Global Policy Forum

Time Is on the Taliban's Side


By Jason Motlagh*

Asia Times
December 2, 2006

US President George W Bush failed to achieve twin objectives of fewer restrictions and more troops for Afghanistan at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Riga this week, shifting focus back to Iraq, where he refuses to draw down military forces. The implicit message to Taliban insurgents and their backers: time can erode an already faltering alliance in the long run.

NATO, in its first-ever mission outside Europe, now has about 32,000 troops in Afghanistan battling an unexpectedly robust Taliban across the southern and eastern back country. To the dismay of the United States, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands - member states that have borne the brunt of the fighting - other countries have put caveats on how and where their troops can be operate as militants continue to make headway.

"Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, and drug fighters and criminal elements and local warlords, remain active and committed to destroying democracy in Afghanistan," Bush told assembled leaders. "For NATO to succeed, the commanders on the ground must have the resources and flexibility to do their jobs."

Officials responded that France, Germany, Italy and Spain would ease some deployment restrictions in case of security emergencies, but would not commit troops to fight in hot zones down south. Poland is the only country that has pledged to send extra troops in the new year.

Bitterness is mounting among contributors such as Canada, which provides 2,500 troops and has had to shoulder a disproportionate amount of hostilities in recent months. The two Canadian soldiers killed on Monday by a suicide car bomb in the rebel stronghold of Kandahar raised their contingent's death toll to 36 this year, the majority of which occurred after they moved to southern provinces this summer.

"A country like Canada ... has every right to expect that their allies are at their back, which means if they get into trouble, they can count on support from all of NATO," Daniel Fried, US assistant secretary of state in charge of European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters. He pointedly added that Canada was paying a "hard price" among NATO members.

Germany, for its part, boasts some 2,700 troops in Afghanistan but they remain limited by their own government's mandate to safer northern areas around Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz and Faizabad. Observers say this inconsistency could breed resentment among international forces that must cooperate to beat back the insurgency and fast-track reconstruction. The feared symptom is that public opinion back home vital to sustaining military involvement will gradually sour in a prelude to withdrawal.

Regardless of whether adjustments are made, a regrouped Taliban contingent estimated at 10,000 fighters is prepared to take the fight to "surprising" levels against international forces through the winter and on for as long as it takes to bleed Western resolve. Commander Mullah Obaidullah warned on Thursday that the possibility of more NATO troops "does not worry the Taliban, [but] rather will make it easier for our combatants to attack them".

These are more than fighting words. Suicide and roadside bombings targeting foreign troops and government officials have increased fourfold this year, up to 600 a month, with violence recorded in all but two of the country's 34 provinces. Officials say between 3,700 and 4,000 people have died in insurgent-related violence this year, including at least 186 coalition troops.

"After five years of constantly fighting foreign troops, the Taliban have become a strong military power of the same levels as the most powerful army," said Commander Obaidullah, who insisted that his fighters could carry on for another 20 years if necessary. Standing gun battles between Taliban and NATO forces in Kandahar and Helmand provinces over the summer - the fiercest since the movement's government was toppled by a 2001 US-led invasion - lend some ballast to this claim.

But the Taliban leadership is still banking on asymmetrical tactics founded on historical precedent to oust NATO forces. Two successful, low-intensity campaigns against the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 1980s have kept geographical advantages fresh in mind. And the lawless Afghan-Pakistani borderlands that have been a sanctuary to the hardline movement and al-Qaeda's Osama bin Laden to this day serve as a rear base par excellence.

Mullah Dadullah, another top commander, told Al-Jazeera in a July 2005 interview: "Our tactics are now hit and run; we attack certain locations, kill the enemies of Allah there, and retreat to safe bases in the mountains to preserve our mujahideen."

Pakistan's underhanded support of the Taliban to destabilize its neighbor is no secret in the Western intelligence community, nor is the deep-seated corruption of an Afghan government that includes warlords and other officials with connections to the booming narcotics industry. Afghanistan watchers say all of these factors are interconnected and must be dealt with in unison to rebuild a country shattered by 30 years of war.

But as the United States leads the call for more NATO troops and firepower, critics counter that the Bush administration's overemphasis on military spending versus reconstruction aid has hamstrung efforts to win hearts and minds. By some estimates, military operations have cost US$82.5 billion since 2002, compared with $7.3 billion spent on development - a 900% disparity.

"In Afghanistan, military force, understandably a vital part of a counter-insurgency strategy, has for too long been the only strategy and one that will lose any utility if it is reduced to fighting for 'business as usual'," says the latest report from the International Crisis Group. "The desire for a quick, cheap war followed by a quick, cheap peace is what has brought Afghanistan to the present increasingly dangerous situation."

Adding fuel to the fire is record drug output, dubbed Afghanistan's Achilles' heel by US Marine General James Jones, a top NATO general. Narcotics now account for about half of gross domestic product, or $2.7 billion this year, and an even bigger bumper crop is expected in 2007. The Taliban have forsaken their anti-drug stance of the past for arrangements of convenience with trafficking networks and farmers in exchange for kickbacks to fund their insurgency. This allows them to pay well above what the fledgling national army and police can offer.

Amid calls for more robust action to combat the drug trade, US and European efforts thus far have done little to slash production and instead hurt the poor, according to a new United Nations/World Bank report. Farmers of means bribe local-government officials for illicit growing rights, and those lacking money go into debt once their crops are destroyed. In some instances, farmers are compelled to replant poppies to repay outstanding debts; in others, government officials are said to drive out competing cartels for a percentage. UN investigators say it could take decades to eliminate the problem, while the Taliban appear to be growing stronger by the day.

About the Author: Jason Motlagh is deputy foreign editor at United Press International in Washington, DC. He has reported freelance from Saharan Africa, Asia and the Caribbean for various US and European news media.

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