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Afghan Report: May 29, 2006

May 29, 2006, Volume 5, Number 15
As NATO approaches full deployment of its Stage 3 expansion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into southern Afghanistan, casualties among NATO troops are increasing. The enemy is employing various tactics in an attempt to derail the stabilization process in Afghanistan. While a debate about participating in the expansion rages in Canada and other NATO-member states that are committing troops to Afghanistan, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine who is trying to thwart NATO's efforts to stabilize the country.

Afghanistan is NATO's greatest post-Cold War undertaking, and the very rationale for the alliance's continued existence depends on whether it succeeds far away from the Euro-Atlantic area.

Identifying The Enemy

A lack of understanding of Afghanistan as a country and the dangers looming within and across its borders complicates NATO's assessment of its enemy. To date, NATO has been either unable or unwilling to define the enemy or characterize the alliance's mission.

On September 12, 2001, one day after the terrorist attacks against the United States, NATO invoked Article 5 of its founding treaty for the first time ever. Article 5 states that an armed attack against one or more NATO member states is considered an attack against all of them. While the gesture was historic, what followed was not a NATO-wide involvement in the U.S.-declared war on terror, but rather assistance from some members in the military campaign in Afghanistan. Whether the alliance would have -- under any circumstances -- acted according to Article 5 and participated in the Afghan campaign as one force is still a matter of debate.

Gradually -- and partly for political considerations not related to stabilizing Afghanistan -- some NATO members stumbled into commitments characterized by vague, undefined mandates. Since first taking command of ISAF in August 2003, NATO has endured a seven-month period of frustrating negotiations to secure three helicopters for its expansion to northern Afghanistan.

It has also sidestepped issues such as counternarcotics and confronting warlords that are crucial to stabilization -- the alliance's catchword in defining its Afghan mandate.

Now the alliance -- mainly Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, with non-NATO member Australia -- has decided to venture into southern Afghanistan, where the ill-defined enemy is particularly active. Politicians and military planners in Brussels and in member states that are contributing troops have been slow to focus their attention on identifying the enemy in Afghanistan and determining the most expeditious way to defeat it, spending time instead congratulating themselves on agreeing to NATO's southern expansion.

Dangerous Mission

A few days after four Canadian soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing in Kandahar in late April, NATO's top military commander, U.S. Marine Corps General James Jones, said the alliance's expansion into southern Afghanistan has more than the needed "military requirements" to confront the threats there.

Jones also downplayed claims that the recent violence in southern Afghanistan is due to more successful neo-Taliban tactics or to an increase in their activities. He said the neo-Taliban is not an "overwhelming reality." Saying that it was "tempting to label everything as the comeback of the Taliban," Jones blamed the current operations against narcotics in the area for some of the violence.

Speaking in February, Jones discussed the problems NATO forces face. "The situation in Afghanistan, in my view, in terms of threats, is multifaceted. I'm not so much concerned about a return of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda as much as I am about the success of the war on drugs -- which is accounting for about 50 percent of the gross domestic product of that country. To me, that is a much more serious problem. It has its own threats with regard to violence."

Clearly, the enemy in Afghanistan is not only the Taliban. But is NATO prepared to confront actively druglords and warlords and those who claim to champion part or some of the ideologies of the Taliban -- an elusive enemy: the neo-Taliban? Also, given the current tense state of affairs between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- two ostensible allies in the war on terrorism -- is NATO ready to use its political capital to deliver a warning to both Kabul and Islamabad on the consequences of their lack of cooperation?

If so, then the alliance and other countries contributing troops to NATO's southern expansion in Afghanistan should brace themselves for a long and difficult counterinsurgency campaign in the region and an equally challenging diplomatic task in altering the current political trends in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Otherwise, NATO risks becoming a crisis-management mechanism -- and each crisis will bring more body bags and more dissent in the countries where those bags are sent. (Amin Tarzi)

Pakistan on May 19 today rejected fresh charges by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the country is providing a training ground for militants and allowing them to infiltrate Afghanistan. Karzai made the accusations on May 18 after an upsurge in violence that appears to have left more than 100 people dead.

