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Afghanistan Violence

Suicide bomb attacks and other forms of violence have more than doubled this year in Afghanistan. A U.S. military officer who served in Afghanistan and a journalist who covers the region discuss possible causes for the upsurge.

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    While much attention here has focused on Iraq, there has been an upsurge of violence in Afghanistan the first overseas battlefield in the U.S. war on terror. We start with some background.


    It's been more than four years since the U.S. and allied forces overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan. But so far, this year has turned out to be the deadliest for U.S. forces with nearly 90 American deaths. U.S. Military officials say that's because insurgents have shifted to deadlier tactics. Until two months ago, suicide bombings were relatively rare in Afghanistan.

    Since then, at least nine such attacks have taken place, killing dozens. On Monday, suicide bombers targeted a NATO convoy in Kabul; nine people were killed, including a German peacekeeper. It was the first major attack on foreign troops in the capital in more than a year.

    Yesterday in southern Afghanistan, another suicide bomber smashed a car loaded with explosives into a convoy, carrying westerners. Three civilians were killed. The Afghan defense minister told the Associated Press that terrorist attacks now resemble the violence in Iraq.


    There is no doubt that there is a connection between Taliban, al-Qaida, and some of the fundamentalist organizations in the region.


    In September, it was widely reported the U.S. was considering major troop cuts in Afghanistan. Accounts in the New York Times and the Washington Post said the levels could be reduced up to 20 percent by next spring.

    Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said U.S. combat forces will play a strong role in Afghanistan, even after NATO peacekeepers expand their mission. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has appealed for international troops to stay until the country develops its own institutions necessary for stability.

    Stemming the insurgency is one of many challenges facing Afghanistan's new parliament. The results of parliamentary elections were announced last Saturday after eight weeks of delay. Officials estimate more than half of those elected have ties to warlords or are warlords themselves.


    For more on the situation in Afghanistan we get two views. Ahmed Rashid is the author of two books on Afghanistan and Central Asia, and writes for the International Herald Tribune and the Daily Telegraph of London. Col. David Lamm was the chief of staff at the coalition headquarters in Afghanistan from July 2004 to June 2005; he's now a professor of strategy at the National War College.

    Ahmed Rashid, how do you explain the sudden up-tick in violence against international forces in Afghanistan?


    Well, I think Iraq is part of the reason because there have not been sufficient troops. There hasn't been sufficient funding for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. There has been very little done in the rebuilding of infrastructure, and at the same time there's no doubt that al-Qaida, I think, has reorganized itself. It has got all these disparate groups – the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Chechen fighters, the fighters of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — there's much better coordination between them along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. They are much better funded, they're much better armed. Larger groups are coming in. So there seems to have been a major kind of reorganization over the last twelve to eighteen months.


    Colonel Lamm, do you agree with that analysis?


    Well, I tend to disagree. First, I think that a great deal has been done on reconstruction in Afghanistan. And, secondly, we see, during these times of year, particularly now, an up tick in insurgent violence because of what is normally the traditional campaign season in Afghanistan, which begins in the spring and now with the snows in November, begins to — begins to taper off.

    So as far as the Afghans, their ability to work against the insurgency, they've been fairly successful. They're very resilient, and the thing to keep in mind with Afghans is, in the larger part of this operation, they know what failure looks like. They've lived under the Taliban, and I think that they'll work through this and take care of the problem.


    But Ahmed Rashid suggests a reorganization of the very forces in Afghanistan that Americans went over there to fight. Doesn't the fact that American soldiers died at a faster rate this year than when they overthrew the government tell you that he might be right?


    Well, I must say that if I were in the Taliban or Hekmatyar or another insurgent group, given what's happened in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime, I'd be reorganizing myself. In fact, I'd be foolish if I didn't reorganize.

    We have to keep in mind that the Afghans have been able to play, say, a very moderate constitution. They've had a registration for presidential election. They've had a successful presidential election, a very successful inauguration. And every one of these steps along the way, the insurgents, the Taliban, and other groups associated with the Taliban and these groups have said that they are going to interrupt this process, this political process.

    Quite frankly, they've been very, very unsuccessful at doing that. The up tick in U.S. casualties is in many ways because prior to the elections, the presidential elections in 2004 and the parliamentary elections, we have been actively campaigning in a very offensive manner to locate insurgents and to hunt them down and to bring them to justice, or if they decide to — which this year, for several times, large groups have decided to fight, and essentially, they've died in compounds around Afghanistan to the last man.


