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Afghan Report: August 1, 2006

August 1, 2006, Volume 5, Number 20
NATO will take over command of security operations in southern Afghanistan from the U.S.-led coalition by the end of July. The alliance is describing a mission that goes far beyond a peacekeeping role. NATO says its troops will engage in combat and NATO commanders will be able to order preemptive strikes against suspected Taliban fighters.

NATO's move into southern Afghanistan was initially seen as a way to provide security in several provinces so that U.S.-led coalition troops could focus on operations elsewhere in the country.

Earlier this year, some NATO officials even spoke of NATO troops in the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force as "peacekeepers." But that was before the escalation of violence by Taliban fighters and their supporters in southern Afghanistan to the worst level since 2001.

NATO To Go Everywhere

NATO spokesman James Appathurai says the U.S.-led coalition forces will continue combat missions in southern Afghanistan even after NATO takes over command in that area around the end of this month.

"The coalition will still be present in the east," he said. "But it will also be able to go -- and will go -- where it needs to go throughout the country, as it is currently doing, including into the area under the responsibility of NATO-ISAF, to conduct targeted intelligence-driven operations against terrorist leadership. They have a specific counterterror mission which they will continue to carry out. The two commanders [of NATO-ISAF and the U.S.-led coalition] are in full and regular contact."

Indeed, the rules of engagement for NATO troops in Afghanistan have been expanded dramatically beyond those of a peacekeeping mission. Appathurai says NATO action will be "robust." And he notes that NATO commanders have the authority to order preemptive strikes if they deem it necessary.

"NATO forces -- and that is in the south as well as everywhere else -- will have a mission to extend the authority of the Afghan government [and] to provide security for the Provincial Reconstruction Teams," Appathurai said. "But they will have the right and the responsibility to protect that mission. And that means if they need to fight to protect themselves [and] if they need to fight to extend the authority of the Afghan government, they will do it. They have the right to do it and will do it. That includes the right, and indeed if the commander deems it appropriate, the responsibility to take preemptive action. So you will see very robust action by NATO-ISAF in the field."

Some experts say NATO is now announcing more flexible rules of engagement because the Taliban is stronger than the alliance thought it would be when planning for the move into southern Afghanistan began -- and stronger than U.S. or NATO military officials have been willing to admit.

How Strong Is The Taliban?

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the book "Taliban," believes the Taliban are much stronger than military officials report.

"It seems there [are] two wars going on," Rashid said. "There's a war being waged by the U.S.-NATO forces, who speak of killing dozens if not hundreds of Taliban almost every day. And there is another war going on -- which seems that the Taliban are capturing towns, they're infiltrating into major cities like Lashkar Gah, the capital of [the southern province of] Helmand."

NATO troops -- consisting mainly of British, Canadian, and Dutch soldiers -- have been pushing into parts of the south where no foreign or Afghan government troops have been. Analyst Hamidullah Tarzi, a former Afghan cabinet minister, says the expansion of foreign forces has exacerbated the security situation.

"I think the increase of foreign troops in the south, and mistakes in their military operations in the south and southeast have caused insecurity in the country, and made the situation worse," Tarzi said.

Rahimullah Yusofzai, a Pakistani journalist and expert on Afghan affairs, says the Taliban continues to operate freely in parts of southern provinces like Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Helmand.

Yusofzai stresses that the Taliban were never completely defeated in Afghanistan. Rather, U.S. air strikes forced the Taliban regime out of cities like Kabul.

Building The Afghan National Army

"The Taliban could not fight the Americans and their allies, so they just retreated into the countryside," Yusofzai said. "They melted into the Afghan villages and now they are back with a vengeance. Because I think they were biding their time. And now they feel that the situation is conducive to start fighting -- and they have done it in a big way now."

NATO spokesman Appathurai says the way to bring security to the most volatile parts of Afghanistan is by training and strengthening the Afghan National Army.

"Afghan army training is proceeding well with over 28,000 Afghan troops in the field," he said. "But while the Afghan National Army is generally performing credibly -- and is popular with the population -- it lacks some equipment. NATO nations are now looking at the question of whether we can provide, as an alliance, more equipment to the Afghan National Army. [It is] critical to the expansion -- the extension -- of central government influence in Afghanistan. [The army is] the backbone to the overall effort to control and eventually defeat those who are trying to prevent the extension of the Afghan government across the country."

