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Afghanistan: More NATO Troops and Trainers Needed to Defeat the Taliban

Securing Afghanistan against the Taliban's cross-border insurgency will take center stage at the NATO summit in Bucharest.

Lagging commitment on the part of donor nations has been a factor in giving the Taliban new life. According to a recent study by the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an astounding 40 percent of the $25 billion in aid that has been pledged to fund Afghanistan's democratization process has not been delivered. And of the $15 billion in aid that has arrived, roughly 40 percent has gone to paying salaries and fees for Western contractors and their employees. On top of it all, officials in Afghanistan admit that they cannot properly account for how $2.5 billion in aid was spent. It all adds up to a sad fact: the Afghan people are being shortchanged. It's not surprising, then, that a fair share have grown disenchanted, and that this disillusionment has provided fertile ground in which a new generation of Islamic fighters can grow, and narcotics trafficking can once again flourish.

Gaps in security and governance at the district and village level have greatly contributed to increased terrorist activity. Insurgency-related violence spiked in 2006 when a new generation of Taliban forces launched large scale terrorist and even conventional attacks against military and soft targets in the south and east of Afghanistan.

In the face of rising Islamic radical militancy, the democratization process has lost momentum over the past two years. More than 4,000 Afghans, many of them civilians, were killed in military actions in 2006, a three-fold increase over the previous year. Suicide attacks -- a phenomenon unknown to Afghans before 2002 -- jumped to 118 from 21. Worse followed in 2007, when terrorist activity experienced another great leap forward: an average of 566 terrorist incidents per month was recorded in 2007, compared with 425 per month in 2006. Of the over 8,000 conflict-related fatalities in 2007, over 1,500 were civilians.

In addition, the past two years have seen the highest number of foreign military casualties since the US-led invasion in 2001 forced the Taliban from power in Kabul. In 2006, 191 coalition troops were killed in action, and the death toll jumped to 237 the next year. US and coalition forces registered several important battlefield successes in 2007, including the elimination of several key Taliban commanders, such as Mullah Dadullah. But US and coalition military efforts have been hampered by a lack of troops and reconstruction resources. This has prevented pro-democratization forces from implementing an effective "clear, hold, and build" strategy in the restive south and east of Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters with sanctuaries in Pakistan have managed to maintain a foothold and influence over civilians.

Now, the insurgency is approaching a tipping point. The rising tide of violence is diminishing the commitment of some NATO allies to combating Islamic militants, and it is causing a growing number of Afghans to lose hope in the democratization process. In March 6 comments in the United Nations Security Council, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon summarized the dilemma, noting that "two years after the adoption of the Afghanistan Compact, the political transition continues to face serious challenges." He pointed out that the Taliban and related armed groups and the drug economy represent fundamental threats to still-fragile political, economic and social institutions, adding that "despite tactical successes by national and international military forces, the anti-government elements are far from defeated."

Without immediate action on the part of NATO allies, Afghanistan's delicate social and economic balance may be upended. If this happens, the country's admittedly fragile democratization hopes will be dashed for the foreseeable future, and the country could easily emerge again as a font of global terrorism.

For the participants at the Bucharest summit, there is no turning back. There is no other option than to make a stand in Afghanistan. And to do that effectively, more troops are needed. In addition, NATO troops need to have "caveats," basically restrictions on their movements and rules of engagement, lifted. This is the most economical option facing NATO. To shrink from the fight at this stage in Afghanistan would be to incur far greater costs, both in troops and materiel, down the road.

It would not take much, in terms of additional troop deployments, to make a big difference in Afghanistan. Just about two additional brigades, or about 7,500 troops, would provide a great boost to efforts to defeat the insurgents. US President George W. Bush has already announced that Washington is ready to contribute almost half that troop total. At present there are about 47,000 troops under NATO command in Afghanistan, along with a 14,000-strong separate US force.

Perhaps most important for NATO at the Bucharest summit is for its European members to rethink caveats that hamper the fighting ability of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Some ISAF participating states believe that the core part of the mission is stabilization and support for reconstruction, and have thus been reluctant to commit their troops to counter-insurgency operations. This argument is merely an excuse for some nations to avoid sending their troops to the restive south and east of Afghanistan, where they are needed the most.

ISAF participating states that opt for human security over protective security have yet to realize that the two realities are inextricably linked in the Afghan context: reconstruction cannot happen without establishing security, and vice versa. That is why the Afghan people cite insecurity, weak governance, a poor economy and unemployment as the largest problems facing their country.

The Afghan government also recognizes a responsibility to do what it can to bolster the democratization. To this end, President Karzai's administration will try to respond to coalition complaints about rampant official corruption in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, US and European officials believe the key to defeating the Islamic radical insurgency will rest in the build-up of a professional Afghan army. US Vice President Dick Cheney, on a surprise visit to Kabul in late March, reiterated that the United States remained committed to battling the Taliban. "But ultimately, security in Afghanistan will depend upon the ability of the Afghan people to provide adequate forces that are well trained and well equipped," Cheney said at a March 20 news conference with Karzai.

Welcoming the reaffirmation of US support, Karzai nevertheless stressed that the government would not be able to stand on its own soon. "We would like an effective continuation of the two missions that we have here," Karzai said. "One is the fight against terrorism. The other is the rebuilding of Afghanistan -- and especially the rebuilding of the security institutions, the army. As it is a gradual improvement on our side, it is also a gradual reduction of responsibility on the shoulders of the international community. But that is not going to be any time soon. Afghanistan will need, for a long time, support from the international community in the rebuilding exercise here in Afghanistan and in the strengthening of the Afghan security institutions."

To hasten the process, the Bucharest summit must firmly commit to providing more military and police trainers to build the Afghan national security forces to reach the targeted goals of 80,000 soldiers for the ANA, and 82,000 police for the ANP by the end of 2009. Specifically, Afghanistan needs more than 70 Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) -- each comprising 16-20 men -- to train ANA units. The country also requires 2,300 police trainers, including force protection, to implement the district police development program currently underway.

Two guiding principles -- burden-sharing and the credibility of NATO as a relevant post-Cold War security mechanism -- should underpin this week's Bucharest Summit. Failure to take action that enhances the fighting ability of NATO forces in Afghanistan could cause bells to toll not only for the democratization process in the country, but also for the Atlantic Alliance itself.

M. Ashraf Haidari is the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC. His e-mail is haidari@embassyofafghanistan.org

Afghanistan: More NATO Troops and Trainers Needed to Defeat the Taliban

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