Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Dec 3, 2014

Afghan fiasco Alarming media reports about the critical shortage of weapons, ammunition and equipment in the Afghan security forces underline the precariousness of the situation the country is being left in on the eve of the withdrawal of the bulk of the US-led NATO forces by end-December. One police chief in Sangin district of Helmand province in the southwest of the country, known to be one of the toughest Taliban-infested areas, bemoaned his inability to hand out grenades to all his officers. He said Taliban attacks could only be beaten back if and when the army supported them, otherwise they were helpless. Considering the US has poured $ 61 billion in building and training security forces numbering some 350,000 men, this is a failure to plan properly for a time when Afghanistan will largely have to stand on its own feet, which is now upon us. Police and Afghan National Army (ANA) units deployed in remote or insurgent-infested areas are particularly vulnerable. That vulnerability is bound to increase (and perhaps spread into areas considered more firmly under the government’s control) once western military and economic aid dwindles post-withdrawal, and particularly after western air power is no longer available to back up anti-Taliban operations. Already, the problem is underlined by the fact that 4,600 security forces personnel have been killed in Taliban attacks this year. Afghanistan’s east, southeast and southwest are the most vulnerable areas as they are traditional Taliban strongholds (the first two have the added advantage for the Taliban of access to Pakistani soil across the border). But by now the Taliban have spread into and established their deadly presence in many other areas hitherto considered relatively stable, like the north of the country. After 13 years of the longest war in the US’s history, the balance sheet of the campaign does not inspire confidence. In response to criticism that President Barack Obama’s administration is about to repeat the blunder of a premature withdrawal from Iraq, Washington is trying to hedge its bets. The remaining US troops who will remain as part of the 12,500 NATO force after December have recently been freed up by the US President to engage the Taliban if necessary. However, most analysts, including Afghans, are apprehensive that the withdrawal of air support will make the fight against the Taliban that much tougher. General John Campbell, commander of the western forces in Afghanistan, has tried to reassure the critics by saying limited close air support would be available next year and new aircraft for the Afghan Air Force are in the pipeline. However, that will take three to four years, by which time it may all be over bar the shouting. The planning of the western occupying forces has suffered from some glaring flaws since 2001. Poppy cultivation was not touched for fear of sparking off a general revolt by farmers without alternatives. The result: Afghanistan today supplies 90 percent of the world’s heroin today and this illicit trade fills the coffers of the Taliban and local warlords, continuing if not exacerbating the country’s troubles. The facts stated above point to hesitation in creating a truly effective ANA and security forces, dogged as the project’s heels were by Taliban sympathisers’ ‘blue-on-green’ attacks (members of the Afghan security forces attacking western soldiers). The most glaring gap is obviously in giving the ANA air capability, both jets and helicopters, in order to combat the tough fighters of the Taliban. These and other, economic facts, highlight the absurdity of the whole notion of ‘nation building’ under foreign occupation. Be all that as it may, the US-led west is leaving President Ashraf Ghani holding the baby. He intends to shake up the ANA and the security forces by getting rid of deadwood and promoting commanders who are capable of fulfilling the task of overcoming the Taliban. President Ghani’s main focus for now is on five provinces, Kunduz and Baghdis in the north, Ghazni and Nangarhar in the east bordering Pakistan, and Helmand in the south. The proposed changes will be rung in first in these provinces over the next 2-3 months. Once this phase of the shake up is over, President Ghani will have to turn his attention to Paktia, Paktika and Kunar provinces in the east, which border Pakistan and are considered the stronghold of the deadly Haqqani network that is reportedly hosting the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Mulla Fazlullah on Afghan soil. As this listing indicates, President Ghani has his work cut out for him. But it also shows that past suspicions aside, Afghanistan and Pakistan are converging on the terrain of fighting a common enemy: terrorism.

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