Appathurai says security also would be bolstered by greater efforts to train the Afghan National Police.

"The Afghan National Police lags behind the Afghan National Army," Appathurai said. "Much more needs to be done to support the development of the Afghan National Police. They are a critical pillar of the Afghan security establishment. While NATO does not have a lead role in [the] training of police, other organizations -- for example, the European Union -- could step up the effort and provide more."

The NATO spokesman says reconstruction efforts need to move forward and corrupt Afghan officials need to be removed from government posts as soon as possible. He says NATO already is encouraging Afghan President Hamid Karzai to take immediate steps to root out corruption and improve governance in Afghanistan. (Ron Synovitz, with contribution from RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas.)

The European Union's special representative in Afghanistan, the veteran Spanish diplomat Francesc Vendrell, says the true test of the strength of the insurgency in Afghanistan's south will come in the autumn.

Briefing journalists at EU headquarters in Brussels on July 19, Vendrell said the Afghan government together with the EU and other foreign supporters has until October or November to persuade a skeptical Afghan public it is able to create security in the country's lawless hinterland.

Summer Brings Violence

Vendrell, who has a long history of dealing with Afghanistan, began his briefing by saying that the situation in Afghanistan "has never been good" since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

He noted that "summers are always hot" in the country and ascribed much of the recent pessimism associated especially with Afghanistan's south to the heightened sensitivities of Western media and governments.

Vendrell said the upsurge of fighting that has followed the deployment of thousands of British, Canadian, Dutch, and other troops of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar did not come unexpected. He said ISAF now has until the autumn to show it can defeat the Taliban and create a "political and security space" to allow reconstruction to take place.

"We are lucky in the sense that we have an excellent ISAF commander, General David Richards, who is probably one of the best things that has happened to Afghanistan," Vendrell added. "I think that he and we have a strategy to deal with this issue, we will have to see at the end of the year what are the results."

Bringing Order To The South

Vendrell praised Afghan President Hamid Karzai for responding to the widespread perception of bad governance in southern Afghanistan by replacing "problematic" provincial governors and appointing new police chiefs.

The EU envoy disagreed with the view popular in a number of EU member states that the extension of ISAF forces to the south has "provoked" the Taliban into action. Vendrell pointed out that before the arrival of ISAF, there were very few U.S.-led coalition troops in the area, and those present focused on pursuing Al-Qaeda. He warned, however, that Taliban attacks on Western troops will bring more casualties.

Vendrell said the key to success lies in persuading the local population that the Western presence is capable of making a difference. "I think that the population in the south are, if you like, somewhat skeptical as to whether this military presence is going to achieve anything," he said. "Because after 4 1/2 years there is a feeling among the Afghan people that not enough has been achieved, that very little, from their viewpoint has been accomplished. And therefore I think it is likely that for the time being the Afghan population will sit and watch, and see whether we are effective or not."

Vendrell was reluctant to elaborate on the criteria for measuring ISAF's success in the autumn, saying they could involve a decrease in the intensity of the insurgency and "the beginnings of reconstruction."

How EU Can Help

Addressing broader themes, Vendrell said the EU and other foreign donors must contribute more to help train the Afghan police force and help upgrade its often substandard equipment. He said both the lack of proper training and equipment were evident during the recent riots in Kabul.

Vendrell also commended the removal of the country's conservative chief justice, whose views he described as belonging to "the Paleolithic Age." The EU envoy said his replacement is a "modern and educated" person whose nomination opens up the prospect of progress in improving Afghanistan's justice system.

Pakistan Not Main Factor

The EU envoy appeared to downplay Pakistan's significance in respect of Afghanistan's problems. He said there was "no doubt" that the Taliban can use Pakistani territory, adding though that "whether this is something the Pakistani government can control is another matter."

Vendrell said Pakistan should do more to rein in the Taliban, but cautioned that excessive pressure could "overburden" Pakistan, which faces growing problems of its own in tribal areas.

The EU diplomat also recalled that President Pervez Musharraf is an ally in the global fight against terrorism, and that he "has been forthcoming on issues regarding Al-Qaeda and also inclined to restrain militant elements in Kashmir. So, we can't overburden Pakistan."

