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Drug Conflict Complicates Violence Between NATO, Taliban

May 31, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The twin-rotored Chinook troop transport helicopter, similar to this one, was shot down last night. The chopper had just dropped off an assault team from the 82nd Airborne. The seven killed on board, including the five-member American crew, were part of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, the NATO-led stability mission in Afghanistan.

MAJ. JOHN THOMAS, U.S. Air Force: After the crash, a unit went into the crash scene and received small-arms fire from an ambush from the enemy. It was a hostile area where the helicopter went down, and initial indications are that enemy fire may have brought down the helicopter.

RAY SUAREZ: That hostile area is Helmand province, a large southern Afghan state. It’s become a readout of the revived Taliban movement, which claimed responsibility for the helicopter shoot-down. Sixteen Afghan policemen were killed hours later in a Taliban-led ambush in nearby Zabul province.

The Taliban has stepped up its attacks over the last year, leading to increased counterinsurgency operations by NATO forces. Most of the combat operations and casualties are borne by American, Canadian, British and Dutch troops.

Seventy-five coalition troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year. Their operations have encountered both successes and setbacks. Some have provoked growing tensions with the Afghan government and population because of civilian casualties.

The biggest controversy came in early March. A U.S. Marine Corps special operations company came under fire and, in the chaotic aftermath, the Marines allegedly killed at least 19 Afghan civilians. More than 30 other civilians were wounded. Major protests ensued; the Marine unit was ordered out of the country by its commanding general later in March.

Earlier this month, an American Army colonel offered an apology for the Marines’ actions, broadcast on Afghan television.

COL. JOHN NICHOLSON, U.S. Army: … the death and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hand of Americans is a stain on our honor and on the memory of the many Americans who have died defending Afghanistan and the Afghan people.

RAY SUAREZ: Other incidents, including wayward U.S. air strikes, have killed more than 100 additional civilians. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has publicly denounced the civilian killings, and America’s NATO partners have voiced concern the deaths make the work of counterinsurgency even harder.

The Taliban’s operations are funded in part by the illegal poppy trade. Poppy plants are used to produce both opium and, with further refinement, heroin. More than 90 percent of the world’s crop came from Afghanistan last year, and this year promises a similar abundant harvest, leading Afghan and U.S. officials to put poppy eradication near the top of a long list of vital projects for the war-torn country.

Helicopter attack's significance

Seth Jones
RAND Corporation
We have to look at is the level of attacks and where the attacks are happening. If we look down into the area of Helmand province ... this is an area where there is a pretty serious Taliban penetration.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on all of this, we get two views. Ronald Neumann was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 until last month. He had a 37-year career in the Foreign Service. Seth Jones is a political scientist at the Rand Corporation and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He returned from his 12th trip to Afghanistan earlier this year.

And, Professor Jones, looking at that attack and the downing of the helicopter, either by itself or in the context of the wider fight in Afghanistan, is it a significant event?

SETH JONES, Rand Corporation: I think it is significant in one sense. It does show that the Taliban has the capability to conduct pretty significant RPG attacks.

It's not the first time they've conducted these attacks against American helicopters. They did in the 2002 during Operation Anaconda. They did in June 2005, in the Kunar province, killing about 17 Americans. But it does show that they continue to have very significant capabilities to attack not just ground forces, but also through the air.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador, what do you make of it?

RONALD NEUMANN, Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan: I think I would put it a little lower on the gamut of significance. It's a tragedy, obviously, for the people involved, but, from time to time, we lose a helicopter to ground fire. Strategically, militarily, I don't find much significance in it.

RAY SUAREZ: What about as part of a coordinated operation, where right after the downing an attack was launched on the recovery operation trying to reach the men at the site?

RONALD NEUMANN: Well, since it came from hostile ground fire, I don't find it very surprising that you had hostile people on the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: So it doesn't signal any tactical sophistication, in your estimation?

RONALD NEUMANN: I don't think so. I mean, the RPG is a weapon that's been around for a long time. You know, we've lost helicopters to RPG fire before. It happened when I was there.

Helicopters are great weapons but, like any other weapons system, they have vulnerabilities, and particularly when they're in insertion or just taking off. They're vulnerable to small-arms fire. But I don't see it as causing any particular change in operations.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, you agree there's no real signal that the Taliban is becoming a more able fighting force?

SETH JONES: Well, I think the real issue that we have to look at is the level of attacks and where the attacks are happening. If we look down into the area of Helmand province, especially the northern area, around Musa Qala, Sangin, where this attack took place, this is an area where there is a pretty serious Taliban penetration.

And I would then argue that, to understand this in its broader context, there is a Taliban penetration of the south of Afghanistan, and there are concerns also that there's been a recent spread a little bit towards the west, at Herat province.

But I think what's important to note, though, is that there has been a major Taliban penetration over the last few years in this particular area, but also sort of broader in the south.

Significance of attack location

Ronald Neumann
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan
Two of the things we've looked at over the last year ... are breaking through big institutional blockages in roads and power, because, without those, you're just not going to revitalize the world economy.

RAY SUAREZ: The Kajaki dam is nearby where this attack happened. Why is that significant, Mr. Ambassador?

RONALD NEUMANN: That is the location where you have a large dam, which we built in the '60s, a small hydroelectric station now, and a large project to increase the power output of that dam. That will bring cheaper power to both Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

This is part of a key issue in Afghanistan. You've got to have power. You can't talk about processing agricultural products when you're hauling diesel fuel by truck from Pakistan or Iran and paying six times what the competition is paying for their electrical price.

