NATO paces Afghan of­fen­sive with goal of gain­ing sup­port

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Philip Smucker

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — NATO of­fi­cers and diplo­mats say they are se­lec­tively se­cur­ing some ar­eas of souther n Afghanistan ahead of oth­ers, hop­ing the con­trast be­tween Tal­iban and gov­ern­ment rule will grad­u­ally un­der­mine sup­port for the Is­lamist in­sur­gents.

Of­fi­cers re­spon­si­ble for “Op­er­a­tion Achilles,” the spring of­fen­sive be­ing un­der­taken by U.S., Bri­tish and Cana­dian forces, say they are in no hurry to drive the Tal­iban from some of the strongholds they cap­tured in north­ern Hel­mand prov­ince last year.

“We will move into th­ese Tal­iban ar­eas at a time of our choos­ing,” Bri­tish Lt. Col. Char­lie Mayo said, when asked why NATO forces had not yet chal­lenged the hard-line Is­lamist or­ga­ni­za­tion’s grip on Musa Qala, a ma­jor town in this key bat­tle­ground prov­ince.

NATO is try­ing to set ex­am­ples of de­vel­op­ment and sta­bil­ity in en­claves al­ready un­der Afghan gov­ern­ment con­trol, Col. Mayo said.

“Word of mouth spreads quickly, and we want to set the con­di­tions for a re­turn to sta­bil­ity across the prov­ince. It is a process of get­ting the el­ders to see what hap­pens and hav­ing them say, ‘We want a bit of that.’ ”

The Tal­iban, mean­while, is tak­ing ad­van­tage of a bumper har­vest of opium pop­pies in its own drive to win pub­lic sup­port. Dur­ing a re­cent drive over some of the prov­ince’s freshly paved roads, un­armed Tal­iban fight­ers were seen in the fields help­ing vil­lagers to scrape the ooz­ing opium paste from the poppy buds.

In re­turn, ac­cord­ing to the own­ers of poppy fields just out­side the an­cient city of Lashkar Gah, they will ex­act a heavy “zakat,” or re­li­gious tax, which will be used to fi- nance the move­ment and pur­chase arms.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials charged with erad­i­cat­ing the pop­pies also have their hands out, th­ese grow­ers said. Hav­ing ap­par­ently sur­ren­dered to the in­evitabil­ity of a suc­cess­ful har­vest, the gov­ern­ment func­tionar­ies de­manded stiff fees for not de­stroy­ing the crop sev­eral weeks ago.

The huge prof­its to be made from the opium trade help ex­plain why a U.S.-funded an­nual $800 mil­lion coun­ternar­cotics pro­gram has failed to re­duce the out­put.

A much-an­tic­i­pated Tal­iban of­fen­sive across east­ern and south­ern Afghanistan this spring has yet to ma­te­ri­al­ize, al­though NATO of­fi­cials and West­ern diplo­mats warn that the Tal­iban should not be seen as a de­pleted in­sur­gency.

Sui­cide at­tacks and guer­rilla ac­tions are com­mon­place across south­ern Afghanistan, even as Tal­iban lead­ers and fight­ers are pre­oc­cu­pied with the poppy har­vest. Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials say they think as many as six would-be sui­cide bombers are lurk­ing in Lashkar Gah alone, search­ing for tar­gets.

The Tal­iban move­ment has solid fi­nan­cial, moral and mil­i­tary sup­port in neigh­bor­ing Pak­istan, where se­nior al Qaeda of­fi­cials have nur tured the move­ment back to life af­ter it was driven un­der­ground in the wake of the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks.

“The Tal­iban’s come­back is one of the great­est ex­am­ples I can think of a rul­ing regime snatch­ing de­feat from the jaws of vic­tory,” said Saad Mohseni, the Aus­tralianAfghan owner of Afghanistan’s largest private me­dia con­glom­er­ate. “The Tal­iban is en­gaged in more of a res­cue mis­sion than any­thing else. They are ad­mired for pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity.”

Mr. Mohseni, like many dis­grun­tled Afghan cit­i­zens, is crit­i­cal of wide­spread gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion and the fail­ure of West­ern and Afghan forces to pro­vide bet­ter se­cu­rity, par­tic­u­larly in the south­ern prov­inces.

The sit­u­a­tion in Musa Qala has been par­tic­u­larly di­vi­sive among Afghan po­lit­i­cal lead­ers. Late last year, Bri­tish forces ceded the dis­trict cap­i­tal to lo­cal el­ders, who promised that they would keep Tal­iban fight­ers well away from their city cen­ter. But the deal col­lapsed, and the Tal­iban moved in al­most as soon as the Bri­tish forces left the area.

De­spite U.S.- and Bri­tish-led mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions else­where in the prov­ince, which have in­cluded seizures of dis­trict cen­ters, Musa Qala has re­mained firmly in Tal­iban hands. Res­i­dents and of­fi­cials said the Tal­iban suc­cess­fully presents it­self as a “pro­tec­tion force” for the drug trade.

The move­ment has also gone to con­sid­er­able lengths to present a “kin­der and gen­tler” face to the pop­u­la­tion. Though Tal­iban be­head­ings of ac­cused “spies” are still com­mon­place, strict rules that once re­quired all men to grow beards and banned mu­sic and television have been re­laxed, res­i­dents said.

Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

An Afghan Na­tional Army sol­dier stands guard near how­itzer ar­tillery guns do­nated by the Turk­ish mil­i­tary at a cer­e­mony in Kabul on May 9. The Turk­ish force, which has 1,1150 peo­ple serv­ing with the NATO-led In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity As­sis­tance Force (ISAF), do­nated 24 how­itzers and re­lated ma­te­rial to the Afghan army, which is re­build­ing af­ter be­ing de­stroyed dur­ing Afghanistan’s years of war.

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