Afghanistan: Joint Push Aimed At Recapturing Southern Town
Those militants have managed to delay reconstruction work at the nearby Kajaki hydroelectric dam in Helmand Province, which features prominently in international efforts to rebuild Afghanistan and could provide much-needed electricity to millions of people and irrigate huge swaths of farmland.
A government source said local elders have pressed officials in Kabul to dislodge the Taliban as they blocked residents' access to services like health care and schooling.
The Taliban's stronghold in the area has been Musa Qala -- a small town about 25 kilometers from the dam that was stormed in early February by Taliban fighters who disarmed local police and seized the district administrative center from a local tribal council.
From Musa Qala, Taliban fighters have been able to take positions on nearby hills to launch mortar and rocket attacks at the Kajaki Dam. They also have been able to attack construction workers who have been trying to build a road from the town of Gereshk to Kajaki so that a massive new electric power turbine can be transported to the dam site.
Closing In On Musa Qala
British Lieutenant Colonel Richard Eaton, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, confirmed on December 7 that a military operation to retake Musa Qala had begun. He would not comment on the progress or details of the battle. But some reports said NATO and Afghan government troops in the past week had come within several kilometers of Musa Qala and were preparing to storm positions where hundreds of Taliban fighters were thought to be fortified for battle.
NATO and Afghan troops have launched several offensives in Helmand Province during the past year in a bid to push the Taliban back from the Kajaki Dam so that reconstruction can move forward. They say the latest operation began in early November. But the objective of taking control of Musa Qala was not declared until December 4 by Helmand Province Governor Assadullah Wafa, who said that "offensive operations" had begun or were being prepared "with the help and consultation of our friends." Wafa stated bluntly that "the town of Musa Qala itself will be freed from Al-Qaeda and the enemies of Afghanistan and from the enemies of Islam."
Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for Afghanistan's National Security Council, said in Kabul on December 7 that tribal elders from Musa Qala had been asking the Afghan government to force the Taliban out of the area.
"Afghan intelligence reported to us that in Musa Qala there is tension between local elders and the Taliban," Mashal said. "Tribal elders especially want the district to be freed from Taliban control -- particularly from foreign Taliban fighters. They want their children to be able to go to school and health clinics to reopen so that they, like other Afghans, can benefit from public services."
Mashal said elders from one Pashtun tribe in the area were particularly angry about the presence of foreign fighters.
"According to our reports, tensions have been increasing between Taliban and the local [Pashtun] clan of Alizi," Mashal said. "Those tensions are now on the verge of clashes. So Afghan security forces stationed in Helmand and neighboring provinces have been ordered to prevent such clashes from breaking out and to help the people of Musa Qala and the surrounding area."
He said roughly 1,500 Afghan troops had "advanced" to the Musa Qala district.
The takeover of Musa Qala by the Taliban in early February followed a controversial deal made in late 2006 between NATO and local tribal elders. Under that deal, at the request of tribal elders, British forces withdrew from the district's administrative center. In return, the tribal elders promised to keep militants out of the area and to maintain peace.
Tensions between the militants and local elders appear to have been rising since late March, when the Taliban publicly hanged three men in the center of Musa Qala and at the town's entrances -- accusing them of spying for British forces.
Speaking in March, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer highlighted the strategic and psychological importance of the nearby Kajaki Dam -- describing it as one of the most significant of some 14,000 reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.
"When the turbine in that dam is [installed] it will give power to 2 million people and their businesses" from Helmand Province to Kandahar, de Hoop Scheffer said. "It will provide irrigation for hundreds of farmers. And it will create jobs for 2,000 people. The Taliban, the spoilers, are attacking this project every day to [try to] stop it from going forward."
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Saleh Mohammad Saleh in Helmand Province and Asmatullah Sarwan in Prague contributed to this report.)
U.S. Lawmaker Questions Approaches To Pakistan, AfghanistanA U.S. congressman who once traveled with mujahedin fighters as they battled Soviet forces in Afghanistan says Pakistan has been exerting a negative influence on stability in the region.
In an interview at RFE/RL's broadcast headquarters in Prague on December 6, Dana Rohrabacher (Republican, California) said he thinks U.S. policies on Afghanistan and Pakistan have been misguided. He said the United States has been fooled into supporting military forces in Pakistan that only claim to be fighting radicalism -- but are actually allied with radical Islamists.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has depended in the past on conservative clerics for domestic political support in parts of Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province close to Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. But he also depends on the United States for military and financial support in the counterterrorism effort.
Rohrabacher, a ranking member of the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the House Committee on International Relations, has experience on Afghanistan dating to the Cold War.
In late 1988 and early 1989, before he was elected for the first time as a lawmaker, Rohrabacher hiked from Pakistan into Afghanistan with a group of mujahedin fighters who were battling Soviet forces. Those mujahedin fighters actually engaged Soviet troops in combat near the city of Jalalabad during the two months Rohrabacher was with them.
Rohrabacher -- who had been a speechwriter for U.S. President Ronald Reagan before his journey in Afghanistan -- now says he thinks Washington made a mistake during the 1980s by allowing Pakistan to decide which Afghan mujahedin fighters would receive U.S. aid money.
