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Fierce Fighting Threatens Afghanistan Mission

December 5, 2006 at 4:35 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Today, an increasingly familiar, grim scene in Afghanistan, after a suicide bomber drove into a convoy of foreign troops in the southern city of Kandahar. Dubbed “Bomb City” by Afghans, Kandahar has been the site of a string of suicide attacks unleashed by a resurgent Taliban.

This year, militants have launched a record number of suicide attacks and roadside bombings. According to a NATO estimate, there have been an average of 9.4 attacks a day in recent weeks.

Sixty-five members of the U.S. military have been killed this year as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. NATO deaths have skyrocketed to 50 this year, up from four in 2005.

In an interview in USA Today, outgoing U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry said NATO countries must commit more troops ready to serve anywhere in the country to fight against the Taliban.

The heaviest fighting has been in southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, where American, Canadian and British troops have taken the brunt of the casualties. But Germany, Italy and Spain have committed troops to the mission with the requirement that their forces be limited to operations in Kabul and the relatively calmer provinces in the north and west.

At a NATO summit last week, President Bush called for a full commitment from all member countries.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Taliban, and al-Qaida fighters, and drug traffickers, and criminal elements, and local warlords remain active and committed to destroying democracy in Afghanistan. Defeating them will require the full commitment of our alliance. For NATO to succeed, its commanders on the ground must have the resources and flexibility they need to do their jobs.

RAY SUAREZ: But French President Jacques Chirac balked at the request to expand his country’s commitment.

Meanwhile, a new report by the U.N. and World Bank found that efforts to crack down on Afghanistan’s opium trade are stymied by corruption. Production this year has reached a new high, and 90 percent of the world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan’s poppies.

In another recent report, the Pentagon and the State Department found the American-trained Afghan police force is, quote, “far from adequate.”

Afghanistan after five years

Now, an American and an Afghan perspective. Barnett Rubin of New York University is the author of an article in next month's Foreign Affairs called "Saving Afghanistan."

Ali Jalali was interior minister of Afghanistan from 2003 until last year. He's now a professor at the National Defense University.

Professor Rubin, it's been five years since the invasion of Afghanistan. What's your best description of the situation there now?

BARNETT RUBIN, Center on International Cooperation, New York University: Well, I think that, despite tremendous political progress that has been made in establishing the basic institutions of government at the center, still the people of Afghanistan haven't seen benefits of that.

The government is not really able to provide them with security. They don't feel that their lives have improved adequately. And the Taliban opposition, as well as drug trafficking and so on, has really escalated, so that what we face is an insurgency -- which is on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border -- a government which is really unable to provide basic services to people, and an economy that is increasingly penetrated by drug trafficking and traffickers who actually, as this recent report that you referred to shows, have penetrated with their influence to the highest levels of government and, in particular, the interior ministry.

Taliban threatens stability

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Jalali, the coalition forces defeated the Taliban, sent them packing, ejected their government, set up a new government of which you were a member. You helped set up a new national police force. But what happened?

ALI JALALI, Former Interior Minister, Afghanistan: Well, the Taliban were not defeated; they were removed from power. And failure to address the regional aspects of this insurgency or the Taliban, al-Qaida, actually came back to haunt the whole process of building peace and stabilization in Afghanistan.

Taliban just moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan, to unstable areas in the border areas, Dr. Rubin, you know, referred to.

So, therefore, when they saw an opportunity in Afghanistan, because of the lack of sufficient investment and rebuilding in the country, and lack of sufficient troops to help Afghanistan build the capacity and stabilize the country, they saw an opportunity and came back.

So, therefore, the lack of strategic vision, lack of investment or insufficient investment in troops actually created this environment. Afghanistan made many achievements. However, because of this, some of these achievements are slow now. The progress is slow. Some are stopped. Some are even -- some reforms were reversed.

RAY SUAREZ: You began your answer by saying, "We didn't defeat the Taliban; we just ejected them from power." But where did they go? They need money. They need logistical support. They need weapons. How did they manage to reconstitute themselves as a fighting force?

ALI JALALI: They found safe havens in the tribal areas in Pakistan and also with the war in Iraq. The international terrorist organization, al-Qaida, also thought that they can open a new front in Afghanistan, particularly when they saw that the stabilization process is not going very successfully in Afghanistan.

And because of the government's failure to provide services and protect communities in Afghanistan, a kind of mistrust developed in Afghanistan. People believe that they do not see a change in their lives, so therefore a level of disenchantment prevailed, particularly in the south and east, which borders the Pakistan part of the Pashtun belt.

