'...the commanders see little benefit from negotiations with the Taliban right now, despite Obama's support for such an overture.'Sun, March 15, 2009 - 9:55 AM
MAYWAND, Afghanistan -- Lt. Col. Daniel Hurlbut rolled into this dusty Taliban stronghold in September with a battalion of U.S. Army infantrymen and a detailed, year-long plan to combat the Taliban.
The first quarter was to be devoted to reconnaissance. The next three months would involve military operations to root out insurgents. By now, his unit should have been focusing on reconstruction and building up the local government.
But the battalion's efforts to pry information about the Taliban from the local population -- by conducting foot patrols, doling out money for mosques to buy new prayer rugs and offering agricultural assistance to subsistence farmers -- have been met with indifference, if not downright hostility.
The southern part of the country is now regarded by U.S. and NATO commanders as the central front in the Afghan war. It encompasses the nation's second-largest city, Kandahar, and six provinces where the Taliban has built a significant degree of popular support, in part through intimidation but also by delivering Afghans a degree of security against criminals that the local police and international forces have been unable to provide.
The new strategy here involves a major -- but controversial -- push to better coordinate the efforts of NATO troops deployed in the south, a new focus for counternarcotics operations and the allocation of more troops to train Afghan security forces. It also seeks to apply a fundamental tenet of the U.S. Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine: Deploy the troops to create zones of security around population centers instead of mounting in-and-out raids against the insurgents.
Unlike in eastern Afghanistan, where the U.S. military had been concentrating its troops since 2002, American units in the south will be forced to work far more closely with other NATO forces. The new U.S. troops will find themselves in a swath of the country that is the epicenter of opium poppy cultivation and where far fewer resources have been devoted to reconstruction and development. And they will be forced to deal with a deep-rooted, indigenous insurgency -- the Taliban got its start in the south -- that has mounted increasingly potent attacks on civilians and security forces.
What the new strategy does not seek to do, however, is to borrow a page from the U.S. playbook in Iraq by creating tribal militias to fend off the Taliban. Commanders here said that approach could create even more warlords and new intratribal feuds. And the commanders see little benefit from negotiations with the Taliban right now, despite Obama's support for such an overture.
Military officials regard the Taliban, composed largely of ethnic Pashtuns, as both too strong and too fragmented in the south to pursue an effective deal, although they remain open to the possibility in the east, where some tribal leaders who have supported the insurgency could be persuaded to switch sides.
When NATO forces were deployed to the south in 2006, the Canadians were assigned the province of Kandahar, the British got Helmand, and the Dutch were sent to Uruzgan. The three nations developed their own battle plans and agendas for development. They established provincial reconstruction teams that report to their capitals, not the NATO regional command at the Kandahar airport.
People at the regional command now joke that the three provinces should be renamed Canadahar, Helmandshire and Uruzdam.
"It's a totally dysfunctional way of fighting a war," said a U.S. officer in the south. "You've got each of these guys doing their own thing in their provinces with very little coordination."
The fractured approach is a result of demands imposed by NATO members as a condition of sending troops to Afghanistan. Each nation wanted its own chunk of the action so it could show off what it had accomplished.
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