President Karzai angrily denounced the violence during a visit to Kunar, near the Pakistani border.

He blamed religious extremists and intelligence services in Pakistan.

"We have precise information that in the madrasahs of Pakistan, young boys are being told to go to Afghanistan and join the jihad, burn schools, and destroy clinics because 'infidels' are in Afghanistan," Karzai said.

He also urged Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to forget about the days when Islamabad exercised undue influence over Afghan affairs.

"I told him, 'Mr. Musharraf, my brother, there was a time when Afghan governments were formed in Pakistan. Those times are gone. It was an unusual time. We were refugees. Forget these thoughts and dreams that foreigners can form the government in Afghanistan,'" Karzai said.

Continuing Rancor

Karzai's remarks were the latest in a war of words between Kabul and Islamabad as a bloody insurgency continues in Afghanistan. Afghan officials accuse their Pakistani counterparts of doing too little to combat militants, saying that pro-Taliban fighters cross into Afghanistan from Pakistan to carry out terrorist attacks.

Afghanistan's new foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, made similar charges on May 15. Spanta suggested that while Pakistan might be chasing down Al-Qaeda terrorists, it has not made any "significant" effort to arrest Taliban fighters.

Pakistani foreign-office spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam on May 19 denied that Pakistan is training insurgents or sending them into Afghanistan.

She said Islamabad is not responsible for the situation in Afghanistan and said "peace and stability in Afghanistan is in Pakistan's interest."

Karzai's fresh accusations came amid some of the heaviest fighting that Afghanistan has seen in months. Pitched battles pitted militants against Afghan and international forces in the south, suicide attackers struck in western (Herat) and central (Ghazni) Afghanistan, and the burning-down of two girls' schools added to a growing list of attacks on the education system.

Brothers In Arms

Karzai also warned Musharraf on May 18 that any threat to Afghanistan translated into a threat to Pakistan.

"Terrorism is a fire that will expand to your country, as well," Karzai said. "If the bomb blasts destroy us, one day they will destroy you, too."

Pakistan, one of the United States' early allies in its declared war on terror, has always denied accusations that it is supporting militant activities in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials say they have deployed thousands of troops to secure the borders. They also say they have killed militants and arrested several key Al-Qaeda figures.

Farzana Shaikh is an associate member of the Center of South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge and director of the Pakistan study group at Chatham House (aka the Royal Institute of International Affairs) in London.

Taliban And Al-Qaeda

Shaikh told RFE/RL that Pakistan has drawn a distinction between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which used to rule large swaths of Afghanistan.

"Pakistan sees [the war against terror] very much and primarily really a war against Al-Qaeda and foreign militants based on Pakistani territory," Shaikh said. "Pakistan has been much more ambivalent about precisely what this war might mean in relation to Taliban forces -- who as we know are now fairly well established in the tribal agency of North Waziristan, where groups of Afghan Taliban in alliance with locals are claiming that they have established an independent Islamic emirate."

Shaikh suggested that the Pakistani central government's capacity to contain and control Taliban forces might be limited.

"There is really mounting skepticism on the part of U.S. and Western allied forces who really are putting pressure on Pakistan to answer the question of whether or not it is really aiding Taliban forces," Shaikh said. "Pakistan has not only hotly contested these allegations, but [it] has accused Afghanistan in turn of fomenting trouble in Pakistan's Baluchistan province. So really the accusations are flying in both directions."

"The Guardian" today quoted a top British army officer who accuses Pakistan of allowing the Taliban to use its territory as a staging ground for attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.

Echoing the accusations from Kabul, the British chief of staff for southern Afghanistan, Colonel Chris Vernon, claimed the Taliban leadership is coordinating attacks from the Pakistani city of Quetta, near the border with Afghanistan. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

Fighting between the Taliban and U.S.-led coalition forces in southern Afghanistan this spring has been the most intense in the country since the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

Most Western military experts agree that the Taliban offensive this spring is aimed at derailing NATO's expansion into the southern Helmand, Kandahar, and Oruzgan provinces.

