May 12, 2011

Afghanistan: Glimmers of Hope

THE blast annihilated the back of the Humvee, leaving a smear in the desert. “Every time we venture that far out, we get hit,” says Captain Aaron Tapalman of the US Army, who is responsible for Sabari district in Afghanistan’s Khost province, near the border with Pakistan. The roadside bomb had exploded under the Afghan army vehicle, killing two soldiers and seriously wounding three.

Khost lies across infiltration routes from Pakistan’s tribal areas, but much of the insurgency is local. “Most of the villages just want to be left alone, and some of them are clearly pro-Taliban,” says First Lieutenant Eddie Fox in neighbouring Bak. His outpost is often pummelled by rocket fire. The influence of the Haqqani network—eastern Afghanistan’s leading insurgent organisation—is strong. They are said to have been behind a number of terrorist attacks in Khost and operate there as a mafia. Many local leaders are hedging their bets. “To be frank, we are afraid of both sides,” says a man in a nearby village.

In a place like Sabari, the efforts of the 140,000 troops of ISAF (NATO plus a coalition of the willing) look distinctly unpromising. American forces there are struggling to expand their “security bubbles”—the relatively secure zones around coalition bases. These intensively patrolled patches often cover only a dozen or so square kilometres in the most hostile parts of the country.

Yet for David Petraeus, the American general in command of ISAF, keeping watch on the country from his gloomy office in Kabul, Sabari is an example of where the coalition has finally “got the inputs right”. His argument is that the extra troops ordered to Afghanistan in late 2009 by Barack Obama have allowed ISAF to move into troublesome areas like this for the first time. They have also put the cost of the military effort up to eye-watering levels. The American army alone is spending nearly $120 billion a year.

“No one denies the progress that has been achieved in the security arena in the last six to eight months,” the general says. Certainly the American reinforcements have changed the face of the war. In many difficult areas of Helmand and Kandahar ISAF’s forces have become much more aggressive. A senior NATO intelligence officer says the troop surge, together with an “unprecedented” increase in night raids by special forces against mid-level Taliban leaders, has left the insurgents dazed. Huge numbers of weapons caches have been destroyed, and it is hoped that Taliban fighters attempting to reinfiltrate for the summer fighting season will struggle to win local support.

NATO’s electronic eavesdropping and networks of informants have discovered that some Taliban commanders are afraid to return to the fight, and have had flaming rows with senior insurgents directing fighting from the safety of Pakistan. One piece of intelligence even suggests that Mullah Omar himself, the one-eyed leader of the Taliban, is deeply alarmed by the rapid expansion of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), an auxiliary patrol force supervised by American Special Forces. So far 39 units are up and running and 37 in the pipeline. General Petraeus says there is “no question” that the ALP is making a big impact, although critics fear that this “militia” may inevitably turn on the population it is supposed to serve.

According to the general, some insurgent groups are also increasingly interested in a reintegration programme under which fighters give up their arms in return for an amnesty and some vocational training. But so far just 1,200 have gone through the programme, mostly in northern Afghanistan, with another 1,700 considering it: a drop in the ocean in an insurgency estimated to be 35,000 strong. NATO does not expect local peace deals to have any effect until the end of the year.

Meanwhile, violence is relentlessly rising. NATO analysts predict that 2011 will be the most violent year ever, with incidents possibly up by 30%. Nic Lee, director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, sees “a perpetually escalating stalemate”. But General Petraeus is sanguine about this, too. He attributes the rising level of violence to the fact that the extra Afghan and NATO troops have provided “100,000 more targets than last year”. He also highlights a decline in “complex attacks” involving more than one assailant (see chart). Is it a turning point? “This is something you see in the rear-view mirror, not through the windshield,” he says.

Read the full article here.