A Fight in Afghanistan

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

THE HEAVY fighting in Afghanistan during the past week, in which more than 300 people have died, may seem like a sudden eruption to many Americans -- who tend to assume the war there ended, more or less, years ago. In fact, the conflict has been building for some time. Casualties in Afghanistan increased by about 20 percent in 2005, driven by new insurgent tactics such as suicide bombings. As winter waned this year, Taliban fighters were reported to be moving in large numbers into southern Afghan provinces. That movement coincided with the deployment to the region of a new NATO force of 6,000 troops with a mandate to extend government control and take over counterinsurgency operations conducted until now by U.S. forces.

The result is a crucial battle for control of the south -- crucial for both Afghanistan and NATO. A decisive defeat of the Taliban offensive could help consolidate a still-fragile democratic government, and it could validate NATO as a military alliance capable of tackling the security challenges of the 21st century. The Taliban, however, is betting it can prove the reverse: that the new Afghan political order is unworkable and that NATO is a paper tiger that cannot substitute for the U.S. troops being withdrawn.

The first results have been encouraging. Canadian and British troops have fought to clear a Taliban-infested area just 15 miles from the southern city of Kandahar; with U.S. air support, scores of enemy fighters have been killed and several senior commanders captured. A Canadian and two French soldiers have been among those killed in recent fighting, along with one American, who was the 37th to die in Afghanistan this year. Though the appearance of relatively large Taliban formations is itself an alarming sign of the movement's revival, any expectation by its commanders that they could roll over the new NATO units has been shattered.

The Afghan fighting season, however, is only beginning, and many reports suggest that much of the rural south is now infiltrated by the Taliban. While Canadian and British units have performed well, others have yet to be tested -- including some from countries that intend to limit their mission to peacekeeping and reconstruction. Given the scale of the military challenge, the planned withdrawal of 3,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan this summer looks increasingly risky.

If the Taliban offensive is to be turned back, the Afghan government and its NATO allies will need some success beyond the battlefield. As Afghan President Hamid Karzai bluntly pointed out last week, the Taliban high command continues to use Pakistan as its main base. The movement cannot be defeated unless it is deprived of that sanctuary -- but Pakistan's ruling military, a former Taliban sponsor, has failed to act decisively against it. The Taliban is also supported by Afghanistan's booming trade in poppies, the raw material of opium, which means more aggressive action is needed against this billion-dollar industry. Finally, the Bush administration needs to press for more economic reconstruction in the south, which has had little improvement since the entry of Western forces nearly five years ago. The U.S.-led effort to transform this onetime base of al-Qaeda is far from over; in fact, it is still just beginning.

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