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can afghanistan be saved?

The Taliban's comeback is clear. Its 2006 spring-summer offensive produced the most intense attacks in Afghanistan since the Taliban was overthrown five years ago. Here, experts discuss the complexities of the situation and why U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan are doomed unless the Taliban's sanctuary and support in Pakistan is ended. These excerpts are drawn from FRONTLINE's interviews.

U.S. deputy secretary of state, 2001-2005

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Richard Armitage

The current situation on the ground in Afghanistan -- what are we facing?

I think we're facing a resurgent Taliban, one that feels blusty and bold enough to travel sometimes in company or larger-sized units. We've seen recent problems of towns being taken by the Taliban or retaken by government or coalition forces. So we've got a resurgent Taliban probably aided by money from drugs which are grown in Afghanistan.

But this is not just a successful spring and summer offensive. This, as you see it, is a longer-term trend or a Taliban that's gotten a new hold on --

I think they have gotten a semi-hold on things. We haven't moved, in my view, fast enough to consolidate a rather stunning victory. We didn't push enough to get all the instruments of government standing up in a relatively uniform way.

So it's a fault of our inability to stand up a government and institutions in Afghanistan?

Well, to some extent I think it's our fault. It's not totally our fault. Afghans have to be responsible for their future. But I think that the fact that we so rapidly turned our attention to Iraq turned us away from Afghanistan, in my view, a little prematurely. …

I think it's important … [to] see the three nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India interrelated, both historically, but more importantly in terms of stability. I think it's not unreasonable to say that if Afghanistan is not successful, Pakistan cannot be successful as a moderate Islamic nation. And if they're not successful as a moderate Islamic nation, then we're going to be back into the difficulties between India and Pakistan, nations which have gone to war three times since the birthing of the two nations in 1947. I guess what I'm saying is the equities in Afghanistan are enormous for the whole subcontinent, not just for us and Afghanistan.

Author, Ghost Wars

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Steve Coll

The Taliban have a strategy that is very familiar to radical Islamists along the Afghan frontier: patience, political organizing, organizing of insurgency, collection of resources and the mounting of seasonal campaigns that consolidate territory and political support one year to the next.

How important is Pakistan to the Taliban?

The Taliban are utterly dependent upon Pakistan. They're dependent upon its territory; they're dependent upon its infrastructure; and they're dependent upon the links to the outside world, however pressured, that they enjoy through Pakistani territory. …

What is the current situation in Afghanistan?

The Taliban have had a very successful spring and summer. They are demonstrating military and political strength that they have not been able to demonstrate since Sept. 11.

They are organizing in the villages. They are mobilizing attacks. They are using sophisticated tactics that they were not demonstrating before. The geography where the Taliban is showing strength is more worrisome than a year ago or three years ago.

The amount of it?

The amount of it. It now suggests that the Taliban are finding local support, not just in their heartland of Oruzgan and Kandahar, but also in Helmand, elsewhere in the south and along the eastern border with Pakistan.

Like Khost and Nuristan.

Khost, Paktia, Paktika. There have always been pockets of Taliban support in these areas, but the breadth of the Taliban offensive this year is particularly striking.

Taliban still have problems. They can't mass and assemble. Their ability to successfully take and hold territory is questionable. But they are beginning to demonstrate some of the characteristics of the militia that they once were; that is, an ability to organize formal movements in the field, to take and hold at least small towns.

That is a bad sign about the political support that they're enjoying, and also the perception that Afghans in the south seem to be developing about their strength, their resources, their political infrastructure and their inevitability.

There's been a lot of finger-pointing at the Pakistanis for being responsible. ... Is this finger-pointing legit? Is it justified? Or is this blaming the other for a failure of [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai and the Americans?

Both the Afghan government and Pakistan government have done less than they might to stabilize the political situation in southern Afghanistan. Karzai has not been as effective a leader in the south and east as he might have been. And Musharraf has been nowhere near as effective as he might have been in depriving the Taliban of the political and physical space that they have enjoyed as sanctuary, particularly in the last two years.

As to the United States and Pakistan, the United States is beginning to recognize that its project in Afghanistan will fail unless it addresses the sanctuary and support that the Taliban enjoys in Pakistan. But the United States has not yet reached the point where it knows what kind of a new policy it is prepared to carry out in Pakistan and what price for that policy it's willing to pay. ...

Well, sitting here five years from 9/11, are you surprised that we're facing this challenge in Afghanistan the way it's unfolding now?

No, not really. ... I think that convincing Pashtuns in southern and eastern Afghanistan that they want to participate in a new national democracy always looked like a 20- or 30-year project. The problem that I wouldn't have fully predicted is the failure on the Pakistan side of the border to deny a resurgent Taliban the space they need to organize.

U.S. special envoy and ambassador on Afghanistan, 1989-1992

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Peter Tomsen

Can we have success in Afghanistan without addressing the question of Pakistan and the sanctuaries?

