By just about any measure, May has been a bad
month for U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
It began with a warning by a shopkeeper in a small-town bazaar in the Pashtun
southern part of the country to the visiting commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan,
Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, duly recorded by the New York Times: "The
Taliban and al-Qaeda are everywhere."
Indeed, in the last several weeks, nearly 400 people have been killed in an
unprecedented Taliban offensive designed, according to Afghanistan expert Ahmed
Rashid, to preempt the deployment of 6,000 NATO troops who are supposed to replace
some 3,000 U.S. soldiers in southern Afghanistan over the summer.
While Taliban fighters have borne most of the losses, particularly in air strikes
by U.S. warplanes, collateral damage has taken the lives of scores of civilians
as well, forcing President Hamid Karzai to reiterate past appeals for foreign
forces to exercise more caution in deploying their firepower.
The month ended with the worst violence much of it directed against U.S.
and other foreign forces in Kabul since U.S.-backed factions successfully
ousted the Taliban in late 2001.
At least 11 people were killed in clashes between rioters and U.S. and Afghan
forces that followed Monday's early-morning crash of a U.S. military cargo lorry
into a line of cars on a Kabul roadway that reportedly took the lives of another
Washington claimed that the accident was caused by failure of the lorry's brakes,
and pledged to compensate the victims or their families. But the violent reaction
of hundreds of people who stoned U.S. troops and proceeded to loot nearby shops
and the offices of international-aid groups and vandalize at least one luxury
hotel appeared to confirm that the U.S. and its allies face a serious challenge
in retaining the hearts and minds of many Afghans.
"There is a large reservoir of discontent, and people are now just looking
for a reason to vent their rage," a Western diplomat told the Christian
Science Monitor after the rioting, an opinion that was echoed here Tuesday.
"There is an underlying anger in Afghanistan," according to Mark
Schneider, Washington director of the International Crisis Group (ICG). "It
arises from the failure to finally put an end to the insurgency and permit people
to see their lives improving as a result of the reconstruction that has not
yet arrived. There are lots of people who are unhappy for many different reasons,"
Particularly frustrating for many Afghans is the growing gap between rich
especially those who profit from the thriving drug trade and poor; pervasive
corruption; and continued insecurity, particularly in the Pashtun south where
local warlords still rule with the acquiescence of the government of President
Indeed, the fact that the central government has largely failed to effectively
challenge their position by, for example, moving to disarm and demobilize their
militias, may be contributing to the resurgence of the Taliban, which has also
been bolstered by alliances with drug traffickers who have also helped replenish
the group's finances and arms supplies, according to analysts here.
But the "key issue," according to ICG's Schneider, is Pakistan's
support for the Islamist group. "The main reason the insurgency is sustaining
itself is that it has a place to go to regroup, to rest and resupply, and to
re-infiltrate into Afghanistan," he told IPS, adding that its headquarters
appears to be in Quetta in Balochistan, a city controlled by the Pakistani military.
The Taliban's resurgence, which has featured unprecedented use of suicide bombers
and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have done so much damage to U.S.
forces in Iraq, as well as fighting units as large as 300 men, appears to have
forced the administration of President George W. Bush to review its plans to
draw down its forces in Afghanistan from an average of about 20,000 over the
last couple of years to about 16,500 by next fall.
These are to be replaced by the additional NATO troops whose rules of engagement
and deployment, however, have been controversial in their home countries.
"[The Taliban and al-Qaeda] have closely followed the testy debates in
parliaments across Europe about deploying troops to Afghanistan," according
to Ahmed. "They count on inflicting a few bloody casualties, letting body
bags arrive in European capitals, and then seeing the protests against deployment
As a result, the U.S. drawdown may now be delayed. Indeed, in light of the
Taliban's resurgence, Washington actually has increased its troop strength in
Afghanistan from about 19,000 to 23,000 since the end of winter.
Any reduction in the U.S. presence now, it is feared here, will be taken as
a sign of weakness, if not the first installment of a full withdrawal that will
leave the Karzai government to fend for itself.
"We've made tremendous progress in Afghanistan and no one wants to endanger
that progress or move too quickly to satisfy some external deadline or agenda,"
one unnamed "senior administration official" told the Times
In addition, major gains by Taliban forces over the summer would further embarrass
an administration already battered in the public opinion polls by the negative
appraisals of its performance in Iraq.
"Afghanistan is our one big victory in the 'war on terror,'" a retired
U.S. diplomat told IPS. "If it, too, is seen as slipping away, the political
consequences for Bush and the Republicans would be just devastating. Face it:
we're stuck there."
For Schneider and a number of other analysts here, the key for the administration
now is to exert more serious pressure on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf
to close down Taliban bases. While he concedes that the Taliban enjoy some popular
support among religiously conservative Pashtuns, "I don't think the bulk
of them want to see the restoration of a Taliban government."
But, according to Rashid, Musharraf and the Pakistani army of which he is still
the leader see "the Taliban as its long-term proxy force in Afghanistan"
and are unlikely to abandon it at least without exacting a very high
price, including getting "unqualified U.S. endorsement for his reelection
as president another five-year term, while retaining his post as army chief."
(Inter Press Service)