Can NATO defeat Taliban rebels?

Two weeks ago, NATO took over command of southern Afghanistan from the US, and the top general warned that he will “strike ruthlessly” against Taliban rebels when necessary.

British Lt. Gen. David Richards indicated the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) under NATO command would continue to use the heavy firepower in response to an escalation in militant attacks. But, is this all it will take to defeat the insurgents? This week, 12 Afghan policemen in two trucks were killed in a mistaken attack by a coalition plane in Paktika province.

Coalition spokesman at the main Bagram base Lt. Col. Paul Fitzpatrick insisted the two trucks belonged to Taliban trying to flee the area after an engagement with a joint patrol of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the coalition forces. He promised that the coalition would cooperate with Afghan authorities on an investigation. But pro-vincial authorities did not wait. Paktika governor Dr Akram Khpalwak said the probe has been completed, and the report would be submitted to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Since deployment to Afghanistan three years ago, ISAF has expanded its presence. Its new mission in Afghanistan coincides with the deadliest surge in fighting in Afghanistan since Taliban’s fall. NATO’s priorities include maintaining security, extending the central government’s authority and speeding up the reconstruction process. It will consult and coordinate all its activities with the Afghan government and the international community and would evaluate its strategy every other month.

This is where the US-led coalition failed. This decision of NATO is likely to go well with the Afghan government and public. NATO officials declared that they would not engage in counter-terrorism operations. Many Afghans ask if NATO countries are capable and willing to win the war against the insurgents. But, NATO’s greatest difficulty lies in ending foreign support for the insurgents. The western alliance is unlikely to defeat its foes by simply chasing them in the Afghan villages. The net has to be cast much wider. The fact that massive insecurity in the south is directly linked to cross-border infiltration by insurgent and terrorist elements from across the Durand Line (border with Pakistan) is well accepted inside Afghanistan and in the international diplomatic and military circles.

Foreign support for the Taliban must end for security to improve inside Afghanistan. The time is running out and polite diplomatic protestation must be replaced by a more robust action on the part of the international community. The other front where Afghanistan must focus is to strengthen the Afghan public’s confidence and trust in the ability of domestic and international forces and other state institutions to provide security and reconstruction in the south.

Up to now neither foreign nor Afghan security forces have ventured out into most parts of southern Afghanistan. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) have been deployed to safer areas in the north and west. The international forces are largely confined to large bases from where they conduct ad hoc military operations. As soon as they are gone, the insurgents are back in business. With its expansion to the south, NATO has been presented with an opportunity to change all this. — IPS