Copyrighted material


by Ali Gharib

Militancy Spreads to Afghanistan's Northern Provinces

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- "Make no mistake," begins a new issue brief from non-partisan think tank the Atlantic Council of the United States, "NATO is not winning in Afghanistan."

That brief, called "Saving Afghanistan: An Appeal and Plan for Urgent Action," was released Wednesday at an event on Capitol Hill, along with two other reports that call on the international community and the U.S. to "re-energize their faltering effort" in Afghanistan.

The speakers at the release of the reports all showed equal concern that, despite overwhelming U.S. and international military might, things are going badly awry in Afghanistan and that a comprehensive reworking of international strategy there was needed.

"The fatal consequence, all too familiar to those of who lived through Vietnam, is that you can win every battle, but fail to win the war," said Sen. John Kerry in his introductory remarks. "Absent a new focus and a transformed strategy, many of us fear that may be happening again."

Though removed from power early in the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan seven years ago, the Taliban resurged last year, leaving experts worried that a weak central government and misguided international efforts could lead to a failed state that would become a safe haven for the Taliban and al Qaeda.

"Strategy relates to priorities and resources. And it relates to upsetting the opponents' center of gravity," said Ambassador David Abshire, the head of the Center for the Study of the Presidency. "The center of gravity of all this started with al Qaeda and the Taliban. And we've gotten our eye too much off that ball in terms of our finishing the job."

The Center for the Study of the Presidency established the Afghanistan Study Group to assess new ideas in a manner similar to the Iraq Study Group, whose 2006 findings fundamentally challenged the way that the Bush administration was waging the war there, and called for a greater push in Afghanistan to complement the Iraq war.

But the authors of the reports released Wednesday all emphasized a separation of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite their coexistence under the banner of the Bush administration's "global war on terror."

"We ought to decouple -- up here [on Capitol Hill], and in the minds of the executive branch, and I hope in the minds of the American people and our European allies -- Iraq and Afghanistan," said Ambassador Thomas Pickering, a co-chair of the Afghanistan Study Group.

"Afghanistan has hovered too long under the shadow of Iraq. It has its own strategic importance," he said. "If things go bad there the region is affected. Beyond the region, Europe and the United States will be affected. A new homeland for the Taliban is the last thing in the world we want to see."

The Afghanistan Study Group report said that the current separation was insufficient and that there was "an emerging view that Afghanistan and its long-term problems would be better addressed by decoupling funding and related programs from those for Iraq."

Both the Afghanistan Study Group and the Atlantic Council's reports also called for an overhaul of the bureaucratic systems that run the military and civil society efforts in Afghanistan.

On an international level, the groups both called for the appointment of a high commissioner at the United Nations to oversee international aid, reconstruction and civil society improvements.

Much to the disappointment of those in attendance Wednesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed reservations about British statesman Lord Paddy Ashdown's appointment to the post last week at the World Economic Form in Davos, Switzerland. Ashdown -- who had previously been the UN high representative for Bosnia -- withdrew his candidacy, citing a lack of Afghan support.

Similar to the international recommendation, the reports called for the consolidation of U.S. aims with the creation of a special envoy to Afghanistan -- referred to as the Afghanistan czar -- who would be responsible for coordinating military and civilian operations as well as maintaining ties to the international efforts of the UN, NATO and Europe.

Another issue that loomed large in the reports was the re-emergence of the opium trade in Afghanistan. Current figures put the Afghan share of the world opium market at over 90 percent -- accounting for an estimated 60 percent of the impoverished nation's gross domestic product.

"Narcotics, in my view, is the cancer that is eating Afghanistan inside and out," said Ret. General James L. Jones, a former NATO commander who worked on both of the broader reports. "It criminalises the society. It provides the economic incentive for weapons purchases that come back and kill our soldiers. And it defies, so far, any strategic solution that we've seen."

Several proposed solution were discussed at the meeting -- including buying up and destroying opium crops -- where a National Defense University paper called "Winning the Invisible War" on a proposed comprehensive agricultural plan for Afghanistan was released.

"It was absolutely clear for somebody who had been in war and in war zones that while NATO and coalition was never going to lose on the military side, military force could not win," said Harlan Ullman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the lead author of the NDU paper. "It was really the civil sector that needed great repair."

The plan hopes that, using practices from the U.S. agricultural markets such as efficient means of exporting goods, Afghan farmers will be able to turn away from the steady income stream of opium production and towards legitimate agriculture.

Always a hot topic in the region, Afghanistan's relations with its neighbors was also discussed.

The most contentious issue, at the moment, is the problems with Pakistan. The border region between the two countries is difficult to police and is known as a staging ground from which the Taliban has launched its insurgency.

But a slower-burning issue exists in Afghan relations with Iran.

Iran -- which Bush labelled as part of the "Axis of Evil" -- enjoys what Karzai last week called "a particularly good relationship" with Afghanistan. The distinction as a U.S. enemy doesn't seem to bother Karzai, and critics of the Bush strategy in the Middle East point to this as another example of a time when the U.S. should be positively engaging Iran.

"The present U.S. stance of not speaking with Tehran about Afghanistan risks increasing the likelihood that Iran will step up its covert interference as a way of hurting the United States," said the Afghanistan Study Group Report, adding that if the U.S. couldn't talk directly, they should do so through NATO or other international means.

Iran, under a religiously conservative government, is a natural ally in the battle against the opium trade.

"One of the reasons the administration was put off [by the Iraq Study Group] was because it said open up communication. That doesn't mean negotiation," said Ambassador Abshire. "I'm for communication because of the different elements that you want to reach out to," he said, noting that the Iranian population and even politicians have a wide variety of views about the U.S.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor   February 5, 2008   (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.