The conflict in Afghanistan enters a new phase with the command of coalition forces passing to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The event is ominous in more ways than one. As General David Richards of Britain takes over command in Afghanistan, some cynics recall a return to the days of the Anglo Afghan wars in the 19th Century.
American troops will be under a non American commander for the first time after the Second World War, a sign of acceptance of the limits of power by the United States. The rapid collapse of the Taliban in December 2001 had buoyed US armed forces to attribute the success to a new, “American Way of War”, combining air power and Special Forces. In the euphoria of victory the Americans failed to mop up the Taliban, particularly its leader Mullah Omar whose come back has been the hallmark of the downward turn of events during the year.
The Taliban strategy in Afghanistan is now apparent.
Having consolidated its base in Southern Afghanistan and the No Man’s Land of the Durand Line it is hopeful of extending its influence in an arc extending from Helmand in the South West to Kandahar – Paktika – Paktia – Nangharhar and Kunar due North North East. Reports indicate that it has sizeable influence in many of these areas even controlling the Afghan police. At the same time it is continuously expanding its influence to Nimroz and Farah in the West and Nuristan in the North.
This revival has been facilitated by a number of factors. The low troop strength and lack of government presence in Southern Afghanistan provided Taliban with ample opportunity to regroup in its core area of influence, where sympathy was reignited with harsh policies of the Coalition forces who undertook air and helicopter attacks. Simultaneously the symbols of development particularly schools were torched, frustrating the relief agencies and overstretching the security forces on the ground.
Taliban also shrewdly exploited ethnicity and tribal affinity to break bread with the tribes in Waziristan just as the Pakistan Army launched massive operations to drive out the Al Qaeda suspected to be ensconced in the area. Ironically Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) is alleged to have provided the Taliban safe houses in the capital of Balochistan, Quetta within striking distance of Kandahar. The twist in this narrative saw a dubious pact by the Pakistani forces in Waziristan buying peace but leaving the window open for rebels to operate there from.
The poppy windfall in both 2005 and 2006 has been the biggest boon for the Taliban. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) has indicated that the production of opium in Afghanistan is likely to reach a new high of 6100 tons in 2006. An issue of concern is the increase of over 162 percent in Helmand dominated by the Taliban. Estimates indicate $3 billion in drug income coming Taliban’s way; $1 billion more than the money being spent by Americans on modernization of Afghan forces. This is already evident with the Taliban offering $8 a day to rebels, compared to pay of $4 a day to Afghan Army soldiers and $2 a day to the national police.
The Taliban shrewdly exploited the disaffection in the civil population against the Karzai regime as the common man did not see any visible signs of transformation, only growing corruption and lawlessness. The extent of reach of the government was said to be limited to Kabul and its surroundings a perception hardly enamoring to a leader who despite being a hard core Pashtun was increasingly seen as pro West rather than pro Afghan.
During the beginning of the campaigning season this year, the Taliban felt bold enough to launch large scale operations primarily in Southern Afghanistan, controlling road communications and collecting taxes which led to a series of offensives by NATO forces in which a large number of Taliban are reported to have perished. However paucity of troops has prevented NATO from enlarging and consolidating their gains. The request for reinforcements has been approved yet these may not be operational apart from an Australian contingent before the early part of 2007. In the meanwhile, the Taliban has also adopted suicide attacks, replicating the tactics in Iraq, with Kabul as the hub causing heavy casualties to civilians as well as Western forces. In the coming winters, this may be the preferred form as conditions become unfavorable for other type of operations.
The task for the NATO forces is thus extremely challenging. A coalition is not the best way to combat a full blown insurgency, especially when a majority of the contingents have not seen a good fight for ages. The numbers are also highly unfavorable despite the anticipated increase. Historically aliens have never been welcome in Afghanistan. Yet with enlightened pro Afghan policies, deemphasizing its own role in the region and a perspective of five to ten years, NATO will still be able to successfully pull off its maiden mission to bring peace to the hapless people of Afghanistan.