Is NATO losing the Afghan war, as the Soviet Union did in 1980s and the British Empire in the 19th century?
Notwithstanding NATO and U.S. denials, the answer is affirmative. And abundant evidence is provided in a detailed 113-page report released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The author is Anthony Cordesman, CSIS' senior strategic thinker.
The situation in Afghanistan, Mr. Cordesman writes, has been deteriorating for the last five years, "and is now reaching a crisis level." Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen have acknowledged it is now an Afghan-Pakistan conflict "and one lacking in both military and civilian resources. It is also becoming increasingly more deadly for civilians, aid workers, and U.S. and NATO forces."
Resurgent Taliban, the report says, "have turned much of Afghanistan into 'no-go' zones for aid workers and civilians."
The Bush administration reached the conclusion in August to deny Taliban the safe havens they have long enjoyed in Pakistan's tribal belt that abuts the unmarked, mountainous Afghan border for hundreds of miles. But the first raid by Navy Seals into Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) left several dead civilians and provoked a stinging rebuke from Pakistan's new civilian government and the army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.
Promoted by President Bush to the ranks of "major non-NATO ally," Pakistan has made clear its army alone would dismantle Taliban's FATA bases. But the Pakistani army is not welcome in FATA and despite its 130,000-strong presence, has not made much of a dent in Taliban's infrastructure. But the Taliban has inflicted heavy casualties on the army (1,400 killed, 4,000 injured).
The CSIS report also said Taliban guerrillas, "benefiting from a rise in poppy cultivation and safe havens in [Pakistan] are steadily expanding their capabilities and geographic reach."
Titled "Losing the Afghan-Pakistan War? The Rising Threat," the CSIS report documents "changes in the character of the threat and the rise in Afghan and allied casualties." U.N. and declassified U.S. intelligence maps detail the steady expansion of threat influence and the regions that are unsafe for aid workers. Other data show how Afghan drug growing has steadily moved south "and become a major source of financing for the Taliban."
The CSIS report shows the next U.S. president will "face a critical challenge with a war that is probably being lost at the political and strategic level, and is not being won at the tactical level.
"It is clear why the senior U.S. and NATO commanders in Afghanistan are calling for substantially more troops than Mr. Bush decided to deploy this September, and the problems in this briefing are compounded by critical problems in Afghan and Pakistani governance and economic development."
Regardless of the focus of the current U.S. political campaign, says Mr. Cordesman, "these neglected challenges will have to take center stage in the first few months of the next administration. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have advocated moving substantial numbers of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, prompting pessimist commentators to suggest this could be either presidential candidate's 'Vietnam.' "
A harsh winter followed by a drought across much of Afghanistan, a poor harvest and rising food prices, have left some 9 million Afghans facing critical food shortages. In 30 years of almost continuous warfare, farmers in Bamian province say they have never seen anything this bad.
The Maldon research institute in a report on "Sympathy for Taliban in Pakistan" says Tehrek-e-Taliban, the umbrella organization for Pakistan's multiple Taliban movements, "seeks to spread its strict Deobandi interpretation of Islam to all of Pakistan.
Maldon quotes Ayesha Jalal, a prominent historian of Pakistan who recently wrote a book on the history of jihad in South Asia: "They don't just want to control FATA, but want to control the entire country." But these extremists are backed by less than 15 percent of the population, and there is zero chance they can achieve national control. But they can keep Pakistan destabilized for the indefinite future while security forces chase them up and down from Peshawar to Islamabad to Lahore to Karachi.
The nuclear power's new democratic government, backed by the military, looks on Taliban as a greater threat to Pakistan proper than to FATA and Afghanistan. But the two fronts are inextricably linked. And the sooner Pakistan and U.S. intelligence can work together to pinpoint Taliban and al-Qaida targets in FATA, and Pakistani troops are given adequate helicopter lift capability, the sooner tables can be turned on Taliban.
As long as the United States continues unilateral strikes in Pakistan that kill civilians, the battle for hearts and minds will be lost. But there is a major stumbling block to close cooperation — the U.S. intelligence community's lack of confidence in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Back in the early 1990s the creation of Taliban (student jihadis) was inspired by ISI to put an end to the civil war that followed the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. U.S. electronic surveillance has convinced the Pentagon and the CIA that either ISI or former ISI operatives are working with Taliban against the United States.
A still more ominous note was sounded by Russian ambassador in Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov. In an interview with the BBC, he said either NATO countries stop criticizing Russia over Georgia, and refrain from advocating NATO membership for the tiny country, or NATO would lose its air rights over Russia to resupply its forces in Afghanistan.
U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan now number 71,000. France is suggesting the no-fighting restrictions imposed by national parliaments should be lifted. For the British, Dutch, Canadians and Americans doing the fighting, it won't be a moment too soon. But passage is doubtful.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large for The Washington Times and for United Press International.
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