Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Afghanistan reels under bumper harvests

Asia Times Online

Afghanistan boasts two bumper crops this season, and both could be lethal to the already fledgling authority of its government. Western officials expect the largest-ever opium crop in the face of a toothless US$1 billion eradication campaign. And contrary to earlier pronouncements by military officials, the Taliban are gaining steam in the volatile southern provinces, where fighting has raged at levels not seen since the US-led invasion that toppled the al-Qaeda-allied Islamic fundamentalist movement five years ago.

Forty thousand tons of narcotics were burned last week at a ceremony in Kabul to show the state's determination to stamp out illegal drugs that now account for nearly half of its gross domestic product. This came just one week after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a five-hour pit stop for a meeting with President Hamid Karzai to affirm Washington's full support of his efforts to steer reconstruction and defeat a reconstituted Taliban.

But if US President George W Bush's surprise visit to Baghdad last month to look the new Iraqi prime minister "in the eye" and give reassurances is held to measure, gestures of this scale are exceeded only by the turmoil they betray.

As the war in Iraq usurps the brunt of US military might, the insurgent and narco threats in Afghanistan have arisen at the flank. After diminished harvests under the Taliban, the country now produces about 90% of the world's opium, making it the number one global heroin producer and trafficker. Recent estimates indicate that the poppy crop in Helmand province, a militant stronghold, will more than double from last year, despite the presence of 3,300 British troops.

This comeback is trumped by that of the Taliban, which is waging a fierce campaign to destabilize the south as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces complete a takeover of peacekeeping responsibilities there from the US by the end of July. Since mid-May, more than 700 people have been killed in sporadic clashes. Said Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, estimates there are 20-25 heavily armed militias operating in five southern provinces for a total of 3,000-5,000 men spoiling to test the resolve of Western security forces - hardly a "spent force" as some officials have described.

Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry, head of US forces in Afghanistan, said at a Pentagon news conference last month he was "confident the situation will improve by the end of this year". This view is not shared by retired General Barry R McCaffrey, who last week issued a troubling report after his second trip to inspect US military operations in which he argued circumstances would grow worse before they improved.

According to his report, the Taliban operated in small units three years ago; last year, they grew to company-sized units of 100-plus men; and for this year's summer fighting season they are maneuvering in 400-strong battalion-sized units. When fighting broke out May 18 in Helmand, 300-400 militants bearing assault rifles and machine guns reportedly attacked a police and government headquarters, killing 16 officers, an American civilian and a Canadian soldier. "They appear to have received excellent tactical, camouflage and marksmanship training," McCaffrey noted. The militants have become "very aggressive and smart in their tactics".

That month, Taliban commander in Helmand, Mullah Mohammed Kaseem Farouqi, bragged to The Times of London newspaper by satellite phone of having "between 2,500 and 3,000 men" with "thousands more ... in their homes waiting for [his] message to fight". He also claimed to have "hundreds" of volunteers ready to become suicide bombers, a method new to Afghanistan that, along with a 30% influx of roadside bombs compared to last year, denote imitation of the Iraqi insurgency. More than suicide bombings have been recorded in the past three months.

Karzai is sometimes called the "mayor of Kabul" since his authority is tenuous at best in regions outside the capital. The pro-Western leader nominally heads a democratic regime with a stable currency, but fault lines plague the country. "Afghanistan has never had a stable government," Marina Ottaway, an expert on democracy and rule of law at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Asia Times Online. "An extremely weak government in a large country with a $600 million budget is just not capable of doing enough for the country in the foreseeable future."

Unconfirmed coalition death tolls reveal roughly 20 insurgents are killed for every Afghan or Western casualty, but the frequency of Taliban attacks has increased as it seeks to expand its influence in the northern and western provinces. Eroding security has scaled back UN operations to just six out of 50 districts nationwide. There are further reports that militants have crept within 25 miles of Kabul itself, which has experienced unprecedented spasms of violence recent weeks.

For the second day in a row, multiple bombs exploded in the capital last Wednesday, killing one bystander and wounding 47. The latest attack took place during rush hour, targeting government workers and security forces, according to witnesses. Such emboldened tactics indicate Kabul is no longer an exception to the turmoil that has paralyzed vast swathes of the country, as Afghans frustrated with a corrupt government's failure to deliver on promises of security and economic development look elsewhere.

