WASHINGTON, Nov. 8 (UPI) -- Iraq and President Bush’s war on terrorism -- and Washington’s inability to focus on more than one major foreign crisis at a time -- have overshadowed the geographic nexus of Islamist extremism. Afghanistan, where suicide bombers are now striking throughout the country; the Afghan-Pakistan border, where Taliban and al-Qaida have reconstituted their strongholds with virtual impunity; and a chaotic Pakistan, which many terrorists call home, should be the new U.S. geostrategic priorities.
Without friendly control of the Afghan-Pakistan border, Taliban will continue to infiltrate Afghanistan with the covert assistance of retired fundamentalist officers of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Districts in northwestern Farah province, as well as in southwestern Uruzgan and Kandahar, have fallen as local police surrendered their weapons. Before Sept. 11, 2001, ISI had several hundred agents attached to both Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar and to Osama bin Laden and his score of training camps throughout Afghanistan.
“Most of the official reporting on Afghanistan -- whether U.S., NATO, or allied country -- is little more than public relations material,” is the latest assessment by Anthony H. Cordesman, a leading strategic thinker and expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. “NATO and (participating) nation Web sites provide almost no meaningful ‘metrics’ for measuring progress,” he said. And what reporting there has been has also dealt with the Afghan conflict as if it was somehow separate from the buildup of the Taliban, al-Qaida and other Islamist extremist movements, Cordesman concluded.
The report of a recent British parliamentary fact-finding mission to Afghanistan said, “The country has reached a tipping point where optimism is being replaced with frustration and dissatisfaction with the lack of progress on all fronts.” Tobias Ellwood, the British member of Parliament who drafted the report, said NATO forces are “unable to contain or reduce the Taliban threat, and the Afghan government is increasingly seen as inept and corrupt. … Life for the average Afghan seems no more prosperous, no more optimistic in outlook and no less dangerous than five years ago.”
One of the military handicaps is that NATO’s forces are divided into those that are allowed to fight (U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch units) and those that are not (German, French, Italian, Spanish, Belgian and others). This lack of political cohesion and caveats placed on the troops means forces are now a two-tiered operation and consequently unable to contain the Taliban-inspired insurgency that is spreading from the southwest.
Support for the forces authorized by their governments to conduct military operations is waning on their respective home fronts. British, Canadian and Dutch parliaments are increasingly critical of the fact their troops risk life and limb against Taliban while others sit in the relative security of their bases. They are prepared to remain engaged for another year or two, but not the five to 10 years the mission will probably require to stabilize Afghanistan.
Allied tactics, said the British assessment, are largely responsible for the deaths of a worrying number of Afghan civilians each week, most of them from airstrikes, “which is damaging the international community’s reputation.”
Dissatisfaction with President Hamid Karzai’s administration is growing, according to all recent reports. “The entire administration is seen by much of the country as corrupt,” the Brits stated. A former ranking Afghan official said Karzai is “so downcast he is consulting a prominent Afghan psychiatrist who once practiced in the U.S.” Most ministers, he said, are on the take from the enormous profits made from the opium poppy trade (up to half the Afghan gross domestic product).
Other conclusions from recent reports released in Washington and London:
-- Unemployment (around 70 percent) is getting worse due to neighboring countries forcing Afghan refugees to return home. Refugee camps and ghettos are starting to appear around the major cities. The population of Kabul has doubled over the last five years.
-- The Afghan police are seen as corrupt at all levels and unable to maintain even a basic level of law and order. Kidnapping of rich Afghans in exchange for large sums of money is now commonplace.
-- The mountains across the southern and eastern border in Pakistan (where Taliban guerrillas fought Pakistan army regulars and frontier corps to a standstill) continue to act as a refuge and launch pad for Taliban and al-Qaida insurgency operations.
-- Major agencies and organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union and the U.S. Agency for International Development, “not to mention the deluge of NGOs that are now established in Afghanistan, all follow separate agendas. As organizations are not willing to merge, a confusing number of newly formed liaison committees and coordinating panels, designed to bring together international bodies and Afghan government departments, has been created."
-- Allied forces continue to fly in all their food and water despite many products now being available locally. More than 100,000 bottles of water are flown in daily from Dubai despite Afghanistan now bottling its own water from mountain springs.
-- To begin to remedy the crisis, some call for an immediate, independent assessment of the general state of Afghanistan (similar to the Iraq Study Group) so as to publicly acknowledge the critical state of affairs and the need for urgent top-to-bottom reform.
-- The British report urged consideration of “preliminary peace talks with the Taliban.”
-- Much of the southwest and eastern countryside is allied by day and Taliban by night.
Cordesman writes, “Much of the current thinking and analysis of the Afghan War repeats key mistakes made in Iraq. … It is a war of attrition in which Taliban and other neo-Salafi extremist movements can win by dominating populations and space and by denying the central government control over wide areas of the country.”
All of this is a far cry from the 440 U.S. Special Forces, led by the CIA’s unsung hero Hank Crumpton, that charged into Afghanistan in October 2001, some of them on horseback, and overwhelmed the Taliban and al-Qaida in three weeks.