Lethal new factor in Afghanistan

Warnings have been coming for months, publicly from independent commentators, privately by concerned officials and military commanders: the insurgent and terrorist threat is growing and spreading north to what has been, until now, the relatively stable and calm part of Afghanistan. But the huge death toll from Nov. 6 suicide attacks in the northern town of Baghlan is a devastating blow to President Hamid Karzai’s government and to the NATO-led forces his security relies on.

It marked a departure, Amyas Godfrey, military analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said on Nov 5. :”The stepping up of tactics in an unexpected area shows a level of insurgency and organised terror we haven’t seen in Afghanistan,” he said.

“The Taliban realised that by fighting in the south they are just not winning in terms of tactics.” Military commanders, including the British who have nearly 8,000 troops in the region, have expressed surprise at the way the Taliban have been attacking their fixed positions for so long in gunfights reminiscent of former wars. British, American, and Canadian, troops have fought back, and won, though often costing lives and risking serious injury, because of superior training and weaponry.

But these, too, look increasingly like short-term successes as the Taliban and their supporters - Al Qaeda-inspired Uzbeks, Chechens, Arabs or Pakistanis - change their tactics, making roadside bombs or recruiting suicide bombers. The limited mandates of the NATO-led international security assistance force, Isaf, and of the separate US-dominated force going after Al Qaeda hideouts in the mountains bordering Pakistan, has led to a lack of coherence

which meant they were sabotaged right from the start by “deficiencies at the strategic level”. This is the view expressed in a trenchant briefing paper recently by the think-tank, Chatham House.

“The initial military success against Al Qaeda and the Taliban could not be consolidated,” it said. “The existing threat could not be eliminated: Al Qaeda and the Taliban were driven to the southern and eastern border provinces where they reassembled in loose networks of smaller groups.” “A security vacuum emerged in areas in which [US anti-Al Qaeda forces] had operated against enemy forces since the newly established Afghan military and police forces were slow to build up and remained too weak to secure gained territory while Isaf was not equipped to fill this security vacuum.” “Vast swaths of the country are underma-nned,” said Godfrey, referring to the “light footprint” of the NATO-led forces.

For NATO commanders, it is a vicious circle. They say there is no military solution to what Karzai and the west are trying to do in Afghanistan. Yet they also recognise that civil

reconstruction and development work cannot advance without the kind of security that only the military can provide. Lack of troops means the military is not providing it.

Western governments are as exasperated with the Karzai administration as they are concerned with the situation in Pakistan. One senior NATO military figure said he was inclined to the “glass being half full approach”. Even so, he said that any progress in Afghanistan would be slow and incremental. It was the time, he said, for “strategic patience”. — The Guardian