"I would prefer the money to have gone to our friends in Afghanistan directly," Rohrabacher told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "Even during the war against the Soviets and our efforts to try to help the Afghan people drive the Soviet troops out, much of our aid was just handed to the Pakistanis who distributed it to who they saw fit. And the Pakistanis, through the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence agency], actually provided money to the worst-possible crazy people -- on both sides of the border, both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.
"People like [the renegade Afghan warlord] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar should not have been receiving the aid from the United States," Rohrabacher said. "There were more positive people there who were less crazy and less bloodthirsty than Hekmatyar and some of the others. And so others were short-changed. And the Pakistanis delivered the lion's share of this to radicals who even hated democracy in the West. So I've been upset with our policies toward Pakistan."
Pakistan's 'Negative' Influence
Rohrabacher said that instead of promoting a more moderate Muslim society, Pakistan has been a "negative force" on stability along its border with Afghanistan.
President Musharraf's cooperation with the United States in the hunt for Al-Qaeda has angered conservative Islamists in Pakistan's border regions. The deployment of central government troops in the semi-autonomous tribal regions has fueled further tension between Musharraf and conservative Islamists.
Rohrabacher said he does not think the domestic political crisis in Pakistan will have any positive impact on the security situation in Afghanistan. "The only thing that would have a positive impact on the Afghan side would be if Musharraf just disappeared," Rohrabacher said. "Whether or not Musharraf is in a uniform is irrelevant. So what if he is not in a uniform and is wearing a suit? He's still giving orders to the people. And all along, it's been the Pakistan military that has been eating up resources in Pakistan that should have gone to pay for the education of their children.
"Pakistan's children, their education and their health care, is abysmal," Rohrabacher said. "And yet they are spending all of these billions of dollars on their military. Perhaps if they had built up a more educated and healthier population in Pakistan, the radicalism that now is emerging would not have people who would be turning in that direction. So Musharraf, I think, and the military people he represents have failed over the years."
Rohrbacher said Washington has made mistakes regarding Afghanistan since September 2001.
"What went wrong was that the United States drifted away from its original strategy in Afghanistan, perhaps, because there was too much focus on Iraq," he said in the interview on December 1. "We spent money in Iraq that should have gone toward rebuilding Afghanistan. Had we rebuilt the infrastructure so that ordinary people could earn a living without having to grow [illegal opium] poppies, it would have really gone a long way toward creating the positive situation for ordinary people which was our goal. But we spent those resources in Iraq instead. That was sad.
He cited "some mistakes in not building a strong Afghan army" and noted that ethnic factors have complicated developments.
"We know that half of the Pashtuns, at least, are in Pakistan, and I believe it has not been a positive role that Pakistan has played," Rohrbacher said. "I see the turmoil among Pashtuns as being a product, frankly, of the meddling by the ISI -- the Pakistani intelligence -- and by Pakistan. Had the Pashtuns been left alone and not been manipulated by Pakistan and outside forces, then I think that things could have been better [in Afghanistan]."
Rohrabacher said that Afghans must, first and foremost, develop their security forces so that Kabul is able to defend its own interests instead of depending on the United States and NATO for help on security. If that happens, Rohrabacher said, foreign troops could start to withdraw from Afghanistan and additional aid could be used to help build the economy instead of supporting a foreign military presence.
Christa Meindersma, an international lawyer who specializes in peace-talk issues from The Hague Institute of Strategic Studies, told a recent London conference of military and civilian experts on Afghanistan's future that she thinks the country is "at a tipping point" that the international community can influence. "Either Afghanistan will move towards stabilization and some kind of a development of sustainable peace, or we may lose it again to Islamic extremism," Meindersma said.
Meindersma was careful to criticize what she called an insufficient provision of aid and slow pace of reconstruction by coalition countries. She also complained of government corruption and a lack of military coordination.
(Interview conducted by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan deputy director Hasheem Mohmand)
Afghanistan: Resurgent Taliban Slows Aid Projects, Reconstruction
Of more than 14,000 reconstruction works under way, NATO officials have described the Kajaki hydroelectric dam in Helmand Province as the project with the most strategic and psychological significance. NATO announced in early 2007 that its key objective in the south was to secure the area around the Kajaki dam.
In March, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer even suggested that progress on security in Afghanistan in 2007 could be measured by NATO's ability to keep Taliban fighters away from Kajaki to allow workers to build a new road to transport a giant power turbine to the dam site. "When the turbine in that dam is [installed], it will give power to 2 million people and their businesses" from Helmand Province to Kandahar, de Hoop Scheffer said. “It will provide irrigation for hundreds of farmers. And it will create jobs for 2,000 people. The Taliban, the spoilers, are attacking this project every day to [try to] stop it from going forward."
By the beginning of June, when NATO declared that a combined U.S.-British assault called Operation Axe Handle had killed most Taliban fighters in the Kajaki valley or forced them to withdraw, reaching that goal still appeared possible. U.S. civilian officials working on the Kajaki project had also told RFE/RL that they hoped residents of Kandahar city would start receiving electricity from Kajaki's new turbine by early 2008.
