make up for manpower, hence the deficiency will be more than glaring.

The level of violence in 2006 has been estimated to be twice that of 2005 and is likely to continue in 2007 as per estimates of the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples. General Maples has indicated that the insurgents have enhanced their capabilities while at the same time sustaining their support base among the Pashtun community, portending heavy fighting in the year ahead. The intelligence chief also underlined the need for support to the Afghan president, who lacks capability to engage the Taliban if not the political will. The entire struggle is estimated to last a decade rather than a couple of years. It would thus be a hard grind for the NATO forces that need to demonstrate a will to stay. However, visions of a Soviet-like withdrawal in the years to come are highly exaggerated  — the key difference being the commitment of the international community to the Afghan cause. This support is not likely to go away that easily and as far as NATO retains its support and balance, there is less likelihood of any break up in the will to resist. The goals laid down in the various benchmarks such as the London Compact and the Millennium Development Goals need to be carried forward diligently by the involved nations.

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