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AFGHANISTAN: Can NATO Win Against Taliban Insurgents?

Analysis by Dad Noorani - The Killid Group*

KABUL, Aug 19 2006 (IPS) - Two weeks ago, NATO took over command of insurgency-plagued southern Afghanistan from the United States, and the top general warned that he will “strike ruthlessly” against Taliban rebels when necessary.

British Lt. Gen. David Richards indicated the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) under NATO command would continue to use the heavy firepower the coalition has employed in recent months in response to an escalation in militant attacks. “We will retain the capability and will to strike ruthlessly at the enemies of Afghanistan when required,” he said.

But, is this all it will take to defeat the insurgent? This week, 12 Afghan policemen including a senior officer travelling in two trucks were killed in a mistaken attack by a coalition plane in southeastern Paktika province.

Coalition spokesman at the main Bagram base Lt Col Paul Fitzpatrick insisted the two trucks belonged to Taliban trying to flee the area after an engagement with a joint patrol of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the coalition forces.

On Aug.18, a day after the incident, he said: “Coalition forces are confident that the trucks destroyed by the aircraft were the same two trucks fleeing the site of the attack on the joint coalition patrol.” He promised that the coalition would cooperate with Afghan authorities on an investigation.

But provincial authorities did not wait. On Saturday, Paktika governor Dr Akram Khpalwak said the probe has been completed, and the report would be submitted to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The families of the slain policemen have received 50,000 Afghanis as compensation, he added. The president has ordered more assistance.

Karzai who reacted swiftly to the killing, said in a statement: “I am extremely saddened by this tragic incident and I want an immediate investigation to find out what exactly happened. I have repeatedly asked the coalition forces to take maximum caution while carrying out operations à”

Since deployment to Afghanistan three years ago in the north and west, ISAF has gradually expanded its presence. Its new mission in southern Afghanistan – considered the most dangerous and challenging – coincides with the deadliest surge in fighting in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.

NATO’s priorities include maintaining security, extending the central government’s authority and speeding up the reconstruction process. It will consult and coordinate all its activities with the Afghan government and the international community and would evaluate its strategy every other month and twice a year.

This is where the US-led coalition failed. This decision of NATO is likely to go well with the Afghan government and public.

NATO officials declared that they would not engage in counter-terrorism operations, but would assist the reconstruction process and strongly react to those who intend to disrupt the efforts aimed at extending and strengthening the Afghan government’s authority.

But the key question that many Afghans ask is whether NATO countries are capable and willing enough to win the war against the insurgents and their local and foreign backers.

This would include taking on the drug mafia and some neighbouring countries and getting tough with President Karzai over corruption in the government. But, NATO’s greatest difficulty in the south lies in ending foreign support for the insurgents.

The western alliance is unlikely to defeat its battle-hardened foes by simply chasing them in the Afghan villages. The net has to be cast much wider. The fact that massive insecurity in the south is directly linked to cross-border infiltration by insurgent and terrorist elements from across the Durand Line (border with Pakistan) is well accepted inside Afghanistan and in the international diplomatic and military circles.

Foreign support for the Taliban must end for security to improve inside Afghanistan. The time is running out and polite diplomatic protestation must be replaced by a more robust action on the part of the international community.

The other front where Afghanistan must focus urgent attention is to strengthen the Afghan public’s confidence and trust in the ability of domestic and international forces and other state institutions to provide security and reconstruction in the south. The people are eager to be liberated from the tyranny of rebels and extreme poverty.

Up to now neither foreign nor Afghan security forces have systematically ventured out into most parts of southern Afghanistan. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) have largely been deployed to safer areas in the north and west of the country.

Much like the Soviets before them, the international forces are largely confined to large bases in big cities from where they conduct ad hoc military operations against the insurgents. As soon as they are gone, the insurgents are back in business. With its expansion to the south, NATO has been presented with an opportunity to change all this.

*Released by arrangement with The Killid Group

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