[R-G] POLITICS-US: Afghanistan Moves Back into the Limelight

Anthony Fenton fentona at shaw.ca
Thu Jul 3 09:23:52 MDT 2008

POLITICS-US:  Afghanistan Moves Back into the Limelight
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jul 2 (IPS) - Six and a half years since the ouster of the  
Taliban, U.S. media attention is returning to Afghanistan, where more  
U.S. and NATO troops were killed in June than in any previous month.

Indeed, as noted by both the New York Times and the Washington Post  
Wednesday, June was the second month in a row in which U.S. deaths in  
Afghanistan approached the toll in Iraq, where the addition of some  
30,000 troops last year and more aggressive counter-insurgency tactics  
have helped to reduce sectarian violence and attacks against U.S. and  
allied forces.

Twenty-eight U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan last month, just  
one fewer than the 29 in Iraq, while another 18 soldiers from  
Washington's allies also lost their lives to Taliban forces. The  
British military, which has the second-largest contingent in  
Afghanistan, lost 13 soldiers, including the first servicewoman killed  
in the war.

Even President George W. Bush admitted Wednesday it had been a "tough  
month" in Afghanistan, insisting, however that the increase in the  
death toll showed that the coalition forces were taking the offensive.

"You know, one reason why there have been more deaths is because our  
troops are taking the fight to a tough enemy, an enemy who doesn't  
like our presence there because they don't like the idea of America  
denying safe haven," Bush told reporters in the White House Rose Garden.

And while most analysts agreed that the increase in the number of  
coalition deaths was indeed a result of U.S., British, Canadian, and  
Dutch forces, in particular, moving into areas in the eastern part of  
Afghanistan where their presence had previously been sporadic, they  
also credited a sharp rise in Taliban activity and its adoption of  
more unconventional tactics, including the use of explosive devices  
imported from the Iraq war.

"What it points to is that the opposition is becoming more effective,"  
Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University, told the  
Post. "It is having a presence in more areas, being better organised,  
better financed, and having a sustainable strategy. In all, their  
strategic situation has improved."

Indeed, the record of the last two months has suggested that the  
Taliban is at least as much on the offensive as U.S.-led forces, which  
together have reached an all-time high of well some 60,000 troops, of  
which about half are from U.S. allies operating under NATO command.

In addition to the growing death toll, the Taliban mounted a  
particularly bold assassination attempt against President Hamid Karzai  
during a military parade in Kabul in late April, and in mid-June  
staged a spectacular jailbreak in Kandahar that freed hundreds of  
suspected collaborators and subsequently seized and briefly held seven  
villages around Afghanistan's second-largest city.

Just last week, a new Pentagon report -- the first review of the  
situation in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2000 --  
concluded that the Taliban has effectively "coalesced into a resilient  
insurgency" that was spreading into previously relatively peaceful  
parts of the country.

The report also predicted that violence -- already at unprecedented  
levels since the Taliban's ouster -- will likely increase through the  
rest of the year. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the top U.S. commander  
in eastern Afghanistan, told reporters that attacks in his sector  
increased by 40 percent in the first five months this year compared to  
the same period in 2007.

While no one believes that the Taliban is powerful enough to oust the  
Karzai government or defeat -- or even directly challenge -- U.S. and  
NATO forces there, the Pentagon has been arguing for several months  
that it needs at least 10,000 more troops deployed to Afghanistan to  
adequately cope with resurgent insurgency.

But where those troops will come from remains a major question. In  
late March, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would send 1,000  
more troops to Afghanistan. Germany last week announced that it would  
send some 1,000 troops later this fall to bring its total force there  
to some 4,500, but the conditions attached by Berlin to their  
deployment forbid their involvement in combat.

The Pentagon, which added 3,000 marines to its Afghan force earlier  
this year, has been unable to come up with more of its own troops  
because of Bush's insistence that nothing be done to put at risk the  
relative stability that his "surge" strategy in Iraq has helped  
achieve. As a result, the current drawdown from Iraq from 170,000  
troops earlier this year to some 140,000 troops by August will be  
suspended at the end of this month.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates and the Pentagon brass had hoped  
withdrawals would continue at roughly 5,000 troops a month beyond  
July, thus freeing up many more troops for deployment to Afghanistan.  
But those hopes have now been put on hold indefinitely to the clear  
frustration of Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,  
Adm. Mike Mullen.

Public support for more troops in countries that are expected to  
supply them is also growing increasingly doubtful. Indeed, a recent  
multi-national Pew Global Attitudes Project poll conducted in April --  
that is, before the bloody months of May and June -- found bare  
pluralities of respondents in the U.S. and Britain in favour of  
"keep(ing) troops in Afghanistan until the situation is stabilised" as  
opposed to removing them.

In NATO members France, Germany, Spain, Poland, and Turkey, on the  
other hand, majorities ranging from 54 percent to 72 percent said they  
believed the U.S. and NATO should withdraw. Only in Australia, a non- 
NATO country that has contributed combat troops to both Afghanistan  
and Iraq, did a strong majority (60 percent) say they preferred to stay.

Some experts, however, believe that even adding troops -- at least in  
the quantities the Pentagon believes is necessary -- will not  
appreciably redress the deteriorating dynamics in Afghanistan if other  
key factors, including the growing perception that the Karzai  
government is ineffective and corrupt, the lack of development, and  
the continuing increase in the opium and heroin trade which help  
finance the Taliban are not, are not addressed.

At least, if not more, important is the safe haven enjoyed by Taliban  
forces in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North- 
West Frontier Province in Pakistan, much of which has come under the  
control of the Pakistan's own Taliban and allied forces.

Relations between Washington and the Pakistani military have  
reportedly deteriorated badly in recent weeks over U.S. pressure on  
Islamabad to prevent the infiltration of Taliban forces from the  
Pakistani side of the border, and the new civilian-led government,  
which is still working out internal divisions on key issues, appears  
unprepared to deal with the problem.

"No matter how many more troops you add into Afghanistan, you won't  
really be able to get at the root of the problem" of safe havens in  
Pakistan, Rubin told a public-television interviewer last week.


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