14 July   2006

Mission Creep:

 Al-Qaeda and Taliban re-emerge to threaten British troops' mission   

By Adel Darwish

After weeks of Downing Street dismissing the need to deploy more troops to help the already over-stretched British army in southern
Afghanistan, Tony Blair government last month made a 180 degrees turn as Defence Secretary Des Brown announced July 10 that an extra 900 troops and equipment will be sent to the war-torn in Helmand province where 3,600 British troops found themselves fighting a much tougher and larger Taliban forces than what their Political masters in London have lead them to believe.

Following an urgent request from commanders on the ground, the first troops were rushed in mid July from Cyprus within days. The new troops will be a mix of engineers, Royal Marines, infantry battalions and headquarters staff boosting the number of British force to 4,500 by October.

The week that preceded the announcement saw the death of six British troopers in clashes with the Taliban who supposed to have been routed in the US lead war in 2001.

At least 20 coalition troops have been killed in Afghanistan since the start of Operation Mountain Thrust, a campaign aimed at driving
resurgent Taliban forces from mountain and desert hideouts. Mr. Blair, it seemed, was in denial that his Foreign policy and that of
US President George Bush has lead to the critical situation in Southern Afghanistan.

Observers believe that Iraqi campaign has diverted attention from developments in Afghanistan, which, they argue, is the main threat to western liberal values and democracy.

Intelligence agencies have warned for months that the re-emergence of  the Taliban/al-Qaeda was imminent, but political decision makers took little notice until a number of coalition troops killed (six British soldiers in as many weeks) became a public debate.

While trying desperately to put a brave spin on the daily torrent of  bad news from Iraq (insurgents setting up road blocks at will, dragging passengers out of buses for sectarian and ethnic kill; Iraqi security forces locked in fierce battles trying, unsuccessfully, to disarm several militia who took over, once stable, Basra; random sectarian attacks adding to Qaeda daily suicide bombing terror, while Baghdad morgue figures counted over 6000 bodies died violently in the first five months of 2006 ), and admitting to earlier mistakes in the war, Blair and Bush project is coming unstuck in Afghanistan, where NATO and Afghani troops are increasingly coming under attacks and, suicide bombing.

To enlist more troops from more countries and increase its forces from 9,000 to 18,000, NATO billed its replacement of American forces in southern Afghanistan as a major stabilisation and reconstruction effort.
Instead, the 6000 NATO forces, ( the main bulk are 3,600 British troops deployed in Helmand province and the rest are Canadian, Dutch and Romanian) are fighting their way out of an unprecedented Taliban offensive that has claimed 430 lives between May 17 and July 11.

With the spring thaw, the Taliban and a couple of associated insurgent groups re-emerged from their sanctuaries either side of the border with Pakistan far stronger than anyone had predicted. The Taliban, who were routed four and half years ago, enabling the Bush administration to claim early ' victory' in phase one of the Third World War, (i.e. war on terror) have regrouped proving to be more than just than just a headache. Their increasing counter attacks are getting bolder, killing Afghan aid workers; car and suicide bombings are becoming depressingly familiar as part of Taliban/al-Qaeda assassination campaign against religious and community leaders. Schools and other public services centres are shut by the dozen fearing attacks by the Taliban.

Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban's operational commander, claims to control 20 districts of southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's heartland, with 12,000 fighters. In reality his men cannot hold any ground against coalition troops, and coalition officials claim Dadullah's fighters were less than 6,000. While the British 16th Air-Assault Brigade, which spear-heads the attack against Taliban can deliver a powerful punch, they are very short of equipment, according to Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, a former soldier who has just returned from the area, they only have 12 helicopters to cover an area twice the size of Wales.

With the coalition only have 6000 troops, but once they clean an area and move to the next, the Taliban return. The result is the mullahs control much of the four southern provinces much of the time.

