U.S.-led offensive against Taliban to wind down as NATO takes over


Updated 7/29/2006 1:33 PM ET

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Southern Afghanistan, homeland of the Taliban and hub of the global heroin trade, is spinning out of control.

Islamic militants are launching suicide attacks, corrupt authorities are undermining the central government and a disgruntled population is hooked on growing opium.

On Monday, fixing Afghanistan's biggest problem area falls to NATO, the Western military alliance. It promises to be the toughest combat mission in NATO's 57-year history, and a stern test for a powerful force with surprisingly little experience in fighting.

"A lot of different forces are coalescing to drive the coalition out," said Joanna Nathan, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. "It's not just Taliban. It's a complex alliance of people who don't want to see the rule of law in Afghanistan."

The future of Afghanistan as a Western-style democracy could ride on the success or failure of the 8,000 mostly British, Dutch and Canadian forces that have moved into the southern region. Five years after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime that hosted al-Qaeda, the country is in danger of again becoming an international terrorist haven.

And with the Arab-Israeli conflict raging and Iraqi mired in daily violence, failure in Afghanistan would leave the West in disarray on three of its main battlegrounds in the war on terror.

The credibility of the 26-nation Western military alliance, established in 1949 to deter the Soviet bloc, is also at stake. While it has engaged in peace missions and aerial bombing campaigns such as in Kosovo in 1999, NATO has limited experience in ground combat.

Francesc Vendrell, the European Union's special representative for Afghanistan, said Wednesday that because of the concerns over Afghanistan's future, NATO must not fail. "We are not going to tolerate any kind of haven for terrorists in Afghanistan," he said.

The strong rhetoric reflects growing concern that the multinational effort to bring democracy and stability to Afghanistan is going awry.

Over the past year, Taliban-led militants regained effective control over large tracts of their southern heartland. They have adopted destructive terrorist tactics seen in Iraq and have launched major attacks, this month even managing to briefly control two southern towns — unprecedented during the previous four years.

Another pressing concern is the drug trade. Last year, Afghanistan produced nearly 90% of the world's opium, the raw material of heroin. Much of it is grown by poppy farmers in the south.

Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in Western anti-narcotics assistance, diplomats expect opium output to have increased this year, and say provincial government officials and police are still involved in drug trafficking.

U.N. special representative Tom Koenigs said the insurgency is fueled by international terrorist networks. Other officials say militants include a hard core of Taliban, students from religious schools in neighboring Pakistan, Afghan villagers who are paid to fight, and drug militias.

NATO takes over command of the south from the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition that was deployed in 2001, primarily to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda associates.

The coalition has made strides in quelling militancy in the east, where al-Qaeda leaders are possibly hiding along the border with Pakistan. But it has failed to prevent an alarming spike in Taliban activity in the south.

That appears to be largely because it lacked troops on the ground.

For much of 2005, just one 3,600-strong U.S. brigade was responsible for security for the whole of southern and western Afghanistan, said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Fitzpatrick.

Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold where nearly a quarter of Afghanistan's opium is grown, had just 120 U.S. troops last year. Since this spring, about 4,000 British troops have deployed in Helmand as part of the shift to NATO control, sparking intense fighting.

"We have moved into areas that previously had no real coalition forces and as a result, we've rattled cages of Taliban and drug lords," spokesman Capt. Drew Gibson said by phone from Helmand.

The hope is that a larger NATO force based in the region can stabilize it enough to allow development and better governance that will restore the tribes' faith in President Hamid Karzai's administration.

Vendrell said the job of international forces would have been easier if they had deployed three or four years earlier, but that the enlarged troop presence offers hope that this new strategy would work.

He said that about 36,000 U.S.-led coalition and NATO forces will be in Afghanistan: the biggest foreign troop presence during the post-Taliban period.

An official of NATO's International Security Assistance Force conceded that the fierce Taliban response came as a surprise as its 18,000-strong force expanded from the relatively stable north and west to the south in recent months.

"We assumed we would be tested, especially in the run-up to the handover when we were a bit wet behind the ears," said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

"What we didn't predict was the level of the resistance or the fact that they (the Taliban) would stand their ground and fight."

Military officials say the Taliban have taken heavy losses. According to the U.S. military, more than 600 militants have died in the south in an operation launched June 10 with 10,000 Afghan government and foreign forces.

But the fighting also has claimed at least a dozen British and Canadian soldiers, sparking criticism that NATO is being sucked into an unwinnable battle in a country where the Mujahedeen, or holy warriors, defeated the might of the Soviet army in the 1980s.

Ultimately, success of the mission lies beyond the power of troops on the ground.

Rebuilding Afghanistan requires international aid and concerted action by Karzai's increasingly unpopular administration to fight corruption.

Western and U.N. officials also say for NATO's mission to succeed, neighboring Pakistan must prevent Taliban commanders and militants from operating from its soil — although Pakistan's government, a key U.S. anti-terror ally, bristles at suggestions that it doesn't do enough.

"The insurgency requires safe havens, and they have got one," the ISAF official said, referring to Pakistan.