    Well, Ahmed, you heard the colonel's answer to your opening brief. There are a lot of signs of progress. The reconstruction team's doing their work — political institutions starting to jell and take hold in the country.


    Absolutely. I mean, from where we started in 2001, of course, I mean, you know, you had a failed state, you had a state run virtually by al-Qaida. There has been a huge advance. You now have a political edifice, as it were, constitution, a legitimate president, and in a couple of weeks, you'll have a sitting parliament.

    Now, what needs to be done is filling in, you know, all the big holes that are lying under this edifice, as it were. In the first instance, I think, you know, reconstruction needs to be speed up much more, especially the building of the infrastructure.

    For example, I mean, there have been no major power stations built in Afghanistan. You have a huge industrial park in Kabul, built by the international community, lying vacant, and oversubscribed by foreign investors who want to come in but lying vacant because there's no power. So you need reconstruction.

    There has been a very speedy buildup of the Afghan security forces. The army is now 25,000 strong. It's performed very well. It's probably performed much better than the Iraqi army has performed so far. But you still have to produce an army of 70,000 men, and this is going to take time.

    So I think, you know, the problem here is that a lot needs to be speeded up. And at the same time, I mean, there is a race against time, a race against disillusionment coming in from the Afghan population, and at the same time a race to prevent the insurgents from gaining ground.


    You heard disillusionment among the Afghan population. Does that create a Petri dish? Does that create a place to hide for these elements that you've talked about reconstituting themselves?


    Well, first of all, we've recent polling data inside Afghanistan by outside agencies, and the U.N., indicate currently, 66 percent of the Afghans agree that their life now is better than it has been, and 78 percent agree that in the future, it will get better.

    Now, as far as building power stations in Afghanistan, I mean, as Dr. Rashid knows, this is a country where less than 1 percent of the population ever had electrification. So we are working as fast as we can. The USAID, international agencies are in there.

    There is no doubt, to reconstruct Afghanistan — and we're not talking about reconstructing Afghanistan. This is the issue. We are talking about constructing Afghanistan, because it is isn't as though the infrastructure was of there really in the first place, except for a few large urban areas.

    So we're talking about a whole scale construction of the country of nearly 30 million people. It does go slow. And, in fact, just the capacity for Afghan and its government and Hamid Karzai and his government to absorb the construction has been difficult. But we are making good progress there.

    And the big key is, it is an international coalition effort that I think in the long run will be very successful there. But it is the long run. We have to stick it out, and it will take ten to fifteen years.


    Before the fall of the Taliban regime, some of the Taliban's closest allies were in the Pakistani security forces, and in the intelligence services. Are they still there? Are they still supporting what's left of the Taliban?


    Well, I think, you know, the Taliban are getting support from elements in Pakistan, not necessarily from the security forces, but what is happening, is that the government is turning a blind eye to those elements who are directly helping the Taliban. For example, some of the Islamic parties who are running the provincial government in Balujistan, which is adjacent to Southern Afghanistan, they are allowing the Taliban to recruit from the religious schools there, their training camps there. That is where the Taliban's logistics and weapons bases are, where they get their food supplies, et cetera.

    There's a drug mafia, which is based both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, who are also helping the Taliban because it suits them to have a kind of anarchic situation; they don't want peace and stability at all.

    So there are, you know, many elements in Pakistan, and as we know, there are extremist groups who are opposed to President Musharraf, who are also helping the Taliban, who are directly fighting for the Taliban. Quite a few Pakistanis have been captured or have been killed by Afghan and American forces inside Afghanistan.


    Is there any room for hope there in those southern frontiers? It's a tough place.


    Sure, sure, it's always been a tough place. And the issue is, because the tribal affiliations, the Pashtun belt goes over the border, back and forth. So the border is really a – it's very porous and tribes live on both sides and it's the same tribes in the Pashtun belt.

    The issue is that the Pakistanis have been very supportive of the overall global war on terror and have worked very closely with coalition forces in Afghanistan.

    Last year, nearly 70,000 Pakistani troops worked along the Pakistan-Afghan border, and prior to the presidential elections. And in fact, the first vote in last year's election was a female voter in a Pakistani refugee camp.


    Col. Lamm, Ahmed Rashid, good to talk to you both. Thank you.