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May 31, 2006

Bad Month in Afghanistan May Delay US Drawdown

by Jim Lobe

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 five people.

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," he noted.

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 Hamid Karzai.

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 escalate."

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 last week.

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)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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