Attention shifts back to Afghanistan after bloody year

British soldiers patrol in Musa Qala
REUTERS/Rafiq Maqbool
About 40,000 NATO troops are in Afghanistan, including these British soldiers on patrol last weekend in Musa Qala.

With the violence down at least temporarily in Iraq, that other war, the one in Afghanistan, is about to get more attention. And it’s about time, say Bush administration critics.

The White House has begun a major review of the entire mission in Afghanistan from military to political to economic, both the New York Times and the Washington Post reported last weekend.

“Taken together these efforts reflect a growing apprehension that one of the administration’s most important legacies — the routing of Taliban and Qaeda forces in Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — may slip away, according to senior administration officials,” Thom Shanker and Steven Lee Meyers of The Times reported from Washington.

The Post added that administration officials are worried that “Afghanistan may pose a greater long-term challenge than Iraq” because “growing poverty, rampant corruption, poor infrastructure and the growing challenge from the Taliban are hindering U.S. stabilization efforts.”

Worst year since invasion
And to make matters worse, 2007 has been the bloodiest in the country since the U.S.-led invasion six years ago ousted the Taliban, who played host to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

One sign of the White House’s increased attention is the recent decision of President Bush to begin holding video conferences with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, according to the Associated Press. He already holds similar discussions with the leaders of Iraq, Great Britain and Germany.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, who visited Afghanistan with a congressional delegation last spring, told MinnPost that a new look at U.S. policy was much needed.

“This total re-evaluation of our policy in Afghanistan by the Bush administration makes clear that insufficient resources have been devoted to defeat the Taliban and stabilize this strategically vital nation,” she said in an emailed statement.

“I support a fresh approach by the U.S. and NATO to ensure success in Afghanistan,” she added, “but it will also require that the Afghans themselves have seats at the table and take responsibility for the future of their country. This includes taking responsibility for rebuilding their communities, reducing opium production, and defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”

Following last week’s summit in Edinburgh of the eight nations with troops in Afghanistan, NATO will stop asking members for more troops and instead focus on asking for “more money, aid workers and supplies,” according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. That change in strategy is coming “even though NATO has acknowledged that it has thousands fewer troops than it needs in the south, mainly because many of the countries participating in the Afghan mission refuse to fight in that region or to engage in direct combat.”

About 40,000 NATO troops already are in the country, including 14,000 U.S. forces. In addition, the U.S. has about 12,000 troops conducting counterterrorism missions. Other nations with troops include Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Romania and Estonia.

There has been talk of appointing a “super envoy” to oversee the NATO operations. Daniel Korski, writing in the Guardian in England, speculated that Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader who held a similar post in Bosnia, might be the man.

Korski concludes: “The deal is simple: Europe should boost troop numbers and remove many of the caveats that hamper NATO operations. They should make up the shortfall in training teams for the Afghan army from 23 to 60. But, in exchange, the U.S. needs to recast its counterinsurgency strategy, putting the population’s security first and minimizing civilian casualties.”

Taliban resistance underestimated
How did we get to this point when early on the Afghan effort was touted as a success?

The Australian offers this assessment: “The Pentagon underestimated the resilience of the Taliban, ignored advice to extend the operations of the international assistance force beyond Kabul and refused to listen to President Hamid Karzai’s pleas for more troops. It turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s support of the Taliban. …The effort put into hunting terrorists was not matched by the resources required for nation-building.”

As if to underscore NATO’s problems, Taliban leader Mullah Omar this week taunted NATO for celebrating the capture of a southern Afghan town, saying such a reaction over a small victory showed weakness, according to Reuters.

Behind all policy debate, of course, are the lives of Afghani villagers and American and other troops who pay the ultimate price in the conflict. All one needs to do is visit the Washington Post website that documents U.S. casualties. The latest American to die there was Staff Sgt. Michael J. Gabel, 30, of Matthews, N.C., who was killed Dec. 12, when his vehicle encountered a makeshift bomb.

Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.

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