U.S confronts Taliban's comeback
Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 30, 2006 at 11:40 p.m.
MALEK DIN, Afghanistan - The soldiers of Bravo Company knew that their quarry was here, somewhere. They could hear the Taliban fighters radio one another as they tracked every step the Americans took through the rutted tracks, the mud-walled compounds and the parched orchards of this sun-seared patch of Afghan outback.
Yet in three tense, sweat-soaked days of blasting open doors, scouring flyblown haylofts, digging up ammunition caches and quizzing tight-lipped villagers, the 10th Mountain Division troops never found a single Taliban fighter.
"They just hide their weapons and become farmers," muttered one U.S. officer, nodding at a group of turbaned men glowering from the shady lee of a nearby wall.
Afghanistan has become Iraq on a slow burn. Five years after they were ousted, the Taliban are back in force, their ranks renewed by a new generation of diehards. Violence, opium trafficking, ethnic tensions, official corruption and political anarchy are all worse than they've been at any time since the U.S.-led intervention in 2001.
By failing to stop Taliban leaders and Osama bin Laden from escaping into Pakistan, then diverting troops and resources to Iraq before finishing the job in Afghanistan, the Bush administration left the door open to a Taliban comeback.
Compounding the problem, reconstruction efforts have been slow and limited, and the U.S. and NATO didn't anticipate the extent and ferocity of the Taliban resurgence or the alliances the insurgents have formed with other Islamic extremists and with the world's leading opium traffickers.
There are only 42,000 U.S. and NATO-led troops to secure a country that's half again the size of Iraq, where 150,000 U.S.-led coalition troops are deployed. Suicide bombings have soared from two in all of 2002 to about one every five days. Civilian casualties are mounting. President Hamid Karzai and his U.S. backers have become hugely unpopular.
"The Americans made promises that they haven't carried out, like bringing security, rebuilding the country and eradicating poverty," said Nasir Ahmad, 32, as he hawked secondhand clothes in the clamor of bus engines, horns and barking merchants in Kabul's main bazaar. "Karzai is an irresponsible person. He is just a figurehead."
James Dobbins, who was President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, said that the administration dismissed European offers of a major peacekeeping force after the U.S. intervention and almost immediately began shifting military assets to invade Iraq.
The White House "resisted the whole concept of peacekeeping," said Dobbins. "They wanted to demonstrate a different approach, one that would be much lower cost. So the decision to skimp on manpower and deploy one-fiftieth the troops as were deployed in Bosnia was accompanied by a decision to underplay economic assistance.
"We invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. We conquered the country in December, and Congress was not asked to provide any (reconstruction) money until the following October," he continued. "Much of the money didn't show up for years. And not only were the actual sums relatively small, but with the failure to establish even a modicum of security in the countryside, there was no way to spend it."
The majority of Afghanistan's 31 million people oppose the Taliban, which banned women from working and girls from attending school, enforced a puritanical form of Islamic government that included public floggings and executions, and fought a bloody civil war in the mid-1990s with the country's Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek minorities.
But most Afghans also have grown disgusted with Karzai, who rarely leaves his heavily fortified palace in central Kabul, and his U.S. patrons, and many yearn for a return of the security that the Taliban provided when they ruled.
So while the Taliban uprising has been focused in the southern homeland of the ethnic Pashtuns, their reach and that of allied Islamic groups and criminal gangs now extend to more than half of Afghanistan.
"The insurgency is developing all over," warned Zia Mojaddedi, a senior member of Karzai's national security council. "It is still not lost. They are not strong. But we are weak. We are corrupt."
In the southeast, U.S. troops face daily ambushes and attacks from mines and improvised explosive devices. Their frequent search operations, such as a recent sweep through Dilla, a remote hamlet in Paktika province, create sympathy for the Taliban among conservative Pashtun tribesmen.
"Four or five times the Americans have searched my house," Mohammad Akram, a wizened cleric, complained to U.S. commanders and Afghan officials in Dilla. "They killed my dog and broke the glass in my windows. They shoot at us. If the Americans have proof that I am with the bad guys, show me the proof. The Americans dishonor our homes."
U.S. troops say the fighting often has been even tougher than it is in Iraq. U.S. aircraft, including B-1 bombers, originally designed to drop nuclear weapons on the former Soviet Union, have been lobbing more satellite-guided high explosives on Afghanistan than on Iraq, according to Air Force reports.
The Pentagon had planned to withdraw some U.S. forces from Afghanistan this year, but their commander, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, said on Sept. 21 that there would be no cuts before early next year.
It could take years and many more casualties for the United States and its allies to extinguish the insurgency. Since January, 158 American soldiers and troops of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have died, compared with 130 in 2005. An estimated 1,500 Afghans have been killed this year.
Without the foreign troops, the Taliban would sweep back to Kabul, re-igniting a civil war with other ethnic groups and perhaps offering sanctuary to bin Laden again.
"If American forces and ISAF forces left Afghanistan, the Taliban would come back in a week," warned Police Gen. Gullam Jan, a senior official in the Interior Ministry, which runs Afghanistan's national police forces.
The worsening war is further straining the overburdened U.S. military. The stakes also are high for America's relations with its allies. NATO, embroiled in its first conflict since it was created in 1949, could unravel if public anger over mounting casualties _ already growing in Canada after the deaths of 20 ISAF soldiers this summer _ compels members to withdraw before the Taliban threat is extinguished.
Senior U.S., European and Afghan officials, diplomats and military commanders said it's not too late to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist base camp again. But containing the crisis will require more troops, attention and energy from the United States and its allies, including pressure on Pakistan to crack down on the infiltration of Taliban fighters from its territory.
The crisis led U.S. and ISAF commanders to revise their counter-insurgency strategy this summer. The previous approach relied too much on military force _ contradicting the Pentagon's long-established counter-insurgency doctrine, which emphasizes winning the support of the population.
"There's a downside" to heavy use of bombs and artillery, said Col. John W. Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. "All that does is buy you time and space with the population, but if you don't fill that space, you are not winning."
The revised approach aims to recapture popular support for Karzai by having foreign troops do more to help re-establish local governments and police, deliver health care, build roads and restore irrigation systems in far-flung regions where the Taliban command support or terrorize people into feeding and sheltering their fighters.
Reconstruction has gone forward in the north, center and west of Afghanistan, where the Taliban strike but aren't entrenched. Some 6 million children attend school, more than 1,800 miles of road have been built, and electricity, irrigation, bridges and health clinics are going in. Afghanistan has a democratic constitution, and elections have been held for president, parliament and provincial councils.
But the effort is in trouble.
In the Pashtuns' southern heartland, ISAF has been unable to kick-start reconstruction because of the intense fighting that erupted this summer as the NATO-led force took over the region from U.S. troops.
"Many of the people of Afghanistan are on the fence right now, and they will be for whichever side wins," Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, NATO's top military commander, said on Sept. 20. "If military action is not followed by visible, tangible, sizable and correctly focused reconstruction and development efforts, then we will be in Afghanistan for a much longer period of time than we need to be."
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