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Afghanistan: EU Official Urges More Varied Strategy To Defeat Taliban

EU special envoy to Afghanistan Francesc Vendrell (file photo) (epa) BRUSSELS, September 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's special representative in Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, says the West must "find out more" about the Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan before it can defeat it. He called for "quick" military strikes against insurgents, which he said must then be followed by reconstruction efforts to deny the Taliban new recruits.

Vendrell today called for "quick victories" against insurgents in the country, but he made clear that a more varied strategy is needed to comprehensively defeat the Taliban.

Speaking to journalists at EU headquarters in Brussels, Vendrell appeared to suggest that NATO and other Western institutions do not have a sufficiently clear idea of who they are fighting.

"We do need to seriously look at how the Taliban is composed, what goes by the name of Taliban, who are the people that we label Taliban," Vendrell said. "Are they all part of a single group under the command of Mullah Omar? Or are they autonomous groups who perhaps do not have the kind of national or Islamist agenda that the Taliban are known for, but perhaps have specific grievances regarding certain provinces in the country? We need to find out more about that."

Taken By Surprise

Vendrell, who lives in Kabul, said the resurgence of the Taliban this summer took all observers by surprise. Previously, only small groups of insurgents had engaged in classical "guerrilla-style" warfare. NATO and its allies now face large formations.

Vendrell argued it is essential for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to avoid civilian casualties, which he said "come at a political price."

He said NATO understands the complex relationship between the insurgents and the local Afghan population and has avoided "gloating" over the numbers of Taliban fighters its forces have killed.

Beyond Military Action

In an acknowledgment that many of the Taliban appear to be local peasants who have taken up arms, Vendrell argued that NATO and Afghanistan's Western supporters must start looking beyond military action.

"I think we are clear about the strategy to follow," Vendrell said. "One is some quick military victories, [then] quickly extend the area of governance by the central government progressively from the areas which have been taken over -- in other words, the idea of 'ink spots' -- coupled with immediate improvement in governance and improvement in reconstruction."

"At the end of the day, the Taliban are able to recruit so many people because the Taliban is able to pay better than the police and the army pay their own [people]."

Vendrell said the reconstruction effort must become much more visible, and that Western aid must shift from humanitarian assistance to support for the overall economic rehabilitation of the country. He said this is necessary to undermine support for the militants.

The EU envoy said creating jobs is of primary importance.

"At the end of the day, the reason why the Taliban are able to recruit so many people is less due to ideological grounds, [and] more because the Taliban is able to pay better than the police and the army pay their own [people]," Vendrell said.

...But Also More Troops

Vendrell supports the request of NATO commanders for more troops, saying that if NATO nations provide the requested 2,000 to 2,500 extra troops, the insurgency could be suppressed by the end of the year. He said NATO pressure is already having an effect on the Taliban in the south, forcing them to move their activities into provinces where ISAF is not so strong.

Vendrell took issue with comments made by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Brussels earlier in September. Musharraf said there is a danger the Taliban insurgency could mushroom into a Pashtun "national war."

"The Pashtuns in Afghanistan have taken great offense [at] this comment made by President Musharraf that the Taliban are a Pashtun national movement," Vendrell said. "Of course, it's true -- it's true that virtually all Taliban are Pashtun. But it's certainly not true to say that the Taliban represents the majority of the Pashtun population."

Musharraf also argued that the Taliban's "center of gravity" is in southern Afghanistan. In response, Vendrell today emphasized the insurgency's strong links with Pakistan. He said that when Musharraf visited Afghanistan in early September, the Pakistani president acknowledged during a 75-minute chat with his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, that members of the Taliban continue to cross into Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Vendrell also said he does not think the deals Musharraf has agreed with tribal elders in Pakistan's Pashtun region of Waziristan provide a guarantee that Taliban infiltration will stop. He noted that after the first such agreement with Southern Waziristan, infiltration from Pakistan into the neighboring Afghan provinces of Paktia and Khost had, in fact, increased.