Across the south, the Taliban dish out Islamic justice in sharia [strict Islamic penal code] courts. A public execution was held in May by the extremists in the central province of Daikundi. Farther south, in Helmand, the Taliban man roadblocks in the Sangin valley. The Americans have tried to make Zabul into a paragon of an orderly southern province, picking competent locals to run it, sending 1,000 soldiers to the capital, Qalat, and spending $17m on development projects. Once you leave the centre of towns, the Taliban operate with impunity. '' The courts are corrupt, so the people go to the Taliban for justice. They control most of Zabul,'' says Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi (who earned his nickname from his proficiency with rocket-propelled grenades), a former Taliban commander who got elected to parliament. Like most southern MPs, Mr. Rocketi, dares not visit his constituency, for fear of assassination.

Public in urban areas became less welcoming to America. A traffic accident 29 May caused by a runway American military truck killing at least five people, quickly developed into one of the ugliest riots since the fall of Taliban. Firing on the hostile crowed in 'self defence', nervous US troops killed another seven. The trouble spread to the rest of the capital Kabul, as protesters attacked Afghan police and offices of international organisations.
Karzai condemned the American soldiers for using their guns, especially that a U.S. airstrike few days earlier killed some 34 Afghan civilians.

The incident has damaged relations between international forces, particularly the Americans, and Afghans, but most still see their presence as an unpleasant necessity, several US press editorials and columnists concluded warning that without such commitment, the Taliban message will find wider appeal among ordinary Afghani.

British and American press editorials urge politicians to increase troops and make a longer more evident commitment to alleviate Afghans' economic and lifestyle misery. As much as possible, the aid should be portrayed as obtained and distributed by the beleaguered government of President Karzai, many advised.

But it is more than just numbers of troops needed. Afghani diplomats and military commanders have repeatedly asked: `What
is the point of deploying troops who don't fight?'
General James Jones, commander of US and NATO forces in Europe, asked. He is frustrated with unwillingness of European allies to get their hands dirty in Afghanistan. European Nato participants impose 71 caveats on their troops' operation , leading Gen Jones to call the caveats ` Nato operational cancer.'

Mr. Ellwood condemned the lack of commitment by allies saying Ireland contribution of seven soldiers and Four from Austria are laughable. They should contribute more, he said in Westminster last month.
Taliban leaders in their hideouts, still follow news and understand debates going on in European parliaments opposing sending moor troops, a senior State Department official told the Middle East last month; thus they increase attacks with maximum publicity. They count on TV camera broadcasting a few bloody casualties, letting body bags arrive in European capitals, and then seeing the protests against deployment escalate. This will help anti-war parliamentarians in the west to argue for abandoning Blair-Bush project in Afghanistan .

Countries such as Italy, Spain, Holland, Germany and others enlisted, have no stomach for fighting a full-scale guerrilla war, especially with the type of fanatical suicide bombing against which there is no known effective defence.
Their left wing anti-American dominated media and parliaments restricted their troops mandate to reconstruction or training, not combat. Internal political calculations by politicians of public opinion reaction to events could result in unpredictable decision affecting their commitment to NATO. Spain pulled out of the coalition in Iraq after the bombing of Madrid trains, while newly elected Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi considering recalling troops from Iraq.

The Taliban are also testing American resolve. NATO's deployment is part of Washington's agenda to reduce its forces in Afghanistan. It is pulling 3,000 troops out this summer and possibly more later. Many Afghans see this as the start of a full American withdrawal. At a time public is loosing confidence in America's  both commitment and management of the situation.

In addition to the Taliban lead insurgency going through its bloodiest phase since their 2001 routing, promises of Western funding and
reconstruction were never fulfilled, an Afghan diplomat said last month. Having seen barely any change in their lives Pashtuns, the largest of Afghanistan's ethnic groups, have reverted to cultivating opium as a means to survive, putting British troops in Helmand, whose task is to eradicate opium crops and trade, in direct clash with the people they supposed to help. British commander Lt Colonel Charlie Naggs told the BBC, the Taliban increased their attack because it is a poppy harvest season. He also admitted that defeating the enemy will take years.

Western intelligence sources warn that warlords, nominated as governors and police chiefs in the south by Kabul, indulged in drugs trafficking and abuses of the worst kind and went unchallenged for too long by the international community and Kabul.

The latest intelligence assessment warned that Afghanistan could slide into civil war, as it did after the Soviet pull-out in 1989, which
resulted in Taliban defeating secular factions and taking control of 90% of the country by 1998, inviting al-Qaeda and the world's most notorious Islamic jihadists to set bases there. Unless NATO troops keep old factional commanders quiet, a senior western diplomat in Kabul warned, civil war will break out in a matter of months.

