Terry Friel – Reuters February 4, 2007
As the snows melt in the mountains and passes of Afghanistan, U.S.-led NATO forces are gearing up for a bloody Taliban spring offensive in what is likely to be a decisive year in the battle for this country.
Last year saw the worst fighting since the Taliban were toppled in 2001 as they regrouped, with the help of safe havens and training grounds across the border in Pakistan and money from drug lords fattened by record opium crops.
"The first 3-5 months of 2007 are absolutely crucial to the entire Afghan effort as the mission has been defined -- that is, in bringing security to the southern provinces," Sean Kay, a security expert and professor of international relations at the Ohio Wesleyan University in the United States, told Reuters.
"The rest of Afghanistan is, of course relatively stable, but if the situation in the south isn't changed dramatically, then we may reach a tipping point where a military solution to the Taliban problem will not be achievable.
"It might already be too late."
More than 4,000 people died in fighting last year, a quarter of them civilians. Thousands more fled their homes and some have started going abroad again, reversing the return of refugees.
The United States, which took command of the NATO-led war against the Taliban on Sunday, has just doubled its combat troops on the ground, adding another 2,500.
It's also pressing its allies for more and is asking Congress for another $10.6 billion more for the Afghan army and police. So far, only Britain and Poland have promised more troops.
And the Taliban promises 2007 will be the bloodiest year for foreign troops yet, saying they have thousands of enthusiastic suicide bombers ready for action.
"We have made 80 percent preparations to fight American and foreign forces and we are about to start war," Mullah Hayatullah Khan, a 35-year-old, black-bearded guerrilla leader told Reuters on Saturday, holding a Kalashnikov rifle and wearing a mask.
"Now there is great enthusiasm for suicide attacks among the Taliban and these attacks will increase in future."
He was surrounded by 40-50 fighters, some busy building anti-tank bombs using explosives and kitchen pressure cookers.
The Taliban's public relations campaign has also become bolder, mirroring their ally al Qaeda with regular comments by leaders on satellite phones and slickly produced and directed VCDs of guerrillas, despite once outlawing filming and music.
HEARTS AND MINDS
Respected outgoing NATO commander British General David Richards has long argued military victories must be supported by better living standards and more reconstruction and development to win hearts and minds in one of the world's poorest countries.
"We have got to match those security improvements with accelerating progress on reconstruction, development, improvements in governance and improvements in relations with Pakistan," he said on the eve of his departure.
But many Afghans see no improvement. There are few jobs, there is little education and virtually no economy outside fighting, drugs and the foreign military, diplomatic missions and aid groups.
Rights groups also criticise Afghanistan's allies for being distracted by Iraq and not putting enough resources into this country, pointing out it has only a fraction of the troops dedicated to Iraq yet is a much tougher battlefield.
"The international security effort in Afghanistan has been hobbled by insufficient resources and the failure to effectively address the security concerns of the Afghan population," the New York-based Human Rights Watch group says in its latest report.
"Taking into account Afghanistan's population and size, the 40,000 NATO and US-led coalition forces in the country are a small fraction of the security forces deployed in other recent post-conflict areas like the Balkans and East Timor."
But Richards, who a few months ago warned Afghanistan faced a tipping point and risked a majority switching to the Taliban, now says the rebels faced a crunch year last year and failed.
"Because last year they really did see that they had an opportunity to defeat NATO. We foiled that attempt and much more," he says.
But analysts such as Ohio's Kay question how long the world can send home body bags without clearer gains.
"The bottom line here is, if it is actually the case that the war in the south cannot be won militarily, then we have to ask the hard question of why American, British, Canadian, and Dutch soldiers are fighting and dying there and how sustainable that will be at home," he says.
"Unlike Iraq, there is still a small window of possibility over the next several months where a surge in the military deployments in Afghanistan could make a major difference -- but the window is small and the timeframe shrinks daily."
(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul and Saeed Ali Achakzai in Spin Boldak)
Last updated 06/02/2007