By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 30/01/07):
Overshadowed by President George Bush’s controversial, last-chance bid to salvage American honour in Iraq, the US is mounting a parallel military and reconstruction «surge» in Afghanistan ahead of an anticipated Taliban spring offensive. But Washington is also encountering some familiar Iraq-style obstacles: reluctant allies, meddlesome neighbours, a weak central government and the realisation that time is not on its side.The US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice underscored the administration’s newfound sense of urgency at a hastily convened Nato foreign ministers meeting in Brussels last Friday. «Every one of us must take a hard look at what more we can do to help the Afghan people and to support one another,» Ms Rice said.
«We need greater commitments to reconstruction, to development, to fight the poppy economy. We need additional forces on the ground – ready to fight. And we need to provide greater support for the development of Afghan institutions, especially security forces … If there is to be a spring offensive, it must be our offensive,» Ms Rice said.
It would be as much a diplomatic and economic campaign as a military assault directed at Islamist extremists.
Reversing a recent trend towards disengagement, the US has pledged an additional $8.6bn (£4.3bn) for police and army training, plus $2bn more for road-building, electricity and counter-narcotics efforts. And some of the 3,200 US Mountain Division troops whose tour has been extended will form the go-anywhere «theatre tactical reserve» long demanded by the Nato force commander, British general David Richards. «It will be used where he best wants to make a difference – his force, his choice where he employs it,» said US major-general Benjamin Freakley.
Washington’s Afghan surge is a bid to head off a Taliban campaign, backed by al-Qaida, Pakistani and other foreign fighters, that claims to have 4,000 suicide bombers primed to attack – and comes after escalating violence last year. But it also draws on the Iraq experience and a resulting determination not to «lose» Afghanistan too.
Anthony Cordesman, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Washington had prioritised governance and democracy-building at the expense of development. «The US has grossly under-financed economic aid efforts and left far too much of the country without visible aid activity,» he wrote last month.
«The present central government [of president Hamid Karzai] is at least two or three years away from providing the presence and services Afghans desperately need. In Iraq the failure to honestly assess problems in the field, be realistic about needs [and] create effective long-term aid and force development plans may well have brought defeat. The US and its allies cannot afford to lose two wars. If they do not act now, they will.»
The American attempt in Brussels to squeeze more help out of the European Nato allies, like a similar US-British effort at last November’s Riga summit, appears to have little immediate impact. Lithuania has answered the call. Peer pressure is growing on France, Germany, Italy and Spain, who are accused of falling short in war-fighting and aid.
Ms Rice hinted after the meeting that more European cash and the easing of national caveats on in-country troop deployments might be forthcoming. Talks were held in Berlin yesterday on future EU-wide funding. But there is still no sign of the 6,000 reinforcements Nato is estimated to need.
Real problems with neighbouring Pakistan, where some Taliban forces are based and recruited, and potential ones with Iran if the Washington-Tehran stand-off worsens are further complicating the new big push. Congress is threatening to cut military aid to Islamabad if the president, General Pervez Musharraf, does not get tough with the militants. Continuing difficulties over police training – and sharp disagreement with Mr Karzai over how best to eradicate heroin-related poppy production that bankrolls both the Taliban and warlords in the Helmand war zone – are other significant obstacles.
Whether this latest surge of US interest will decisively improve Afghanistan’s longer-term prospects is an open question. Mr Karzai yesterday reiterated his offer of peace talks with the Taliban. But Ms Rice’s tone is familiarly unyielding. Re-burying the mistakes made in Iraq, she is once again conjuring dramatic black-and-white choices: «This is a defining moment for Afghanistan, for Nato and for our wider democratic community … We must stay, we must fight, and we must win.»