As Afghanistan counts down to its presidential election on Thursday, NATO's new Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has claimed the country could become the “grand central station of international terrorism.” Rasmussen said NATO would support the Afghan people for “as long as it takes” and called on “anyone who believes in basic human rights” to support the mission. While the former Danish right-wing Prime Minister’s terror claim needs to be treated with caution, Taliban forces did their bit to help his cause by ramping up attacks on military and civilian targets in an effort to discredit the election. (photo credit: Soldiers Military Centre)
Eight years after the US invaded Afghanistan, the country is no closer to peace and is instead awash with suicide bombers, AIDS victims and a resurgent Taliban. Drug barons run the country that produces 90 percent of the world’s heroin. There are over 100,000 multinational forces in Afghanistan under NATO and American command. Casualties have increased markedly since February and 75 foreign soldiers have been killed in the month of July alone. Yet General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan is asking member countries for a significant increase in international troop numbers.
Yesterday US President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to wind down the US operations in Iraq and to re-focus efforts in Afghanistan. America has 62,000 troops in the country and will deploy another 6,000 by the end of the year. But as Terence O’Brien wrote in the May/June edition of the US Foreign Policy journal, Afghanistan has a host of forbidding problems that make it a challenge that exceeds that of Iraq. These issues include the country’s size, its rugged geography, poverty, ethnic diversity, mistrust of centralised government, cross-border sanctuaries as well as its opium economy, plus the tenacity of the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
In March, Obama admitted America was not winning the war and said dialogue with moderate elements of the Taliban ‘should be explored’. “Part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us,” said Obama at the time. In response President Hamid Karzai appointed his brother Qayim as envoy to the Taliban. The leader of the Taliban Mullah Mohammed Omar reportedly approved entering into peace negotiations but recent activity suggests that positions have hardened. The Guardian reports that overnight a rocket struck the presidential palace in Kabul and a second hit the Afghan capital's police headquarters.
But it is in the south where the Taliban is strongest, particularly in the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan (where Australian forces are stationed). The west is not winning the battle of hearts and minds in these areas. Jan Forrester says the Afghan rumour mill tells people of the increasing number of civilians being wrongly targetted and killed. So many locals now believe foreigners are
in Afghanistan just to promote their own interests, she says.
What exactly Australian interests are in Afghanistan have never been properly explained by either the Howard or Rudd Governments other than referring to vague threats of terror. However, Australian Major Mick Bassingthwaighte has given an intriguing insight into operational matters in a recent edition of the Australian Army Journal. Bassingthwaighte commanded a Security Task Group in Afghanistan during 2007 and 2008. In an article called "Taking tactics from the Taliban" he says the fight against the Taliban is run according to the following principles drawn from previous wars in the region:
- Limited and poor condition access roads to narrow valleys make it difficult to use conventional motorised forces
- Afghans are aware of psych op campaigns and are easily alienated if promised action does not arise,
- individual Afghans change sides at whim,
- most ambushes occur on the way back to base camps,
- helicopter support is crucial to preventing such ambushes, and
- it is “a platoon leaders’ war” of engaging small forces which will only fight when the terrain and circumstances are favourable.
While it is difficult to disagree with Major Bassingthwaighte’s military expertise, the worry here is that none of these principles look like changing any time soon. And without an exit strategy, Australia and the other nations of Rasmussen’s coalition could be waiting a long time for a train to get them out of Afghanistan’s “grand central station”.