Vendrell dismissed suggestions that Afghanistan itself could be a cause of concern for Pakistan with its possible interference in Baluchistan or elsewhere. He noted Afghanistan in its present state would be "in no position" to foment separatism in Pakistan. (Ahto Lobjakas)

The Taliban's seizure of two remote districts in the Afghan province of Helmand on July 16 has raised concerns about how well NATO can maintain security in remote parts of the country. Allegations from Kabul that Pakistani groups were involved in the Taliban attack also have rekindled tensions between Kabul and Islamabad.

Hundreds of Afghan and foreign troops in the U.S.-led coalition battled Taliban fighters in Helmand Province on July 19 before entering the town of Garmser -- a district center that was seized by the militants three days earlier.

The operation at Garmser followed a similar offensive on July 18 in Naway-e Barakzai -- another district center in Helmand that was seized by the Taliban on July 16.

'Bullying Their Way Around'

U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Paul Fitzpatrick said coalition forces "skirmished" with Taliban fighters outside Garmser but met no resistance once inside the town. That suggests most of the several hundred Taliban who initially overran the town escaped before the coalition counterattack.

Fitzpatrick concludes that the Taliban are "bullying their way around" some smaller towns in remote parts of southern Afghanistan. But with coalition air strikes called in easily from Kandahar Airfield or a French aircraft carrier off the coast of Pakistan, Fitzpatrick says the Taliban cannot hold any territory for long.

Looking For Soft Targets

Ian Kemp, an independent London-based defense analyst, says the latest fighting shows the Taliban is more likely to focus concentrated attacks on Afghan police or government soldiers in remote areas than the strongholds of NATO troops.

"The Taliban have shown a consistent pattern of attacking so-called 'soft targets,'" Kemp said. "And in the present situation, that means the Afghan security forces themselves -- the Afghan Army and the Afghan police who lack the experience, the equipment, or the command-and-control infrastructure that the coalition forces have. Particularly now with the wider deployment of NATO forces, the Taliban know that it is going to be very, very difficult to beat British, Canadian, and U.S. forces."

But Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the book "Taliban," sees the situation differently. "I think the reality is really that the Western alliance is in deep trouble," Rashid said. "I think they have not been able to yet assess the extreme infiltration that has taken place by the Taliban right across the south now. The Taliban are controlling entire districts [and] district capitals. The Western forces are occupying outposts in these towns. But they do not control the towns."

Rashid told RFE/RL that despite the recapture of the two district capitals in Helmand, recent events there could be an ominous sign for NATO as the alliance prepares to take over security operations from the coalition across southern Afghanistan by the end of this month.

Large-Scale Raids

"The Taliban are fighting a very tactical war," he said. "They are obviously attacking where the NATO presence is less -- and weaker. But the point remains. The Taliban attacked [Garmser] in [a group] of maybe 200 to 400 Taliban. The fact that the Taliban can mass such enormous numbers with arms and ammunition and logistics and supplies -- and the NATO forces are not able to detect them as they mass or are not able to prevent them from coming into these towns in the south -- I think it really begs the question as to what kind of intelligence NATO has got and how ineffective it is."

In Kabul, Deputy Interior Minister Abdul Malik Sidiqi accused two Pakistani Islamist groups of helping Taliban fighters chase Afghan police from the districts in Helmand. The groups are Lashkar-i-Tayeba and Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam.

Coming In From Pakistan?

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry dismissed the allegations, telling RFE/RL that events in Helmand are an internal problem of Afghanistan -- and that it is not possible for Islamist groups to go from Pakistan to Helmand.

But Helmand Governor Mohammad Daoud says he is certain that foreigners came into his province from Pakistan to carry out the July 16 attacks.

Helmand Police Chief General Nabijan Mulakhail told RFE/RL that documents found on one dead militant in Garmser prove that the fighter had come from Pakistan.

"We were conducting clean-up operations [in Garmser] and we found the body of a militant that was in very bad condition," Mulakhail said. "In his pocket we found a special identification card issued by [former Pakistani Prime Minister] Nawaz Shariff's Muslim League of Pakistan. This is a political party membership card that was issued in Karachi. He had come from there and was fighting in Garmser."

Rashid says the evidence does not support Deputy Interior Minister Sidiqi's allegation of involvement by Lashkar-i-Tayeba and Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam.

"There is no evidence to support his claim," Rashid said. "But certainly there is sufficient evidence to say that Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Pashtuns based in Baluchistan Province have been flowing into southern Afghanistan. And the Taliban are recruiting a lot of people in Baluchistan. And there seems to be [nothing preventing them from crossing] the border.... which groups are involved, we don't know."

