| ||Fields of little glory: Nato begins to scale back its Afghan ambitions|
By Stephen Fidler and Jon Boone
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Mahmoud Saikal spends his days planning Afghanistan’s transformation from a war-ravaged failed state to a prosperous nation with a modern infrastructure.
If he gets his way, the country will have its first railways, linked to the networks of Europe, and the country’s dusty, overcrowded capital will be transformed into one of the finest in central Asia.
But for a man who returned with high hopes to act as a government economic adviser after years abroad as an architect and then as the country’s ambassador to Australia, the mood in his office is grim. The newspaper on his desk is dominated by reports on the murder of six Afghan MPs and scores of schoolchildren by the deadliest suicide attack to hit the country in the tumultuous six years since 2001.
“I used to think that devoting myself was the best way to help the country, but now I’m beginning to think that there is really no point until we have got security right first. It feels like we haven’t made any progress at all in the last six years, like we’re back in Taliban times.”
Mr Saikal is not alone in his sentiments: terrorist incidents have undermined many Afghans’ sense of security. They have further eroded support for the government both in Kabul, where President Hamid Karzai is widely regarded as ineffectual, and in the regions where some local leaders and security forces are seen as corrupt or worse.
Afghans are not the only ones frustrated at the progress, or lack of it, in the six years and one week since Kabul was liberated from the Taliban. Western governments, which have 50,000 troops in the country, are struggling to maintain their military commitments. Instability in neighbouring Pakistan, on which they depend heavily to get people and equipment into the country, has heightened their anxiety. Some governments are now wondering whether peace can be made with the Taliban, or at least parts of it.
“The river now appears to be running backwards,” says Joanna Nathan, Kabul-based representative of the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organisation seeking to curb conflict.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan rates 78 districts, almost one-fifth of the country, as extremely risky and therefore inaccessible to UN agencies for humanitarian work. Rates of insurgent and terrorist violence have been running 20 per cent higher, at an average of 548 incidents a month, than in 2006 and there are eight times as many suicide attacks as there were just two years ago.
Such setbacks are important. Losing Afghanistan threatens to recreate a failed state in a strategically important region, provide a haven for terrorists and drug traffickers and undermine, perhaps fatally, the credibility of the Nato alliance in its first big out-of-area operation. Some 40,000 of the foreign troops are under Nato command, the rest with a US-led anti-terrorist coalition.
Nato officials say the insurgents’ terror tactics are a sign of weakness, not strength. They have turned to these methods after being shown up as a rag-tag force unable to prevail in conventional military confrontations in the south and east of the country over the past two years, the argument runs. Nato thwarted a putative “Taliban offensive” in the spring of 2007. People and commerce have returned to towns such as Sangin, in the troubled province of Helmand, thanks to joint operations by Afghan and Nato troops.
Yet signs of impatience among some western governments are unmistakable. Nato, according to its own calculation, is a minimum four battalions (totalling 4,000 soldiers) short of what it needs and the force lacks crucial equipment such as helicopters.
Meanwhile, perhaps one-quarter of Nato’s troops present in Afghanistan, including those from Germany, Italy and Spain, are under strict operational restrictions. Fifty so-called national caveats are maintained, including some that prevent military assets in the relatively peaceful north of the country from being shifted south where they are most needed. According to one senior Nato officer, the restrictions have “an insidious impact on operations”.
This shortage seems unlikely to be remedied. Two nations currently providing combat troops – Canada, with 1,700 soldiers there, and the Netherlands, with 1,300 – face parliamentary debates in the coming months about whether their mandates should be renewed. Poland (950 troops), Denmark (450) and Nato partner Australia (900) – all engaged in the difficult south or east – have held or face elections that may lead their troops to be brought home.
Western officials say the solution to this shortfall lies in building the capacity of Afghanistan’s own security forces. But progress has been slow. The Afghan National Army comprises fewer than 35,000 men, compared with a stated goal of 70,000 by 2010 – itself held to be insufficient by some analysts. Plagued by desertions in the early days, retention rates have improved to 45-60 per cent of recruits, depending on the unit.
But Nato governments are still falling short of their commitment to provide teams to train army units on the job. There are fewer than 30 of them, compared with a target of 100. Officials expect more commitments in coming months – it is one possible future role for Canadian forces – but as the number of such teams increases, so does the number needed, as new Afghan units are deployed.
