Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Old Agonies, New Fury

It's not too late to salvage a rapidly deteriorating situation, diplomats say, but more troops will be needed.

MALEK DIN, Afghanistan Bravo Company knew its quarry was here, somewhere. The soldiers could hear Taliban fighters radio one another, tracking every step the Americans took through the rutted tracks, mud-walled compounds and parched orchards of the Afghan outback.

Yet in three tense, sweat-soaked days of blasting open doors, digging up ammo caches and quizzing tight-lipped villagers, the GIs never found a single Taliban fighter.

“They just hide their weapons and become farmers,” muttered one 10th Mountain Division officer, nodding at turbaned men glowering from the shade of a nearby wall.

Afghanistan has become Iraq on a slow burn. Five years after they were ousted, the Taliban are back, their ranks renewed by a new generation of diehards. Violence, opium trafficking, ethnic tensions and political corruption and anarchy are all worse.

The diversion of troops and resources to Iraq — including many assigned to hunt down Osama bin Laden — is seen by critics of the Bush administration as leaving the door open to a Taliban comeback.

Only 22,000 U.S. and nearly that many NATO-led troops are trying to secure a country half again the size of Iraq, where 150,000 coalition troops are deployed.

Suicide bombings have soared from two in all of 2002 to about one every five days. Civilian casualties are mounting. President Hamid Karzai has become unpopular.

“The Americans made promises that they haven’t carried out, like bringing security, rebuilding the country and eradicating poverty,” said Nasir Ahmad, hawking secondhand clothes in Kabul’s main bazaar. “Karzai is an irresponsible person. He is just a figurehead.”

Senior U.S., European and Afghan officials, diplomats and military commanders said it’s not too late to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist base camp again. But containing the crisis will require more troops, attention and energy.

“The challenge we face is not of a military nature,” Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said on Sept. 21. “The critical task at this stage is strengthening the government of Afghanistan, developing the economy and building Afghan civil society.

The Pentagon had planned to withdraw some U.S. forces, but Eikenberry, now sees no cuts before next year.

If American and NATO forces left, warned Police Gen. Gullam Jan, “the Taliban would come back in a week.”

James Dobbins, who was President Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan, said the administration dismissed European offers of a major peacekeeping force after the U.S. intervention and quickly began shifting military assets to invade Iraq.

The White House “resisted the whole concept of peacekeeping,” said Dobbins. “They wanted to demonstrate a different approach, one that would be much lower cost. So the decision to skimp on manpower and deploy one-fiftieth the troops as were deployed in Bosnia was accompanied by a decision to underplay economic assistance.”

He noted that Congress wasn’t asked for reconstruction money until a year after Afghanistan was invaded. “Much of the money didn’t show up for years. And not only were the actual sums relatively small, but with the failure to establish even a modicum of security in the countryside, there was no way to spend it.”

Bush acknowledged Tuesday that the Taliban and other extremists “have tried to regain control, mostly in the south of Afghanistan. And so we’ve adjusted tactics and we’re on the offense to meet the threat and to defeat the threat….

“I know there’s some in your country who wonder or not — whether or not America has got the will to do the hard work necessary to help you succeed,” Bush told Karzai at the White House. “We have got that will, and we’re proud of you as a partner.”

The majority of Afghanistan’s 31 million people oppose the Taliban, which banned women from working and girls from attending school, enforced a puritanical form of Islamic government that included public floggings and executions, and fought a bloody civil war in the mid-1990s with the country’s Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek minorities.

But the Taliban scattered the warlords and established a kind of peace in much of the country, however repressive. Now, many yearn for a return of the security that the radicals provided.
Many Afghans also have grown disgusted with Karzai, who rarely leaves his heavily fortified palace in Kabul.

“The insurgency is developing all over,” warned Zia Mojaddedi, a senior member of Karzai’s national security council. “It is still not lost. They are not strong. But we are weak. We are corrupt.”

While the Taliban uprising has been focused in the southern homeland of the ethnic Pashtuns, their reach and that of allied Islamic groups and criminal gangs now extend to more than half the country.

In the southeast, troops face daily ambushes and hidden explosives. Operations end up building sympathy for the Taliban among the conservative Pashtun.

“Four or five times the Americans have searched my house,” Mohammad Akram, a wizened cleric, complained in one village. “They shoot at us. If the Americans have proof that I am with the bad guys, show me the proof. The Americans dishonor our homes.”

He waved at about 200 villagers. “The Taliban and al-Qaida are probably here right now. These people will support them because the government has done nothing for them.”

Lt. David Patton agrees that the Taliban are probably there. His unit found itself fighting for its life in the area a week earlier. “They basically trapped us. I had nine guys and it was a two-hour firefight.”

Since January, 158 U.S. soldiers and troops of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force have died, against 130 in 2005. Perhaps 1,500 Afghans died as well.

The administration notes how Afghanistan now has a democratic constitution, and elections have been held for president, parliament and provincial councils.

Reconstruction has gone forward in the north, center and west, where the Taliban strike but aren’t entrenched. Some 6 million children attend school, more than 1,800 miles of road have been built, and electricity, irrigation, bridges and health clinics are going in.

But in the south, the International Security Assistance Force is unable to kick-start reconstruction because of the fighting.

Until the international force arrrived, no more than 3,000 U.S. troops were deployed there. Instead, most Pentagon manpower focused on hunting al-Qaida along the border with Pakistan.
The result has been “to a large degree a vacuum,” said a senior official with the international force. “When the Taliban was pushed out (in 2001), they were neither replaced by effective government, nor were they replaced by alternative security forces. NATO is now dealing with the consequences of previous failures in policy.”

The guerrillas assassinate officials and pro-government Muslim religious leaders, undermining the efforts to extend Kabul’s authority. Anyone suspected of informing or even not sharing the Taliban’s radical vision of Islam is at peril.

Large sections of the nation’s main highway have become unsafe, and at least 300 schools are burned or closed.

Guerrillas appear openly in Kandahar, the Pashtun spiritual and cultural capital. Taliban suicide-bomber cells have infiltrated Kabul.

They and their leaders operate from Pakistan, aided by al-Qaida, radical Islamic parties and even elements in Pakistan government who want to keep Afghanistan weak.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf insists he’s doing everything possible to crack down but has never arrested any Taliban leaders.

As in Iraq, the U.S. exit strategy for Afghanistan hinges on building the army and police.
The Afghan army has about 30,000 troops who participate in operations with U.S. and international forces. But they lack basic equipment — helmets, radios and armored vehicles — and rely on U.S. and other foreign funds for their salaries.

Police issues are worse.

“If a Talib comes across the border and encounters the police, he says, ‘Here are 5,000 Afghanis (about $100). We are going to fight the infidels. We have weapons and rockets. Take this 5,000 Afghanis and get lost,’ ” Mojaddedi said.

Desertions, Taliban infiltration, massive equipment theft, nepotism, low pay, incompetence, recruiting woes and corruption have forced reform of the Afghan National Police to grind to a halt, said Jan, Mojaddedi and U.S officials involved.

“Many of the people of Afghanistan are on the fence right now,” Marine Gen. James Jones, NATO’s top commander, said. “If military action is not followed by visible, tangible, sizable and correctly focused reconstruction and development efforts, then we will be in Afghanistan for a much longer period of time than we need to be.”

Some pertinent data points:

22,000 U.S. forces; NATO forces add 20,000 and the Afghan army adds 30,000
12,000 Taliban’s estimate of own strength
1,600 Estimated civilians dead this year
158 Allied soldiers killed this year, up from 130 in 2005
15 Missouri and Kansas casualties since 2001