Saturday, February 03, 2007

Neglecting Afghanistan

Whether it is opium or terrorists, what comes out of Afghanistan seems to find its way to the United States. With all the attention on whether to “surge” or not in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan is on a downward spin and not commanding much attention in Washington. Life has become desperate for many particularly women.

The Taliban have made inroads in the countryside and recently overran the town of Musa Oala in the Helmand province. Despite vows to retake the town, the fact that the Taliban is now making successful raids into Afghanistan from their hideaways across the border in Pakistan is a sign of their growing strength and trouble to come. It is time the United States and our NATO allies take a close examination of what we are doing and what should be done in that country.

Robert Fox, in the Guardian, considers the British strategy in light of the lack of resources to fight:
The Taliban capture of the centre of Musa Qala in northern Helmand is the biggest setback to British efforts in Afghanistan since Tony Blair first sent troops there at the end of 2001.

The town, in the opium poppy growing belt along the Helmand river, had been held by British paratroopers in desperate fighting through much of the summer. British forces were spread out in small outposts or "platoon houses" across the province - in the hope they would become small havens of security from which the British and Afghan government force hoped to spread "ink spots" of peace across the province - one of the most violent in all Afghanistan.

Britain has about 5,400 service men and women now in Afghanistan, but of them only 1,000 or so are combat troops. They are served by only seven Chinook transport helicopters and eight Apache AH-64 helicopter gunships to protect them.

With such thin resources, the British stability plan always contained an element of bluff. By mid summer, within a few weeks of the arrival of British forces in Helmand, it was evident that the Taliban were far more numerous, better-armed and prepared than British and Nato intelligence had indicated. It was feared that some of the isolated positions in Sangin, and Now Zad, as well as Musa Qala, might be overrun and their British and Afghan army garrisons slaughtered.

A deal was struck for the Taliban and the British to leave the centre of Musa Qala and the elders and their council to take over. It was discussed and endorsed by President Karzai himself and the senior British commanders, including General David Richards, the British commander of the entire international force ISAF, now some 32,000 strong. This week, as the deal was evidently unravelling, no one wanted take responsibility for it.

All week, relations between the elders and the local Taliban became more fractious. The house of a suspected Taliban leader, Mullah Gaffur, was bombed by an American B1B Lancer bomber, but he escaped and his car was later spotted by a Nato drone, abandoned in a ditch.

On the first day of this month, the Taliban attacked the centre of town but were repulsed by local militia. In the morning, they attacked again, ramming a tractor into the police station and wrecking a large part of it. Compounds and houses were set on fire and hundreds fled fearing a retaliatory air raid by Nato.

Officials at the British command in Helmand admit they had been stunned by the attack. Most will say that, while the Musa Qala deal was not perfect, it showed a way in which local Afghans could take charge of their own security and fend off the Taliban. "We knew we could never carry out a pacification," a senior British commander at Nato told me. "You have to get down and dirty and do these local deals."

Although the Italian and, on occasion, the American troops in southern Afghanistan have successfully cut similar deals for local leaders to stand up against the Taliban, the Americans are dead against the British approach of mild threat and rough diplomacy.

"The Americans are always kinetic about these things - believing in hard force first," said a British general concerned with relations with the Americans. The new American commander who takes charge of the international force in Afghanistan, Isaf, on Sunday, General Dan "Bomber" McNeil has made his disapproval plain to the British. "He describes the Musa Qala deal as a tactical mistake and a strategic disaster," said a Nato source.

Which leaves British strategy and forces in Afghanistan in a bit of a spot. The forces are still under pressure at other isolated centres - virtually under siege in Sangiun, which holds the vital 611 main north-south highway, and at Now Zad, where they are held in a ceasefire by a more robust version of the Musa Qala truce. Royal Marines are involved in a ragged guerrilla campaign around Garmsir, which includes the main drug-smuggling route to Iran, as well as one of the main channels for bringing Taliban recruits from Pakistan.

The British know they do not have the forces or back-up to go on the offensive in a way the new McNeil command of international forces is likely to want. In particular, they are short of support from medium-sized and attack helicopters. The extra resources are not likely to be found while UK forces are so heavily committed in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, and the Treasury is demanding what amounts to a real cut in funding in the current Comprehensive Spending Review. "The trouble is that the government wants to fight two wars with what, in terms of resources and funding, is really a peacetime army," said one senior officer recently.

No comments: