Taliban, Al-Qaeda Regroup in Afghanistan, Defying U.S. Strategy
Jeff St.Onge – Bloomberg.com May 19, 2006
Taliban insurgents and their al-Qaeda allies, once thought defeated in Afghanistan, are regaining strength as the U.S. prepares to cede military control of the war on terror's initial battleground to NATO forces.
Taliban and al-Qaeda forces are rising in number and increasingly using roadside bombs and suicide strikes. Last year was the deadliest yet for U.S. forces there and attacks are at their highest level since 2001, when the Taliban regime that harbored al-Qaeda was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion.
``We have lost a lot of the ground that we may have gained in the country, especially in the South,'' Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S., Said Jawad, said in an interview. The fact that U.S. military resources have been ``diverted'' to the war in Iraq ``is of course hurting Afghanistan,'' he said.
The escalating violence is reviving questions about President George W. Bush's decision to make Iraq the central front in the war on terrorism. Instability in Afghanistan could allow Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network to regroup there, analysts said.
``Afghanistan is a wild, tribal place in which the various armed actors take advantage of any decrease in pressure,'' said W. Patrick Lang, former chief Middle East analyst at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. ``We pulled troops out and put them in Iraq and that took pressure off. I don't think the U.S. effort there backsliding should come as any surprise,''
Bush administration officials and military commanders say they're optimistic that conditions in Afghanistan will improve.
``We should take stock of the tremendous progress that Afghanistan and the international community have made to date and apply that same commitment to the difficulties that lie ahead,'' Army Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a May 10 Pentagon briefing.
Some experts on defense policy and the region say that confidence is misplaced. ``They absolutely miscalculated from the beginning,'' said Barney Rubin, director of New York University's Center on International Cooperation. ``We don't have enough forces where they should'' be, and ``that has absolutely led to insurgency,'' said Rubin, who visited Afghanistan last month.
Nazif Shahrani, a professor of Central Asian and Middle East Studies at Indiana University at Bloomington who focuses on Afghanistan, said, ``If we were serious about the war on terror we should have focused our efforts on fighting a more effective war on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Focus on Iraq
``Instead,'' he added, ``we focused on Iraq and that gave the Taliban and al-Qaeda time to regroup and find money and weapons.''
There have been at least five suicide bombings in Afghanistan since May 8 and more than 20 in the past two months, the U.S.-funded Voice of America reported on its Web site, citing officials it didn't identify.
``There wasn't the drop-off'' in attacks ``we normally see in the winter months,'' said Chris Riley, a NATO spokesman. ``We're not characterizing it as a resurgence, but there is a level of activity in the south and east.''
Sixty-six U.S. troops were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2005, more than in the previous four years combined, according to the Defense Department. At least 14 have died in combat this year and another 22 died from other causes, including 10 in a helicopter crash earlier this month during a counter-insurgency operation.
Most of the 16 Canadian soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan died this year, according to Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Robertson, a spokesman for the Canadian military, which has about 2,300 troops fighting in the U.S.-led coalition.
Canada's minority government on Wednesday barely won backing to keep troops in Afghanistan for two more years. Its proposal to extend the mission to 2009 was approved by a vote of 149 to 145 after six hours of debate in the House of Commons in Ottawa.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has begun assuming security operations in southern Afghanistan, a process due to be completed in July, Riley said. The multinational force will increase its troop strength to about 21,000 from 9,000 and will assume responsibility for the entire country, probably by the end of the year, he said.
The U.S. plans to withdraw 6,500 of its 23,000 troops now in the country because NATO and Afghan security forces are assuming a bigger role. The Afghan National Army has 34,000 soldiers and the police have about 30,000 officers.
Some Afghan officials are concerned NATO forces won't be as aggressive as U.S. troops in countering insurgents.
`Will Not Engage'
``We are discouraged by some of the statements coming from the NATO countries that they will not engage the terrorists,'' said Jawad, the Afghan ambassador. ``If they are coming, then they should be ready to fight the terrorists.''
NATO officials say they will operate aggressively. Britain has already sent more than 3,000 troops and eight Apache attack helicopters to Afghanistan's southern Helmand province in a show of force, Riley said.
``I am pretty sure its going to be fairly robust stuff from NATO for the first few months,'' said Riley. ``People on the ground have to know that we're not screwing around.''
Military officials trace the rising violence in Afghanistan to Pakistan's continuing failure to control its borders. Insurgents enjoy sanctuary in western Pakistan and cross over the mountainous border into Afghanistan to launch attacks.
Al-Qaeda fighters ``have sanctuaries on both sides of the border,'' Lieutenant General Sher Karimi, the Afghan Army's chief of operations, said at a May 4 briefing.
Taliban and al-Qaeda are ``no doubt'' making a comeback in at least nine of Afghanistan's 30 provinces, not just the five bordering Pakistan, said Shahrani. ``There have also been incidences in urban areas in the North as well as in Kabul.''
Bin Laden is likely in the mountains along the Afghanistan- Pakistan border, Afghan and U.S. officials say. More U.S. troops are needed to hunt the al-Qaeda leader, defense analysts say.
The Pentagon's planned withdrawal would reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to about 16,500, the average level in recent years, said Pentagon spokesman Todd Vician, an Air Force lieutenant colonel. Vician wouldn't say when the U.S. force would be reduced or how many of those remaining would be attached to NATO or to a separate U.S. counter-terrorism force along the Pakistan border.
By comparison, there are currently about 133,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq. U.S. officials have said that number might be reduced by as much as a third by the end of the year.
``Troops being moved out of Iraq should be redeployed to Afghanistan,'' said Caroline Wadhams, senior national security analyst with the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based policy research group. The level of U.S. troops there ``needs to double,'' she said.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan is pressing the U.S. to reverse a decision that passed responsibility to the cash-strapped nation for $150 million in military salaries. The U.S. and other Western nations had been paying security costs.
Last updated 08/09/2006