The picture for the police is worse. An estimated 71,000 policemen are on duty, of whom 50,000 are ostensibly trained and equipped, compared with a goal of 82,000. Yet their quality is often poor – many police chiefs are illiterate – and police and justice system corruption is widely said to be undermining support for the government. Implicitly recognising past failures, the US has committed $2.5bn (€1.7bn, £1.2bn) to retrain the force, planning to put more than 2,500 advisers in police stations all over the country.
Another failure has been in counter-narcotics policy. Since the end of Taliban rule, poppy cultivation has risen to the point that Afghanistan is now estimated to be responsible for 93 per cent of the world’s opium supplies. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime reported in August that opium production had increased by 34 per cent over the previous year. The growth mostly came from Helmand province, where British troops are operating. Officials talk of a vicious cycle in which the proceeds of drug trafficking sustain the insurgency.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, Britain’s army chief, said in a September speech that the UK military decided against a strong eradication policy for poppy fields when moving into Helmand in 2006 because to have done so would have handed an important propaganda tool to the Taliban. But he said that over a lengthy campaign, it was necessary to “turn the tide” against drugs and he had told his commanders this summer that in 2008 “we will be judged in progress terms by this poppy harvest and we have now got to see it going down”.
These difficulties are leading some western governments to suggest the west’s strategy – to build confidence in elected institutions and encourage justice, reconstruction, development and better government – is too ambitious.
In the UK, a review of Afghan strategy has followed Gordon Brown’s takeover as prime minister from Tony Blair in June. The outcome represents, officials say, a scaling back of Blairite ambitions to help Afghans create a “stable, prosperous and democratic future”. It supports exploring, under Afghan leadership, reconciliation with members of insurgent groups.
A hint at a shift in UK attitudes may have come in Gen Dannatt’s September speech, in which he said he preferred not to demonise Nato’s adversaries. “There is a hard core of Islamist extremists of varied ethnic and national origin, but the great majority of the people we are engaged against are those who are fighting with the Taliban for financial, social and tribal reasons. So we must beware of tarring them all with the same brush, as I am sure that one day we will need to deal with and eventually reconcile the elected government with the majority of these people.”
Statements from Dan McNeill, the US general who commands Nato forces in Afghanistan, suggest he agrees that a majority of opponents could be reconcilable with the government.
In the south, he says, a group that can broadly be identified as the Taliban contains four levels of fighters. At the top is a hard core, probably irreconcilable with the Afghan government, most of whom enjoy sanctuary outside the country. Below them, there is a brutal group of less ideological leaders, some of whom might be open to reconciliation, Most in the two levels below that – fighters and the mid to low-level leadership – are likely to be reconcilable, he says.
In the east, he points to two organisations, one led by Jalaluddin Haqqani. “I’m not certain of the prospects of their reconciliation,” he said last month. “They’re hard fighters and they appear to be deep in the business of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices.” A second group is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the warlord and former Afghan prime minister. “What they want for Afghanistan is backward-looking. It has been tried before [and] it led to destruction in this country,” he said.
Apart from them, foreign fighters were on the battlefield, “some of which could correctly be called al-Qaeda”.
Although the idea of reconciliation is gaining ground elsewhere, it finds little favour in the Bush administration, where one US official says the word Taliban is regarded as “radioactive”. Reluctance to contemplate an accommodation with the insurgents is, moreover, not limited to Washington.
Ms Nathan of the International Crisis Group argues that the Taliban – along with other Islamist groups – does not enjoy great popular support. If support has been growing, it is due only to the incompetence of the Karzai government and opposition to the “abusive and corrupt local thugs” who control many provinces and local areas, she says.
This criticism goes to the heart of what many see as a central problem for the western military campaign in Afghanistan. The weakness of the government in Kabul, coupled with corrupt local politicians who undermine support for authority in the regions, has made for a dysfunctional relationship between the civil and military powers. This has been worsened by poor co-ordination between the military and the international civilian agencies operating inside the country.
Officials say mending this requires military objectives to be better aligned with overall strategy. Some governments think a powerful international figure may need to be appointed to do that co-ordinating job. Yet, even though few governments see any palatable alternatives to Mr Karzai, there is pessimism about the prospects for better government. Parliamentary and presidential elections are being held in 2009 and, ahead of them, intense and potentially damaging political infighting has already begun.