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Analysis by Sanjay Suri

Taliban Have Control Of Southern Afghanistan, Say Reports

(IPS) -- The coalition forces in Afghanistan could find it easier to fly in than fly out of what is emerging as another trap for them.

The coalition forces, led by the United States and increasingly Britain, have been facing mounting attacks. In the most audacious of these, U.S. troops and others were killed last week in an attack near the U.S. embassy in Kabul, considered about the safest area in Afghanistan.

British troops have been taking more and more casualties over recent weeks through their deployment in southern Afghanistan, following an agreement under which U.S. troops insisted that Britain share some of the hottest frontlines with U.S. forces.

International forces are present in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom supported by 27 countries. This force has 19,000 soldiers, mostly from the United States, supported by special forces from Canada, Denmark, France and Britain. Forces from 36 countries have also been gathered under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which has now been asked to control southern Afghanistan. Its troops' strength is being raised soon to 17,000.

In southern Iraq British troops, who form a sizeable part of ISAF, have had a far easier run than embattled U.S. forces in Baghdad and Falluja. Now it is the southern part of Afghanistan that is seeing the highest violence, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

The Senlis Council, an independent think-tank studying the impact of drugs policies, particularly in Afghanistan, reported last week that the Taliban now effectively controls the southern half of Afghanistan. The report blamed forced poppy eradication for creating a situation that has deprived people of their livelihood and driven many towards the Taliban.

The report also said that faulty development policies were strengthening the Taliban. These policies have meant very little development outside of Kabul, and very large spending on defense and security measures.

The increased volatility has posed great difficulties for the coalition troops -- and for the governments who have decided to send them in there. At the obvious security level the question is how far these troops hold out in the face of rising attacks.

"The answer to that question is really based on whether or not the international community has the stamina, the commitment to go on supporting the Afghan government in its efforts to bring about security and reconstruction," Col. Christopher Langton from the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London told IPS.

"If it has the stamina -- and we hope it does -- then there is every chance that the insurgency will die down as the benefits of newfound prosperity are seen among the Afghan population."

Newfound prosperity? What large numbers of Afghans are seeing is newfound poverty.

Emmanual Reinert, executive director of The Senlis Council told IPS earlier that refugee camps have come up around Kandahar in the south with "kids dying almost every day" from malnutrition.

And the Taliban has pounced upon this situation, Reinert said. "All this is being used by the Taliban to say that when we were there we were maybe hard and cruel, but you could feed the family, now look what's going on. They are more and more providing support, social services to the local population."

And so the coalition forces are stuck with military options to deal with what is primarily a problem of development, or the lack of it.

The strong tactics have failed to reduce opium cultivation; it has in fact risen alarmingly. Several reports suggest that the Taliban could be promoting opium cultivation, while poor farmers suffer.

The stress remains on the militaristic approach to cut cultivation, which has not worked. A United Nations study documents a 59 percent increase in opium cultivation to 165,000 hectares of poppy fields this year.

"Blood money is funding the salary of Talibans' weapons and role of active insurgents actively participating in the trade," United Nations drugs chief Antonio Maria Costa told a news conference in Brussels Tuesday. The UN is concerned that the bumper crop is helping fuel the deadly Taliban-led insurgency in the south.

Costa said: "I call on NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) forces to destroy heroin labs, disband the open opium bazaars, attack the opium convoys and bring to justice the big traders. I invite coalition countries to give NATO the mandate and resources required."

The poppy eradication forced upon farmers is intended to cut the source of heroin supply to the West. The Senlis Council argues that this action is far too precipitate; poppy cultivation could be continued instead under controls, and the crop used for production of morphine and codeine, both in short supply around the world.

This crisis translates directly into both a security threat for the coalition forces and a rise in the strength of the Taliban.

"What the Taliban are using this for is to say to farmers that, on the one hand, we can protect you if you will come on to our side and thereby protect the livelihood of the farmers," Col. Langton said.

"And this is the issue. How do you have a replacement livelihood? Is it a replacement crop, which is very hard to develop, or is it a replacement livelihood of another type, maybe diversify the activities of the farming communities in Afghanistan."

The coalition forces and the government in Afghanistan need to develop new livelihood for dispossessed farmers if they are to succeed. "The Taliban rely on the support of the individuals in the population, individual villagers, individual village elders and the like, and if they move away, there won't be support for the Taliban," Col. Langton said.

But there is almost no alternative on offer to the affected farmers, nor is that a priority. The coalition troops that removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan more than four years back may only have encouraged the revival of the Taliban.

"I think the word 'revival' isn't quite the right word, in that the Taliban have never gone away since 2001," Col. Langton said. "They withdrew into their recruiting areas on the Durrand line inside Afghanistan and Pakistan (the line drawn under British occupation through Pashtun areas earlier marks an indicative separation in the areas under Pakistani and Afghan jurisdiction). So they haven't revived. But I'd say it's resurgence in certain tactical areas."

It has always been the intention of the Taliban to do this, Col. Langton said. "And now they foresee -- either correctly or incorrectly, we don't know yet -- the opportunity for a changeover from the American dominated military posture in the south to the NATO dominated military posture."

This is seen by the Taliban "as a possible opportunity, maybe a possible weakening in the coalition posture," Col. Langton said. "That is probably an erroneous calculation, but nevertheless it is easy to see how they might see this as an opportunity, a changeover where less experienced troops arrive on the ground, troops from countries where the internal debate at home is difficult for the government when it comes to sustaining these operations, unlike with Washington."

The troops are now on a frontline where their government policies mean that the opposite side is getting stronger. And the stronger they get and the more they attack the coalition forces, the more vulnerable their position could become. Afghanistan now confronts a situation where it might see neither development nor security.

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Albion Monitor   September 11, 2006   (

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