Ian Kemp, an independent London-based defense analyst, says Taliban militants have been mustered for major battles in recent weeks in order to achieve two objectives.

"One reason for the increase in violence [by the Taliban] is to show the NATO forces as they arrive that they are not going to have the situation their own way," Kemp says. "And the second reason is that there is going to be an impact on public opinion [abroad]. This is going to serve to undermine public morale in the troop-contributing nations."

New Tactics

More than 250 people have been killed in a series of battles, ambushes, and bombings since May 16. Many of the dead have been suspected Taliban militants targeted by coalition air strikes. But Afghan government casualties also are higher than in previous years.

Lotfullah Mashal, a former spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, says Taliban fighters no longer rely solely on hit-and-run tactics by small groups of guerrillas. Instead, the Taliban have been concentrating into groups of more than 100 fighters to carry out frontal assaults on government security posts. Mashal says that development explains why deaths in Afghanistan during the past week have topped the number of reported deaths in Iraq in the same period.

"During the past 4 1/2 years, there have always been changes in Taliban fighting tactics. But this latest change is unique," Mashal says. "They have never [concentrated their forces] like this before, and they were never so effective in the past. The Taliban have never caused such high numbers of casualties to [Afghan] government forces before. Now, their attacks are more organized and they have started to fight using [more conventional methods] -- concentrating their forces together. And they have started creating battle lines."

Fighting From The Air

U.S. military officials have told RFE/RL that concentrations of Taliban forces make their job easier because it allows air strikes to be more effective.

But with Taliban fighters taking shelter in residential compounds, the violence also appears to be causing more civilian casualties. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered an investigation into reports that at least 16 civilians were killed on May 22 by U.S.-led coalition air strikes on a village near Kandahar.

Within the fledgling national parliament this week, some Afghan politicians say civilian casualties are beginning to turn the feelings of ordinary Afghans against the presence of foreign troops.

Obaidullah is a member of parliament from the western Afghan province of Farah. He tells RFE/RL that Taliban fighters are now getting more support from the Afghan population than they have at any time since 2001.

"One year ago, nobody [in Afghanistan] was giving sanctuary to the Taliban," Obaidullah says. "I think that people are helping them more now."

Karzai and his new foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, have blamed Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. They claim Islamabad's security forces chase Al-Qaeda terrorists within Pakistan but do not make any significant efforts to arrest Taliban fighters or stop them from crossing the border into Afghanistan.

Officials in Islamabad have repeatedly denied such allegations. But in the past week, Karzai has used some of his strongest language so far against Islamabad -- alleging that "strategic departments of Pakistan" use Afghanistan as a training field for Islamic militants.

Afghan Resentment

Kabul-based political analyst Wahid Mozhda says it would be a mistake for U.S. military leaders to overlook what he says is growing resentment among Afghans about civilian deaths from coalition air strikes.

In a recent RFE/RL interview, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Za'if, says he thinks Pakistan is supporting cross-border militant attacks into Afghanistan to try to exert influence over the government in Kabul.

Za'if also says the "complete and sudden withdrawal" of all foreign troops from Afghanistan would lead to civil war in Afghanistan, with much bloodshed.

But Za'if says U.S. forces have made a mistake by working together with Afghan warlords who are accused of past atrocities. He says such alliances -- together with coalition air strikes that accidentally kill innocent civilians -- are angering Afghans in the south.

(By Ron Synovitz, with contributions from Kabul by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ajmal Aand.)

Afghan officials are appealing to international investors to take a fresh look at Afghanistan's business opportunities. They told roughly 500 financiers from more than 10 countries at a business forum in Kabul last week that those who invest in the country will reap considerable profits. But the past three years have seen a sharp increase in foreign direct investment despite problems like corruption and a lack of security.

Tamim Sam'i is an Afghan-born entrepreneur who has launched at least three businesses in his native Kabul since leaving his adopted home in the United States several years ago. The bulk of his effort is aimed at providing high-tech services to government and private industry.