RAY SUAREZ: Does that level of disenchantment that Professor Jalali just mentioned help keep Taliban alive as a fighting force, Professor Rubin?

BARNETT RUBIN: Yes. It doesn't mean that the people support the Taliban, but it means that, generally speaking, they're not willing to fight for the government, because they don't see the government delivering them security or benefits.

So it means that the Taliban are able to neutralize the population. And we now see that, in some areas where NATO is trying to operate in Afghanistan, the elders are telling them, "We want you to get out, and we want the Taliban to get out."

So the government has -- I think there's a mistake that the United States makes in thinking that just by holding an election you get the allegiance of the people to a government. But, in fact, the whole state structure broke down in Afghanistan, the police, the administration.

And we failed from the very beginning to invest in rebuilding that until it was really too late, and we had this situation where there is no policing to stop narcotics, to provide security for economic activity, making Afghanistan very, very vulnerable to those on the other side of the border in Pakistan who want to destabilize the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, today British troops fought a 10-hour fire fight, Professor Rubin, with UK forces. They still are a considerable force in the field, not the rag-tag bunch sometimes described by people who wanted to dismiss them as fighters.

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, certainly. Of course, that was in Helmand Province. First of all, Helmand Province produces 40 percent of all the opium in the world.

Second, it's a mistake to believe the Taliban were even ejected from power in Helmand Province. They were ejected from the capital or the provincial center, but there were never more than 300 troops in that province. And basically, they just went to the countryside, and they were still in control there.

The United States-led coalition never really made an effort to gain control of Helmand Province. Now, the British sent several thousand troops there, and they are encountering Taliban who are well-entrenched there, who are well-funded, because they work with the local tribes and have revenue from the drug trade, and who have safe havens across the border in Pakistan, where their supporters are actually in power in the provincial governments bordering on Afghanistan.

Regional development is needed

RAY SUAREZ: So if, Professor Jalali, the situation is perilous -- and both you and Professor Rubin seem to describe it as in pretty serious shape right now -- where do you start? And what do you have to do first?

ALI JALALI: I think a new look, strategic look, is needed for the whole region, not only Afghanistan. What was missing in the past was not a very structured and cohesive regional strategy.

There was a strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the regional issues were not correlated very well between these countries. Therefore, the new strategy should include regional dimension, addressing the regional dimension of the insurgency...

RAY SUAREZ: Is that just another way of saying, "Deal with Pakistan"?

ALI JALALI: Yes. Well, I'm not saying only Pakistan. Pakistan, Afghanistan, the whole region, I think we have to take an approach to address all the issues that border these countries in the area, whether it is Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Central Asia, Russia, all these countries.

At the same time, I think the investment should be made in Afghanistan to build the capacity of the government that can provide the services to people, create jobs for people, at the same time build roads, water, electricity, so that people can see that there is a change in their lives.

As Dr. Rubin said, the people are not going to support the Taliban. They have rejected their political vision, their ideology in the past. This does not mean they want them to come back.

However, lack of all these other things force them to either stay idle, not support the government, to be indifferent, or in some cases to support Taliban out of, you know, desperateness.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Rubin, is the 32,000-strong NATO force big enough to address the security situation in Afghanistan?

BARNETT RUBIN: I think it's a mistake to believe that the main way you address security in Afghanistan is through the numbers of troops. Perhaps the numbers should be augmented somewhat. But the real problem is that, even when those troops win a tactical victory, the government is not able to secure the area to bring in police and administration.

And one of the major mistakes that the Bush administration made from the beginning in Afghanistan and also in Iraq is to think that the primary task is military.

The military creates the conditions for success, but unless you can move in with governance and development, you cannot secure the area, and you will not be able to withdraw. And we really failed to invest adequately in those, and that's still the main problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Jalali, before we go, Professor Rubin writes of an Afghanistan on the brink of chaos. These things that you're both talking about, do you have a lot of time to accomplish them without losing the country?

ALI JALALI: Well, still Afghanistan can be saved. Only a comprehensive and joint commitment of the international community can do it, not the kind of disjointed efforts by different countries with different levels of commitment, different levels of resources, and with (inaudible). That's not going to do it.

So Afghanistan needs troops, you know, money, regional approach, and also a comprehensive strategy, and kind of a unified and common vision by all donor countries.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you very much.

BARNETT RUBIN: Thank you.