Rashid also agrees with Pakistan's Foreign Ministry that it would be impossible for large groups of militants to cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan together. But Rashid says that is not how the infiltrations are taking place.

"There is a very steady drip, drip, drip of infiltration going on, which is less easily detectable," he argues. "But, according to my sources in the south, it is certainly going on at an alarming rate."

Rashid also notes Pakistani security forces have arrested several hundred suspected Taliban fighters in Quetta during the last three days. He says it remains to be seen whether those arrested are real Taliban militants or ordinary Afghans living in refugee camps near Quetta. (Ron Synovitz)

A proposal to create a Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has caused worry and fear among Afghans and human rights groups. They warn that the plan reminds them of the Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which forcefully imposed religious and moral codes. However, government officials say the new department will not use force to promote Islamic principles in society.

Farid, a student at Kabul University, was once violently beaten and jailed for several days by a Taliban religious patrol because his beard was not long enough. He tells RFE/RL that the plan to create a Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice reminds him of those "dark days."

Most Feared Institution

"If they want to apply it like it was during the Taliban then people will definitely be against this Promotion of Virtue [Department] because people have bad memories about that time and the conditions that existed then; especially young people are against it," he said. "Afghan people need reconstruction, education, science, and technology because through them Afghanistan will move toward stability, progress, and democracy -- not by reintroducing vice and virtue."

The Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was the regime's most feared institution. It was in charge of implementing Islamic rules as defined by the Taliban. Its forces patrolled the streets beating and arresting people who listened to music or women and girls who did not wear the full-body burqa.

That ministry was also in charge of conducting Islamic punishment, such as the stoning of women charged with adultery.

Some four years after the fall of the hard-line regime, Afghanistan's Ulema Council has suggested to President Hamid Karzai that a "virtue and vice department" should be set up again. The department will reportedly work on ensuring that religious rules -- such as not drinking alcohol -- are observed.

Different From Taliban

Deputy Minister for Haj and Religious Affairs Ghazi Suleiman Hamed defended the plan in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. He said the new department will be quite different from the one ran by the Taliban.

"The Taliban interpretation of Islam is different from the interpretation of the rest of the Islamic world," he said. "No one has the right -- under the excuse of promoting virtue and preventing vice -- to commit a sin and harm others. The clerics want to help people to move toward God through any possible means, such as education, preaching, and encouragement. It doesn't mean that, like in the past, there will be a [special] police and that prison and clubs will be used [against violators]."

On June 16, government spokesman Mohammad Asif Nang was quoted by agencies as saying that President Karzai has given the green light for the plan to be referred to Afghanistan's parliament.

Legislator Shukria Barakzai told RFE/RL it is not clear when the parliament will debate and consider the proposal. However, she believes there is no need for such a department unless it would fight bureaucratic corruption.

"There are names that remind us of some issues, for example the religious polices that were created under the rule of President [Burhanuddin] Rabbani; until the Taliban era, their main work was to oppose music and women, they had summed up Islamic culture to these two things," she said. "The other thing is that in a country where there are already several bodies to enforce security, why do we need another body whose authority is not clear yet. Are we moving again toward a Taliban government?"

Why Now?

Human Rights Watch's (HRW) leading researcher on Afghanistan, Sam Zia Zarifi, told RFE/RL that many Afghan citizens are alarmed over the proposal.

"Many Afghan people, especially Afghan women, have told HRW that they are worried that the issue of the creation of a Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue [and Prevention of Vice] has been brought up under Afghanistan's current conditions, where there is [so much] insecurity and people are under economic pressure," Zarifi said.

Zarifi added that his organization is concerned that the "vice and virtue department" could turn into an instrument for political pressure.

"Unfortunately the international [community] has not helped Karzai economically or from a security standpoint as much as it should have," she said. "Therefore Karzai is under pressure from groups who we think want to abuse Afghanistan's current situation and in the name of religion put critics and women and girls under political pressure."

The proposal on the creation of a morality department comes amid a recent crackdown on alcohol and prostitution. On July 17, Afghan police said they had destroyed 3,000 cans of beer and some 600 bottles of wine and alcohol that were confiscated during raids in Kabul. Several foreign women were also reportedly arrested and charged with prostitution. (Golnaz Esfandiari)