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Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Taliban in Afghanistan

This has been as especially bloody weekend as five British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, taking the number of UK personnel killed since operations began in 2001 to 204. Is the sacrifice worth worth it? Every year of involvement, the level of violence has increased and with it the casualty rate. Most soldiers are now dying as a result of IEDs which are hard to find and even harder to protect against. Here is a brief analysis of the current situation. By Colonel Richard Kemp, former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, 17 Aug 2009, "Beyond 200 Deaths In Afghanistan: Analysis," Telegraph. co.uk" "Numerous Islamist extremist plans around the globe, link back to the vortex of terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Both the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain intent on restoring their violent hegemony in Afghanistan. As the central theatre of operations in the war on terrorism, it remains essential that we do not allow this to happen.

It is of equal importance that Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state, does not fall to the extremists, a prospect that would be increased by a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan.

Second: are our objectives achievable? By war, no. By an eventual political settlement, yes. But that settlement can only be accomplished on terms acceptable to us from a position of strength.

We must first undermine the insurgency by continued attrition of its leaders and fighters, and by splitting off those elements that are reconcilable.

We must enable the Afghan government to take over the management of the insurgency as rapidly as possible."

The Taliban has for the first time threatened to attack polling stations directly in Afghanistan's crucial presidential elections on Thursday, just hours before President Hamid Karzai prepared to face his first election debate on national television.

Abdullah Abdullah, the most likely candidate to unseat Karzai in this week's elections is seen as a fierce mujaheddin fighter. His credentials as the right-hand man of one of Afghanistan's most revered Soviet resistance fighters, Ahmad Shah Massoud - felled by an al-Qa'ida bullet two days before September 11, 2001 - are among his sharpest campaign tools. "The ophthalmologist and former foreign minister, who left the Karzai government in 2006 and has been a vocal critic ever since, is No. 2 in a two-horse race that culminates on Thursday in only the second national presidential vote in the country's history." (Amanda Hodge, The Australian, August 17 2009)

As proof of the Taliban's evil intentions, a massive suicide bombing on Saturday morning in the heart of Kabul's embassy district has heightened those fears. In this attack, a Taliban militant breached several layers of security before detonating his bomb outside the gates of the heavily fortified NATO military headquarters and 100m from the US embassy compound, killing at least seven people and wounding more than 90.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid confirmed the intended target was the US embassy, but admitted "we could not reach it".

And just recently, the Taliban in Afghanistan has threatened to cut off voters' fingers and attack polling stations in a bid to force Afghans to boycott the presidential elections. The threats came in leaflets pinned up and left on the ground in villages in southern Afghanistan. One of the so-called "night letters", threatened that the Taliban would cut off the noses and ears of voters on Thursday. Fingers stained with ink, the sign of having cast a vote, will also be hacked off, the warning said.

World News reports over 9,00o British and an additional 10,000 American troops have been sent into Afghanistan's Helmand Province to rout the Taliban and establish security ahead of the national elections. The fight against the insurgents has been tough as rising casualty figures show and the war against the continued widespread cultivation of poppies and production of opium have proved equally difficult.

According to Ganesh Sitaraman of the New York Times, "As General Stanley McChrystal’s 60-day strategic assessment is wrapping up, he poised to recommend a new approach for Afghanistan, one grounded in counterinsurgency’s strategy of protecting the population." (August 16 2009) The challenge for General McChrystal is creating a comprehensive and integrated strategy for Afghanistan out of the hundreds, if not thousands, of peoples, identities, and conflicts in the country. Each village, district and province has different dynamics, different sources of violence, and different governance and development challenges.

So, should the United States negotiate with the Taliban? Not when there is not a single insurgency unified in goals and desires. The first problem is more likely to find out which groups are even open to negotiation and what goals drives each group. Policy must be flexible and adaptive when one single strategy will not likely work. The input of soldiers and civilians in the villages is necessary to conduct proper operations. Sitaraman states, "In the land of 10,000 wars, the right strategy is one that integrates national priorities with the variety of divergent local realities."

The Obama administration seems to be taking a lot of time on the issue. Some frustrated lawmakers said the delay might prove costly.“We have been in Afghanistan now for more than seven and a half years,” said Representative Ike Skelton, a Democrat of Missouri and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “These metrics are required to help make the case for the American people that actual progress is being made, or if we need to change the course to another direction. I think that time is not on our side.”

President Obama's tactics include a "Neighbors By Day, Soldiers By Night" campaign. Jame Dao, the New York Times, August 4 2009, describes an administration strategy.

"By day, the soldiers patrol the bazaar just outside their barbed-wire gates, chatting with merchants and buying their wares. They have hired three dozen local men as day laborers and security guards and committed more than $2 million to improving local roads, schools and government buildings.

But by night, the troop resumes the work of war, conducting armed patrols and raids on homes in search of insurgent fighters and bomb makers. As surgically as possible, the soldiers are trying to separate fighters from the villagers who provide them shelter, whether by choice or at gunpoint."

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