So two of the things we've looked at over the last year, and really reoriented the aid program toward, are breaking through big institutional blockages in roads and power, because, without those, you're just not going to revitalize the world economy. And roads are critical, as is power, to everything.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Professor, I guess you can't convince the civilian population in an area without rural electrification, that having you there is much good?

SETH JONES: That's exactly right. If you look at the recent public opinion polls in Afghanistan from the Asia Foundation, from the State Department, from a variety of other locations, there's a clear indication that the Afghan population in the south, their primary grievances against the government are due to issues like the lack of electricity, road transportation, water that has gotten into rural areas of the country.

So I think the Kajaki Dam then is a very -- it's very strategically important for the NATO counterinsurgency effort, because if that dam gets up and running and is able to get significant amounts of electricity to rural and urban areas, that's a big NATO strategic victory.

Taliban's influence

Ronald Neumann
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan
There is a serious Taliban problem; I'm not trying to make light of that, that this is the area of the most contested fighting. But it's also an area where you have a NATO counteroffensive and where that is making some ground.

RONALD NEUMANN: Could I go back to one thing that Seth was talking about a minute ago?


RONALD NEUMANN: Because I think it is absolutely correct that the Taliban has a major presence in the south; that's where fighting erupted the last two years. I think there's two things I would just like to add.

One is that, last year, we had the heaviest fighting in Kandahar. Now, there's still areas of Kandahar that are very dicey, but where we had the heaviest fighting last year, an area called Panjwai, an area never controlled by the Soviets in their period with a lot more forces, you now have comparative quiet with a rather small force of Canadians and Afghans there. And this is a product not just of the military operation, but of bringing economic development and political involvement into that area.

Where you're fighting now in Helmand is an area where, earlier this year, Mullah Dadullah Lang, one of the principal Taliban commanders, basically said, "We've got Helmand. We control most of it. We're going to take the rest of it. We're going to roll forward." Well, they didn't roll forward. The offensive that he said was going to be bigger than last year is smaller than last year.

Sangin is a critical area taken back by NATO, but where you've still got major political issues you've got to deal with. And we've killed Dadullah.

So there is a serious Taliban problem; I'm not trying to make light of that, that this is the area of the most contested fighting. But it's also an area where you have a NATO counteroffensive and where that is making some ground.

The biggest pieces that we have to deal with there are not the conventional fighting. NATO can go pretty much anywhere. It's the need, first of all, to bring Afghan security forces in to hold, as well as help take, and the need to engineer political solutions. And that's...

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Jones, how do you respond to the ambassador's point that the promised Taliban offensive for this season of the year didn't amount to as much as was feared?

SETH JONES: Well, I think there are two possible reasons for this. One is, as Ambassador Neumann said, I think there was an effort at the end of last year, the end of 2006 and early 2007, NATO to take preemptive actions against the Taliban, especially in that area of northern Helmand, in the Musa Qala area.

But I think there is a second little bit more disturbing trend, too, in some areas of the rural south, also potentially the west, and a little bit of the east, which is that the Taliban in some areas has actually not needed to go what we call kinetic. That is, they haven't needed to use military force to take areas.

What they've done is they've threatened populations or, in some cases, they've used grievances among the Afghan population there to secure some allies. So part of this may actually be something that is even more disturbing, which is they haven't needed to use military force, and therefore the absence of force shouldn't be taken necessarily as a victory but as sort of deep concern in some areas and some pockets.

Ambassador Neumann mentioned the area around Panjwai and Zhari districts in Kandahar where the Canadians have been fighting and doing reconstruction work, but there are huge areas of the province where Canadian forces have not been at all and where they report major Taliban infiltration.

Progress in Afghanistan?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what do you make of that piece of analysis, that part of the explanation for the lull is that the Taliban doesn't have to fight because they're so clearly in control of the areas where they're at home?

RONALD NEUMANN: I'm not quite sure that's what Dr. Jones said, but I think, first of all, if the bottom line is insurgencies are really complicated, yes, I don't think we have a disagreement on that. You have to get down to a pretty low level of detail, which will probably confuse the bejesus out of everybody else that's trying to make sense of it.

RAY SUAREZ: And we don't have time for that today, either.

RONALD NEUMANN: But, you know, take Sangin. Yes, you have an area there which has been fought over. You have an area of a lot of discontent. You have an area of a lot of misgovernment. You've got four tribes. They all are on the outs with each other. Three pick on the fourth, which has closer ties to the Taliban partly as a result.

You have to have a fairly sophisticated Afghan-led political process to reconcile those differences, to create a basis for real stability. Now, they've started. The governor has been up there. President Karzai has been to Helmand.

I can't tell you, as we sit here tonight, whether that will be good enough or not. I don't think we have a disagreement here in the necessity for that kind of process. But this is a really complicated piece of work that's got to go on the military level, it's got to go on the political level. We can win the military fight.

And I would agree on the other -- we did some very interesting intelligence work a year ago of Taliban captives. And the reasons for being in the fight were tribal differences, resentment about some government mishandling, which was close to tribal, and money. Ideology came way down fourth.

The bad news is, you've got a lot of things that the Taliban can build on. The good news is, you can deal with those issues.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador, Professor Jones, thank you both.


SETH JONES: Thank you.