I don't think so. I mean as long as the situation is like it is today, where the Taliban and these other anti-U.S. ... extremist Afghans like Hekmatyar and Haqqani are able to use Pakistani territory to mount attacks into Afghanistan, it's going to destabilize the already fragile situation in the country left over from 23 years of conflict. Five years from now, we will be at the same position we are today, or it will be worse. So if we want to reverse this plateau situation or a negative trend that's under way in terms of security, certainly, inside Afghanistan, we have to start with Pakistan. ...

Is there any legitimacy to the argument that Musharraf makes that Karzai and the Americans should stop whining about Pakistan and clean up their act in Afghanistan?

If you looked at the panorama of reasons why things are not going that well in Afghanistan, certainly the violence hemorrhaging out of Pakistan is the major reason why things are not going well in Afghanistan. There are other reasons, and one is that the international community has not done that well in implementing an assistance program in Afghanistan.

There's corruption in Afghanistan. There's the drug business in Afghanistan, which is getting worse and worse. Some say that Hamid Karzai has cooperated too fully with warlords. We, too, armed the warlords, and we stuck with the warlords; we gave them stipends for years after the Taliban were overthrown.

And we ignored their drug-running.

And we ignored their drug-running. So there's other reasons why things aren't going so well. But the most important reason by far is this infrastructure that continues to be fed along the frontier and inside Pakistan. It's been there for 30 years, a combination of madrassas, training centers, religious parties in Pakistan that run them as fronts for the ISI and the generals. They continue to send groups of fighters -- two years ago it was 10s and 12s; now it's in the hundreds into Afghanistan.

So if that keeps mounting -- it's already the biggest problem -- but if this trend continues in the same direction it's going, [if] things get worse in this particular category of problems, I think that this Afghan democratic project is doomed, that once again Afghanistan will collapse into a fragmented state, and that warfare will tear Afghanistan, and it will become a breeding ground for terrorism and a launching ground for international terrorism once more. ...

Senior fellow, Center on International Cooperation, NYU

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Barnett Rubin

Can Afghanistan, the project in Afghanistan, be successful without the United States doing more to address the sanctuaries in Quetta in the tribal areas?

The view of the U.S. military in Afghanistan is that … we can be successful in Afghanistan even without cooperation with Pakistan, but it will be much, much more costly in lives lost, in money spent, and the results will not be nearly what they could be. …

But I'm not sure that's true. I've spoken to any number of people -- former U.N. officials, former Taliban officials, Afghan government officials, Iranian officials -- who have said in one way or another the same thing: Afghanistan will never be stable unless Pakistan wants it to be stable.

So why is it not time, therefore, to be much [tougher] on Musharraf?

It's time to be much [tougher] on Pakistan, and it's also time to address sort of the chronic and deep-seeded issues in the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan which have contributed to this extremely harmful relationship between those two countries for several decades.

And if we don't?

And if we don't, I think that we are in for really an indefinite kind of war, except that what will happen is that probably the Afghan state will be unable to establish in the southern and eastern parts of the country. It will lose credibility.

It's already lost a tremendous amount of credibility; that is, the people in that region -- and I spoke to a lot of elders from that region recently -- do not want the Taliban to come back. But they also are bitterly disappointed in the government, which they say is completely distant from them. And they're not willing to collaborate with the government, even though they don't want the Taliban to come back.

So that means the Taliban are gradually neutralizing the people. Because the people will not defend the government, it will create a kind of political crisis eventually, and then some unexpected event could happen. For instance, we had those riots in Kabul at the end of May. As it turned out, nothing very bad happened as a result of them. But suppose there were riots five times that bad. It's quite possible. It could lead to a real collapse of the government potentially.

Director, Afghanistan National Security Directorate

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Amrullah Saleh

We are seeing a resurgence of the Taliban right now, a kind of return of the Taliban. Why now?

Absolutely not. I won't say this is return of the Taliban, because for the first time in our history, this is a government which enjoys diffuse legitimacy. Undermining this legitimacy is not an easy job for anyone, be it a state or a group, a proxy group or an insurgent movement. They are, however, creating problems in some parts of our country. The reason they are not posing a threat strategically to Afghanistan is they lack vision to congregate the people of Afghanistan around that.

This nation has tasted the Taliban. They were here. They do not, in their vision, promise anything bright for our future. So if we dry up foreign assistance for these groups, they do not have indigenous support in Afghanistan or enough support to undermine legitimacy of this government or to undermine the rule of Afghan government in this country.

But if one just looks at the statistics, you're facing more and more bombings, more and more IEDs [improvised explosive devices], suicide attacks; you're facing more death. The numbers are moving up rather rapidly over the last couple of years.

Absolutely. If you look at the targets, mostly these are soft targets, which means the Taliban have lost hope of breaking the will and determination of the security forces, so now they are targeting the civilians in order to weaken the will of the Afghan people. The more they attack the civilians, they may win a battle for a day, but they do not win the will of the people permanently.

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posted oct. 3, 2006

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