But despite NATO's declarations of battlefield success, Taliban fighters have been able reinfiltrate the area -- causing enough havoc to delay construction of the road meant to link Kajaki to the town of Gereshk.
By late November, the road still was not complete. Without the road, workers have not been able to transport the power turbine to Kajaki -- leaving British and U.S. forces unable to claim success on that key objective of 2007.
Still, security for the reconstruction of the Kajaki dam is not the only measure by which foreign troops have failed to meet their stated objectives.
A secret White House report leaked to the “Washington Post” in November concluded that the 2007 war effort in Afghanistan had not met the strategic goals set by the U.S. military. That National Security Council document reportedly says that while U.S. and NATO-led troops have been successful in individual military battles against the Taliban, the militants still appear able to recruit large numbers of fighters. It also says that while many foreigners, especially Pakistanis, are joining the Taliban, the main source of new recruits seems to be unhappy Afghans.
“At this moment, the Taliban and insurgent groups are feeling very emboldened -- they feel a momentum behind them,” Joanna Nathan, the Kabul-based director of the International Crisis Group's Afghanistan program, told RFE/RL. “That then drives many other factors in conflict. For the most part, those involved in the fighting are joining in because of disillusionment and disenfranchisement. They are feeling left out of government or administration, or they feel that their tribal community is [being left out] and they are not being heard. They feel they haven't seen the international assistance that was offered. All these other things now feed into [the problem]. And the Taliban are very clever at working on local fissures and conflicts."
Nathan added that the Taliban's resurgence does not mean that it has the ability to capture and control cities. But its guerrilla tactics have slowed reconstruction and humanitarian projects.
"I'm really hoping now that the world is beginning to wake up to the seriousness of what is happening in Afghanistan today,” Nathan said. “We really are seeing almost half the country -- in the south and east now -- being terrorized. These are guerrillas. It's not some sort of large standing army that is controlling and administering those areas. But they are making those areas largely inaccessible to humanitarian assistance and to development -- which stops the government's outreach."
Officials in Kabul say ordinary Afghans are becoming increasingly angry about the hundreds of civilian deaths caused by NATO or U.S.-led coalition air strikes that have gone awry. Authorities say their anger makes it easier for the Taliban to recruit new fighters. On the other hand, Afghans also are put off by more than 140 suicide bombings carried out by extremists in the past year that have killed more than 200 civilians -- the worst year of suicide bombings in Afghan history.
Christine Fair, a researcher who studied suicide attacks in Afghanistan during 2007 for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, says recruitment for suicide bombers extends across the border into the tribal areas of Pakistan, and that madrassahs play a major role. “But there is a larger point that most Afghans are not familiar with," Fair said. "There are Afghans who are involved, not only in the capacity of suicide attackers, but they are also involved obviously in safe houses. They are obviously involved in the production of bombs. They are involved in getting bombers to targets. At every point of the provision of suicide attacks, an Afghan is necessary. This is something the Afghans...need to deal with."
Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said during a visit to Kabul in November that both the Taliban and foreign troops in Afghanistan are responsible for mounting civilian deaths. Arbour accused the Taliban of deliberately targeting civilians in suicide bombings -- including teachers and humanitarian workers -- in a bid to destabilize the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Arbour also said the number of civilians accidentally killed by NATO or coalition air strikes had reached "alarming levels" during 2007. "In my discussions with ISAF commanders, I am persuaded that they are well aware of the significance of this problem [of civilian casualties] and were receptive to the call that they should have methodologies that will act as preventive measures so as to diminish the civilian exposures to their activities," Arbour said.
Meanwhile, casualties in 2007 among foreign troops in Afghanistan climbed to the highest level since the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001. More than 240 foreign soldiers were killed during the first 11 months of this year.
The NATO Secretary-General admits that one of the biggest failures of the alliance during 2007 was in the area of training and equipping Afghan government troops, who are meant to eventually take over security operations from U.S. and NATO-led forces.
"We are not doing enough as NATO allies and NATO partner nations in what should be one of our main priorities,” de Hoop Scheffer said. “And that is training and equipping the Afghan National Army."
With some NATO countries showing reluctance to increase troop deployments to Afghanistan, military commanders of the alliance now say they would like predominantly Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East to help train Afghan security forces.
As for reconstruction, NATO is now taking a new tack. Major General Garry Robison, the NATO-led ISAF mission's deputy commander for stability, said today that the Western military alliance is now seeking to distance itself from the reconstruction projects that it carries out.
Partly, he said, the tactic is aimed at increasing an Afghan "sense of ownership" in the work, and partly to avoid the projects being blown up by the Taliban.
Robison, who has overseen ISAF's reconstruction work for the past 12 months, said foreign aid works best when it has an "Afghan face" and responds to real local needs.
"What we're wanting to do is to help and deliver in line with local priorities,” Robison said. “And by engaging local development councils for their priorities, by engaging local employment and contractors, we try and give the community a sense of ownership."
(RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas contributed to this report from Brussels.)