In the absence of viable economic alternatives, some NATO officials and experts say the war on drugs has reinforced the Taliban's power. Militants have offered to protect lucrative crops, using kickbacks from drug smugglers to fuel their campaign. "Like it or not, the opium trade is a huge part of the Afghan economy," Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, told Asia Times Online. "Warlords and farmers may support Karzai in the abstract, but not when he is compelled to target their only reliable source of livelihood.

"Even supporters of the war on drugs need to wake up and smell the coffee ... The anti-drug-effort needs to be put on the back burner at least until we can fight off the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces."

Jawad insists the Taliban relies on intimidation tactics to subdue Afghanis living in the countryside. They include killing moderate tribal leaders and clergy to create a climate of fear, and burning down schools and medical clinics. A United Nations report confirms that on average, a school is torched or a female teacher is killed every day somewhere in the country. In a recent bout of fighting near Kandahar, the US military said several insurgents "used innocent Afghan civilians as shields" to escape to nearby villages.

The latest counter-offensive waged by international troops, dubbed Operation Mountain Thrust, kicked off in mid-June to beat back Taliban forces. The effectiveness of the 10,000-man sweep has received conflicting reports, but Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak recently said insurgents had been "coming out with bigger groups and confronting us directly" since the beginning of the operation. Afghan officials say the Taliban wanted to discourage the further deployment of NATO forces (now at 21,000 troops), spearheaded by Britain and Canada, as they take over security responsibilities from the US, which is drawing down its presence to 17,000 troops from 23,000.

Washington has spent $1.3 billion on reconstruction projects over the past four years and will remain Afghanistan's largest benefactor, but anti-Americanism continues to percolate at a grassroots level. The US military has relied heavily on air strikes to pound Taliban enclaves in rugged terrain, an approach experts say tends to backfire and foster support for insurgents in bombed areas. "Air power works against you, not for you. It kills lots of people who weren't your enemy, recruiting their relatives, friends and fellow tribesman to become your enemies," military analyst William S Lind wrote in a June 23 United Press International story. "In this kind of war, bombers are as useful as 42-centimeter siege mortars."

Fifteen innocent villagers were killed in a May air strike, setting the stage for mass riots that rocked the capital the following week when a US military truck hit civilians in a traffic accident. Official reports put the death toll as high as 20 people; aid agencies were burned and looted; and protesters shouted "Death to America" in the streets.

Karzai has long opined that the West has not provided enough resources to hasten economic and political reform in his country, while ignoring the alleged sanctuary given to Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives by Pakistan inside its lawless border region. Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf, a key Washington ally in its global "war on terror", has been accused of allowing Islamist militants - including Osama bin Laden - to infiltrate and recruit from remote Pashtun tribal areas, a charge he denies.

Pakistan has already deployed more than 80,000 troops along its western border, adding 10,000 more during Rice's visit, and officials in Islamabad counter the Taliban are regrouping on the Afghan side.

According to McCaffrey's report, the Afghan Army is "miserably under-resourced" to be effective against a Taliban bent on "waiting us out" in the coming years. He said they possessed "shoddy small arms", if any at all, relaying that Afghan field commanders told him they tried to seize weapons from the Taliban for their own troops to use.

The national police, whose US-sponsored training program is three years behind schedule, is in tatters as well, "badly equipped, corrupt, incompetent, poorly led and trained, riddled by drug use" and without infrastructure.

The former Gulf War commander recommends the US provide "at least five years of continued robust ... military presence" or six ground combat battalions and extensive air and armored support, along with special forces permitted "unilateral action" in counter-terror operations.

"The Afghan national leadership," he writes, "is collectively terrified that we will tip-toe out of Afghanistan in the coming few years - leaving NATO holding the bag - and the whole thing will again collapse into mayhem.

"They do not believe the US has made a strategic commitment to stay with them for the 15 years required to create an independent, functional nation-state, which can survive in this dangerous part of the world."

Other experts are less sanguine about the future and argue the US has already paid dearly. Indeed, half of the 141 American servicemen killed in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion died last year, Defense Department records show. The BBC has also reported that Pakistan-based foreign militants with links to al-Qaeda have been offering large bounties to Afghans to kill US soldiers.

"This becomes increasingly expensive in terms of blood and treasure," said the Cato Institute's Galen Carpenter, urging a 10-15 month timetable for the Karzai government to take responsibility for its own national security. "Otherwise this could become an endless mission where we're slowly bled. We can't make Afghanistan into a model of stability."

By Jason Motlagh

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