TOPICS : Taliban hinder NATO’s ‘ink-spot’ strategy

Any Taliban fighters approaching Camp Bastion are visible for miles because the main British base in southern Afghanistan is slap-bang in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing around Bastion but seas of dust.

The location of the British base in southern Helmand province highlights one of the many problems, which face incoming NATO forces in the former Taliban strongholds of Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces.

NATO took over command of southern Afghanistan from US forces promising to breathe new life into development, which has ground to a halt in the face of a reinvigorated Taliban. With double the number of forces that their US predecessors had, NATO plans to set up secure zones, then slowly expand them outwards like “ink spots” on blotting paper. But the virulence of insurgent attacks are already taxing the force, further delaying the reconstruction needed to win over what British commander Ed Butler refers to as the “floating voter.”

“There is not a popular uprising in southern Afghanistan, but people are sitting on the fence. They are no longer sure whether the Taliban or the government will be the winning side,” says Joanna Nathan, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Even before the handover, insurgents dramatically stepped up attacks in an apparent bid to knock off-balance the incoming NATO force. Nine British soldiers have died in the two months since they were deployed to Helmand, three of them in a well-planned ambush just a day after NATO took command of the region on July 31. Last Thursday, a Canadian soldier was killed by a roadside bomb, and 21 civilians died from a suicide car bomb in a Kandahar market. Over 1,000 people have been killed since May.

NATO forces now number 8,000 across Afghanistan’s four southern provinces, with some 4,000 departing US forces redeploying to eastern regions along the Pakistan border.

For the last four years US troops have focused their efforts on battling Al Qaeda and the fight to catch Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan’s restive south. The task of rebuilding its shattered infrastructure has fallen by the wayside, and popular discontent has grown. So has the opium crop, which is set to be the biggest ever this year in Helmand province, which produces over 30 per cent of Afghanistan’s $2.8 billion harvest. In many parts of the south there are few other jobs.

The Taliban have stepped into the security void that has opened up, setting up shadow administrations, offering people a chance to cultivate their drugs unmolested and promising a return to the law and order they enforced before 2001. It’s not at all clear that NATO is up to the task of providing security either.

The strategic ink spots now look more like haphazard ink spatters as British forces have found themselves drawn out from their bases. Military officials now concede that they will have to pull back to avoid being spread so thin that they do not have a decisive amount of force anywhere. — The Christian Science Monitor