WASHINGTON, Oct 3 2006 (IPS) — Five years after the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was putting the final touches on a brilliant campaign plan to oust the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies from power, Afghanistan is back in the headlines here, and the news isn’t good.
An unexpectedly fierce and prolonged Taliban offensive that began last spring has U.S. and NATO officials deeply worried that they face a serious insurgency fueled by a thriving drug trade and growing popular disaffection with the government of President Hamid Karzai.
Greatly compounding their concern is Pakistan’s ceasefire agreement with pro-Taliban, Pashtun tribal leaders signed earlier this month to withdraw thousands of army troops from North Waziristan and release several hundred Taliban and al Qaeda militants from jail.
The accord, similar to one reached with pro-Taliban forces in South Waziristan two years ago, reportedly obliges the tribal chiefs to prevent Taliban and al Qaeda forces from crossing into Afghanistan, but most experts here considered those pledges a mere face-saving measure that enabled Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to insist during his visits with increasingly sceptical U.S. officials here and in Britain over the past two weeks that he remains committed to the anti-terror fight.
But even as Musharraf sat down with Karzai for a peace-making dinner hosted by Bush himself last Tuesday, an anonymous senior U.S. military officer was telling reporters in Kabul that cross-border attacks by Taliban forces had, in fact, tripled since the North Waziristan truce actually took effect in late June.
Several days later, the Washington Post reported on a captured al Qaeda document that strongly suggested that at least part of the group’s top leadership is in fact living in North Waziristan, bolstering claims that the truce had created, in Newsweek magazine’s words, a “‘Jihadistan’… an autonomous quasi state of religious radicals, mostly belonging to Pashtun tribes…” stretching from central Afghanistan to much of northwestern Pakistan.
Whether the White House dinner, which followed a week of mutual recriminations between Karzai and Musharraf, helped reconcile the two leaders remains highly doubtful; U.S. officials made no attempt to convince inquiring reporters that any major breakthrough had been achieved.
In any event, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan – and the increasing media attention it is getting with the marking Saturday of the fifth anniversary of the launch of U.S. operations there – has added to the growing pessimism among the foreign policy elite here about Bush’s “global war on terrorism”.
It was only last spring that top administration and military officials told reporters that Washington planned to withdraw about 25,000 troops from Iraq and 4,000 troops from Afghanistan by now. At the same time, Vice President Dick Cheney was confidently describing Afghanistan as a “rising nation” from which U.S. forces could return home “proud of their service for the rest of their lives”.
Cheney, whose sunny optimism on Iraq has become fodder for late-night stand-up comedians, used precisely the same phrasing about Afghanistan as recently as last week. But both the military, which has increased U.S. troop levels from 19,000 six months ago to nearly 22,000 today, and independent analysts see a much darker picture in light of the intervening Taliban offensive, which has reportedly taken the lives of at least 2,800 Afghans and more than 160 U.S. and NATO troops in the past year.
Not only has the death toll been the highest for any year since 2001, but the Taliban campaign has been made more deadly by the importation of tactics – notably sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombings, of which one outside the Interior Ministry headquarters in Kabul took 12 lives Saturday – from Iraq.
“My fear is that Afghanistan is beginning to look like Iraq,” Richard Haass, president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations and a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, told the Washington Post last week. “We’re seeing the beginning (of the) Iraqification of Afghanistan.”
To deal with the growing threat, NATO, which currently has some 20,000 non-U.S. troops in Afghanistan, has called for contributions of 2,000 more soldiers to a reorganised International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that will also incorporate 12,000 U.S. troops who are already there.
In addition, the Bush administration, pursuant to urgent recommendations by NATO’s Supreme Commander, Gen. James Jones, has for the first time nominated a four-star general to head the combined NATO force. It is also reportedly considering sending its current ambassador in Baghdad, Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, back to his previous posting in Kabul.
A Pashtun like Karzai, Khalilzad was considered particularly effective after the Taliban’s ouster in juggling the interests of the victorious Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance and the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s single largest ethnic group that also constitutes the Taliban’s popular base.
Khalilzad would be particularly well-suited for any enhanced effort to co-opt more pragmatic elements of the Taliban, a strategy that none other than Senate Majority Leader and Bush loyalist Bill Frist recommended after a briefing with senior U.S. military officials in southern Afghanistan this weekend.
“It sounds to me… that the Taliban is everywhere,” he said, adding that the only way to prevail is “to assimilate people who call themselves Taliban into a larger, more representative government.”
But that alone will not save the day, according to Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University, who nonetheless noted that NATO’s recent moves, as well as Khalilzad’s possible transfer, suggested that policy-makers have begun to realise how tenuous the situation has become.
“I think some reality appears to have pierced the veil around top-level decision-makers, and there’s a greater realisation of what has to be done,” he told IPS, crediting Jones with getting the attention of top officials.
Washington and NATO must give top priority to three policy objectives: “eliminating the Pakistani sanctuary (for the Taliban and al Qaeda); dramatically increasing international economic assistance, and pressing Karzai to take much tougher stand against corrupt and abusive elements in his government,” Rubin added.
To achieve “strategic victory” over the Taliban, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two weeks ago, the western powers must above all exert much stronger pressure on Pakistan, including suspending all military and economic aid, until it moved to disrupt and dismantle the Taliban’s Pakistan-based command structures, which he called a “major threat to international peace and security”.
“Contrary to the analysis of the Bush administration, whose response to Sep. 11 wandered off to Iraq and dreams of a ‘New Middle East,”‘ Rubin noted, “the main centre of global terrorism is in Pakistan, especially the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. In the words of one military commander [he interviewed on a recent trip to Afghanistan], ‘Until we transform the tribal belt, the U.S. is at risk’.”