January 03, 2011

Agreement in Afghanistan Offers Hope

Influential local elders in one of southern Afghanistan's deadliest regions have agreed to stop insurgent attacks and to expel foreign militants from their area, raising hopes that a growing number of civilians are turning on the Taliban and supporting Afghan and coalition forces.

"We are cautiously optimistic of this agreement and will monitor whether it leads to reduced insurgent influence and a rejection of illicit activity," Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commander of forces in southwest Afghanistan, said in a statement.

The agreement centers on Sangin, one of the Taliban's remaining pockets of resistance in southern Helmand province, a former Taliban stronghold.

"The insurgents have already begun to strike back savagely at those who desire peace but so far the elders remain steadfast," Mills said in the statement.

As part of a surge of U.S. forces, coalition and Afghan troops have stepped up pressure over the past year to push the Taliban from Helmand.

More than a dozen Marines have lost their lives since their deployment in mid-October in Sangin, according to the Associated Press.

"The fight for Sangin is a tough one," Mills said at a Pentagon press briefing last month.

"Once he loses there, he has in fact lost Helmand province, and he realizes that," Mills said, referring to the insurgents. "So he's fighting a tough battle and a resilient battle against us in that area."

The Sangin agreement invites comparisons to a tribal revolt in Iraq, which came to be known as the Awakening. The movement grew in power in 2006 and 2007, becoming a turning point in the Iraq War.

Led by tribal sheiks in western Iraq, tribesmen joined the police and helped U.S. and Iraqi forces drive al-Qaeda from Anbar province.

Andrew Exum, a military analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said there are key differences in Afghanistan, where tribal rivalries and drug trafficking complicate the enemy situation.

But Exum, who formerly served as an Army officer in Afghanistan, said the agreement reflects the military success that U.S. Marines and British forces have had over the past year in Helmand.

According to Exum, the progress on the battlefield has helped build security and convince locals that coalition forces will not suddenly depart. Those factors were critical in convincing Iraqis to join the Awakening revolt.

Mills said the agreement in Sangin was prompted by elders who approached both Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal and Mills to talk about security.

He said it is primarily an Afghan brokered agreement "arrived at in close consultation with local coalition forces."

Mills said the local leaders were prompted by what they saw in other parts of Helmand province, where coalition and Afghan forces drove militants away.

"They want schools, medical clinics and the freedom to move about without fear of the insurgency," Mills said.

The local elders pledged "that fighting would cease by insurgents against coalition forces and foreign fighters would be expelled from the area," he said.

He added that, "U.S. Marines would respond in force to any attack, and coalition forces would continue to advance into currently uncontrolled areas."