Taliban tests NATO’s resolve

NATO troops plunged into a vicious new round of fighting with the Taliban on Oct. 31 as hundreds of Afghan civilians fled their homes in villages around Kandahar. The violence, in which about 50 militants reportedly died, again underscored how insecure and ungovernable large tracts of the south and east remain six years after “victory in Kabul”.

The impact of the continuing bloodshed is being felt far beyond the battlefields of Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan. Simmering tensions between Nato members over “burden-sharing” are bubbling to the surface in Berlin, Washington and London. All agree the alliance’s mission is under-resourced and underfunded; none has a ready answer to the problem.

Despite the growth of force levels from about 5,000 in 2003 to more than 40,000 today, the fight grows ever more desperate. The possibility of military failure is now openly discussed. Few deny that Nato’s first operation outside Europe is in trouble. According to a senior European diplomat, the alliance’s cohesion and credibility are increasingly on the line. “We are now in the most difficult phase in Afghanistan,” said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO secretary-general, in a recent interview.. “If we do not prevail, the consequences... will be dire.” Not only was Afghanistan’s future as a democratic, unified state in the balance; so, too, was Europe’s security in the face of reviving terrorist threats from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Speaking after meeting Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, in London last month, the British PM Gordon Brown vowed Afghanistan would “never again” become the failed state used by Al Qaeda to plot the 9/11 attacks. But other NATO members seem less certain.

Germany’s parliament recently debated pulling out its 3,700 troops; public opinion supports withdrawal. Despite urgent US appeals for Germany, France, Italy and Spain to drop their “caveats” and switch troops from peacekeeping and training to combat duties, there is no sign they will comply. Even Canada, on the Afghan frontline from the first, is reviewing its role.

According to the US Council on Foreign Relations, insurgency-related deaths, military and civilian, have topped 5,000 so far this year, up 1,000 on 2006. Suicide bombings and kidnappings targeting civilians are also on the rise. A Chatham House think-tank report concluded, meanwhile, that the conflict is becoming “regionalised”, involving tribal areas of Pakistan.

Adding to the gloom, US research suggests the number of Afghans supporting a return to Taliban rule has doubled, to 15%. NATO’s difficulties extend far beyond the Taliban resurgence and burden-sharing disputes. Senior commanders stress military might alone cannot prevail. But diplomats say the long-term strategy and the inter-agency coordination required to deliver political stability, economic recovery and reliable services are lacking.

Winter will bring a lull in fighting. But spring will see the bloody cycle begin anew. Unless something breaks the pattern, this year’s NATO fissures may become next year’s all-out ruptures. The death toll will mount. And Brown, with 7,700 British troops in the firing line, may find himself trapped between US-dictated strategic imperatives and a growing desire to bring the boys home. — The Guardian