Thursday, February 08, 2007

They keep on making encouraging noises

You definitely get the sense that the tempo in Afghanistan is increasing. Supreme Allied Commander Europe US Army Gen. Bantz Craddock, along with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, is in Seville today pleading with Nato allies to send more troops to crush an expected Taliban offensive in the coming weeks.

A senior US defence official sums up the situation as it is seen in the American camp, declaring, "We think the upcoming spring in Afghanistan is a pivotal moment in the conflict and we're encouraging the allies to do as much as they can, as soon as they can."

But, while several allies had made encouraging signs about possible deployments at a NATO summit in Riga last November, they had still not firmed up their offers. "What are they doing? They keep on making encouraging noises…," the official added.

That November was a time when even The Sun was in full spate about the need to support "Our Boys" in Afghanistan, complaining that, along with Canada, Holland and a few others, "Our Boys are the only ones actually fighting."

We remarked at the time, that Nato was going through a rough patch and eventually concluded that the organisation was proving as much use as a chocolate fireguard.

The fact of the Nato meeting today is, therefore, of some importance – and was certainly carried by some notable journals like Daily India, which noted "tensions quietly simmering over its (Nato's) future status."

The even also triggered the publication of a broader analysis of the situation in Middle East online by Observer journalist Patrick Seale.

Under the heading, "Afghanistan: The Unwinnable War", he writes that, in Afghanistan, Nato is facing a tough, indigenous guerrilla force and the mission is not clear. "Why is Nato in Afghanistan? And what is it trying to achieve?" Seale asks, then noting that defence ministers of the Atlantic Alliance will be wrestling with these questions at their meeting in Seville.

Not for the British media is there such profundity, however. Still wrapped up in its increasingly unhealthy obsession with the A-10 "friendly fire" incident, it has little room to do its job (not that many outlets are capable of doing it anyway), and no time for reporting such issues.

Interestingly, The Telegraph does find room for an interview by Tom Coghlan of Taliban leader Haji Aghar Mohammad, known by the nom de guerre of Haji Mullah.

This is feature-like material rather than hard news, but it does elicit the intelligence that Haji Mullah was "arrogantly" (so we are told) "dismissive about the British presence in his country." He tells Coghlan:

The British are not such tough fighters. They tend to sit in their bases and not move outside. Even with all the technology they have at their disposal they only control a 2km radius around Gereshk. They have lost control of all the rural districts of Helmand. This area for instance is under our control. You can see that the local people know us.
Elsewhere, the IHT tells us that Nato is beginning to focus on delivering infrastructure improvements and social services to the people with officials saying that, for their mission to succeed, the lives of poverty-stricken Afghans need to be improved so they aren't tempted to side with the resurgent Taliban.

This may be too late, or it may no – we simply do not know. ISAF leaders – in public at least – seem genuinely confident that their forces will be able to deal with the Taliban spring offensive, although to press they have seriously under-estimated the insurgents' capabilities.

Certainly, they can draw no comfort from Col Ljubomir Stojadinovic, a military academy lecturer in guerrilla tactics in the old Yugoslav armed forces. This army was unique among conventional armies because its doctrine called for it to wage guerrilla war and now Stojadinovic takes the view that the spiralling violence has exacerbated tendencies among the government and its international backers to favour short-sighted, quick fixes,

He predicts the insurgency will be tough to beat, blaming both the United States and Nato for allowing it to develop past the initial, preparatory phases and to put down roots in parts of the population. Nato forces now risked falling into "a permanent strategic defensive" because the alliance lacked the manpower to establish physical control over the entire country, Stojadinovic says.

"Despite the overwhelming technological advantage that modern armies can bring to bear, according to classic guerrilla doctrine, the Islamists are winning simply by not losing," he concludes.

The alternative scenario, of course, is that the Nato forces can win by simply staying the course, extending their control first over the major administrative centres and then their hinterlands. But, with the loss of Musa Qala and the failure to gain Jugroom Fort in Garmsir, success looks by no means assured.

For many months, the situation has not been looking good. Now Mr Coghlan's charge of "arrogance" laid at Haji Aghar Mohammad may be even more misplaced. Haji Mullah may simply have been stating the obvious.

Perhaps Nato members should make some more encouraging noises... quickly.

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