While turnover appears modest, Sam'i claims he has profited over the past two years from telecommunications-infrastructure work.

"The opportunities are definitely here," Sam'i says. "There is quite a bit of involvement from ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] and coalition forces, and it's been quite a bit of money on services that we provide to the IT companies. And the private sector is growing by leaps and bounds, and they all need the services that we provide."

The London-based "Financial Times" group's Internet portal on foreign direct investment,, notes that "investment in Afghanistan is not for the faint-hearted." It emphasizes that the environment is "at times dangerous and desperate" but hastens to add that "the opportunities are almost limitless."

Room For More

Most of the registered investments since the fall of the Taliban four years ago have come in the form of construction or construction materials. But there has also been investment in industry and services.

Solaiman Fatemi is vice president of the government's Afghanistan Investment Support Agency (AISA). He tells RFE/RL that about 5,000 new investment projects have been registered in the country since October 2003.

"We have also renewed 1,340 [investment] licenses -- that's worth about $1.3 billion, and it has been promised," Fatemi says. "In recent years, Afghanistan's economy has been growing. And we hope that big projects like a Coca-Cola [bottling] plant , Serena hotels, 13 international banks -- as well as other projects, like the Baghlan sugar factory -- will lead to faster economic growth."

...But Not Without Risk

But there are still major challenges involved in doing business in Afghanistan.

The World Bank claims that 80-90 percent of the country's economy is informal, and potential investors are often wary of investing in an insider-driven economy.

The Bank concluded in a February report that key constraints to private-sector developments in Afghanistan include the unreliable electricity supply, access to land and financing, and corruption.

Entrepreneur Sam'i complains about the toll that security and corruption take on his businesses.

"We spend a lot more money on security than we need to -- having security guards, fortifying the offices of the homes that we live in, and also the cost of fuel is another issue -- the fact that we have to spend fuel [on generators] in order to get electricity for our businesses is a problem," Sam'i says. "Corruption is also an issue that we constantly deal with, and we try to work around it and against it. It is something that the government should put more focus on."

Improving Climate?

Officials in Afghanistan concede that there are problems, even as they tout the country as being open to business. They say efforts are afoot to improve the investment climate.

Those steps include a continuing disarmament process and the creation of the new army to provide security.

The state investment-promotion agency's Fatemi says the government has eased restrictions on investment and introduced tax incentives to attract foreign investors.

He says some of the problems -- including energy shortages -- can actually provide potential investors with unexpected business opportunities.

"We hope investors will see these opportunities and invest in [them]," Fatemi says. "Security is a problem; the government is trying to remove [the problem]. But big cities like Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-e Sharif are safe, and investors are happy about their investments. So far there has not been a single case of an investor saying he is taking his capital and leaving Afghanistan due to a lack of security."

Businessman Sam'i insists Afghanistan can generate income for business hopefuls despite the obstacles.

"I think that others who have a mind to invest in Afghanistan can take these risks into consideration when they're doing a business plan and see if it works for them," Sam'i says. "I think that, for my particular case, having these risks in place and knowing how to mitigate them [and] still being able to earn some money has been the case in the last two years."

Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged investors to seize investment opportunities -- and not let problems deter them. He made a pitch for a long-term approach to Afghanistan's growing economy, calling it "a market that will continue to grow for a long, long time."

Key Location

Investment promoter Fatemi adds that Afghanistan has another advantage in the form of its strategic location. He says it can play a key role in connecting Central Asia with South Asia and the Middle East.

"It is very important for Afghanistan to become a bridge between Central Asian countries and countries such as India, Pakistan, and Iran," Fatimie says. "We hope that Afghanistan will rebuild its infrastructure and through them connect these countries. This will bring good profits for Afghanistan and it will also become an important [business center] as it used to be in the past."

The investment pattern appears to warrant some optimism in that regard. Fatemi notes that among the investors registering in the past two years, most come from Turkey or powerful economic neighbors like China, Pakistan, or Iran. (Golnaz Esfandiari)