Off Course in Afghanistan

By Chris Van Hollen
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

When President Bush touched down briefly in Afghanistan on his way to India, he was probably the closest he will ever get to the man who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States: Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan along the rugged Afghan-Pakistani border. It was a stark reminder that we have not accomplished our mission of destroying bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Fulfilling that mission and preventing a resurgence of the Taliban will depend on the actions we take in Afghanistan. This is no time to reduce our commitment there.

While the president was in Afghanistan, the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Gen. Michael Maples, was testifying before Congress that the Taliban insurgency is growing and will increase this spring, presenting a greater threat to the Afghan central government's expansion of authority than at any point since late 2001. Under these circumstances, the current plan to replace the 2,500 U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan this spring with contingents of Canadian, Dutch, British, Romanian and Australian troops is a mistake. Given the intensifying Taliban insurgency, these allied forces should augment, not displace, U.S. forces. We should also reassess the administration's proposal to turn over the command of most U.S. troops in Afghanistan to NATO by early next year.

While Gen. James Jones, NATO's supreme allied commander, has tried to play down Maples's grim assessment, it is hard to ignore the fact that the Taliban has stepped up its operations. Last year, attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government groups jumped by 20 percent. Suicide bombings increased almost fourfold, and strikes with improvised explosive devices, a tactic imported from Iraq, doubled. The main battlegrounds in this insurgency are the provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan, Helmand and Zabul, the Pashtun areas that formed the Taliban stronghold.

As recently as Jan. 10, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader who was born in southern Afghanistan and forged a close bond with bin Laden -- rejected a call to reconcile with the government of President Hamid Karzai and publicly exhorted his followers to fight on. It appears that his followers are listening. James Kunder, assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told Congress that in January: a school headmaster was shot in Helmand; 200 schools in Kandahar and 165 schools in Helmand closed for security reasons; and in Zabul, where a campaign of intimidation had already closed all but five of 170 schools, a high school teacher was beheaded. February was also deadly: In a 14-day period, 24 violent incidents and 37 deaths were reported in the media.

Stopping this violence requires forceful action. Until now, NATO forces have been stationed in relatively quiet areas and their role has been limited primarily to peacekeeping, rather than combat, operations. There are real questions about whether NATO will be able to engage the Taliban as aggressively as U.S. forces.

The withdrawal of U.S. forces from southern Afghanistan will also weaken our ability to demand that Pakistan move more forcefully to prevent the Taliban from using Pakistan as a base of operations. Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency has had a cozy relationship with the Taliban, and many in the Afghan government doubt Pakistan's commitment to denying sanctuary to Taliban fighters. If U.S. troops won't pursue them, why should Pakistan's?

Afghanistan's stability depends on strengthening the central government, developing the economy and limiting the booming opium trade. Progress on these fronts requires that the Taliban be neutralized and that security be improved. The anticipated withdrawal of U.S. forces has reportedly already caused some local leaders to hedge their bets with respect to the Taliban. Economic development has been slowed because, as Kunder testified, "our contractors are being targeted, and a number of them have been killed, making it more difficult for USAID to recruit appropriately qualified staff." And the lack of security in southern Afghanistan makes it more difficult to eradicate the drug trade in places such as Helmand, which produced more opium last year than any other province, representing about 20 percent of the world's supply of heroin.

We should never forget that the Taliban came to power in the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent U.S. disengagement from the region. With the Bush administration and political Washington focused on Iraq, many Afghan leaders worry that the reduction of U.S. forces is a sign that we will again lose sight of Afghanistan. We do so at our peril. Let us not forget that the Sept. 11 plot was launched from Afghanistan, and not from Iraq.

The writer is a Democratic member of Congress from Maryland.

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