A western intelligence report seen by the ME, suggested the May 29 unrest was exploited by an ethnic Tajik faction opposed to president Karzai, hoping to destabilise a government they accuse of tilting too much toward Pashtuns. The accident occurred in a neighbourhood close to the residence of Yunus Qanuni, a powerful Tajik and runner-up to Karzai in the presidential election. Protesters held posters of Qanuni's old boss, late guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Masood who was assassinated by al-Qaeda terrorists posing as journalists in his headquarters days before 9/11 attack.

The Afghani government is furious that America and Britain failed to respond to their own intelligence agencies reporting that Taliban and al-Qaeda have found sanctuary in neighbouring Pakistan. Pakistan's military regime is reportedly turning a blind eye to
Taliban activities, while Pakistani opposition accuse corrupt elements within Pakistan security and intelligence apparatuses of helping al-Qaeda and Taliban. But what can Nato do now when the Americans could do nothing during their high profile presence in past five years? An Afghani official asked.

Same officials question Bush and Blair claims of their success in '' micro-managing '' the war on terror. They see the war expanding and fear the region will face increasing chaos. Afghanistan has become the Lebanon of central west Asia, an Afghani official said, turning into a battle ground for regional powers. India and Pakistan are settling old scores on its ground.

Pakistan, in turn, accuses Kabul of facilitating the movement of India's spies and agents to Pakistan's western borders; and turning a blind eye to Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad funding an insurgency in Baluchistan province.
Interestingly, western diplomats in Islamabad agree, saying Pakistan uses Taliban presence , to pressurise Karzai, Blair and Bush to accede to its demands.

While Blair-Bush campaign has so far failed to intercept the movement of al-Qaeda funds in the direction of Taliban, its operational leader Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, has helped reorganise the Taliban, create unlimited sources of funding from the sale of Afghan-grown opium and forged a new alliance linking the Taliban with extremist groups in Pakistan, Central Asia, the Caucasus and Iraq.

The cooperation, intelligence reports say, included Al-Qaeda facilitating a major exchange of fighters and training between the Taliban and jihadists in Iraq.

As Iran is confronting America and Britain over its nuclear ambitions, it is investing part of its massive windfall oil income buying support among disaffected and disillusioned Afghan warlords. A future retaliatory insurance policy if the US or Israel attack its nuclear programme, by unleashing those allies on American and Nato forces in Western Afghanistan, opening a new front separate from the Taliban lead insurgency in the south.

The Taliban/ al-Qaeda defiance and attacks have emboldened others in the region to stand up to America. Uzbekistan kicked out American forces
last year from its military base, the largest in Central Asia, used as a launch-pad for its 2001 Afghanistan campaign. This encouraged tiny Kyrgyzstan to demand a 100 fold increase in rent for the base on its soil used by American forces. All part, it seems, of a long term Chinese and Russian strategy is to ensure that America and NATO surrender all their remaining toeholds in Central Asia.

The centre of global jihadism and the threat it poses to the Middle East and the rest of the world still lies in Central Asia region, not in
Iraq, intelligence experts say. Regardless, there has been hardly any Nato or western military presence for five years three of the four
provinces in southern Afghanistan that have become today's Taliban heartland, and al-Qaeda and the battlefield for the revival of their 1990s alliance.

Regional diplomats criticise the failure of the west to come up with funding to back Karzai's sensible offer of an amnesty to the Taliban in  2003, which would have deprived Mullah Mohammed Omar and Dr al-Zawahiri from hundreds of fit young fighting recruits who could have been on the government side by now.

Unless Blair-Bush lead NATO alliance to adopt a serious, aggressive and sustained commitment by its member countries, including sending more troops willing to fight, there is a danger that the war on terror could be lost where it started five years ago: Afghanistan.

Copyright © Adel Darwish & Mideastnews and its parent company World Media UK Limited 2006. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means or used for any business purpose without the written consent of the publisher. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that the information contained herein is as accurate as possible, the publisher cannot accept responsibility for any consequences arising from its use. 

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