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US Envoy in Kabul to Map out Surge

President Obama expected to decide on size of troop reinforcements for Afghanistan in 'the next few days'

by Kim Sengupta

Richard Holbrooke arrived in Kabul yesterday with the evidence of the lethal resurgence of the Taliban only too plain to see - the debris from a series of attacks just 24 hours earlier in the heart of the Afghan capital that killed 20 people and wounded 57.

An Afghan woman and child walk past US soldiers outside Bagram Air base in 2008. A nationwide survey of Afghans out Monday shows plummeting support for US and NATO/ISAF forces in Afghanistan, and a rise in the number who believe attacks on those troops are acceptable. (AFP/File/Shah Marai) Barack Obama's special envoy is on a landmark visit as the US draws up a new strategy for a country which the new administration has declared will become its chief military focus with the drawdown from Iraq.

However, the assault by suicide bombers and gunmen on Wednesday also illustrated the span of the Islamist insurgent threat across the region with US and Afghan security officials saying the plot was hatched in Pakistan, similar to the attacks on Mumbai, and is likely to have been assisted by rogue elements in Pakistan's intelligence service.

In another echo of Mumbai, the militants in Kabul sent messages to Pakistan "seeking the blessing of their mastermind", said Amrullah Saleh, the head of NDS, the Afghan intelligence service. US officials claimed that the men were likely to be members of the Jalaluddin Haqqani group, which was responsible for an assassination attempt on the Afghan President Hamid Karzai last April, and a suicide bombing attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul last summer.

Mr Holbrooke's remit also includes Pakistan, a country which Mr Obama has privately said "really scares" him with its mixture of a nuclear arsenal and rising Muslim fundamentalism. His envoy met the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore to urge that more should be done to stop cross-border raids by the Taliban into Afghanistan and said afterwards: "We call this situation Afpak. There will be more focus on Pakistan."

But it is Afghanistan which will see the more immediate results of the Obama strategy with extra troops being sent in response to a request by commanders on the ground. General David McKiernan, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, has asked for 30,000 extra troops to join the 37,000 Americans already there. The US Defence Secretary Robert Gates suggested the initial deployment was likely to be about 3,500, with the numbers rising over the next few months.

"The President will have several options in front of him and I think he will make those decisions probably in the course of the next few days," said Mr Gates. "It seems to me a thoughtful and deliberative approach to that decision is entirely appropriate."

Most of the additional troops will head south to counter a growing Taliban insurgency in Helmand, the centre of British operations, and Kandahar, which has a Canadian contingent.

The runway at Camp Bastion, the main UK base, is being expanded to fly in US forces who will fan out into frontier towns such as Garmsir, recently recaptured from the Taliban, for a drive towards the Pakistani border. General David Petraeus, credited with reducing violence in Iraq through a "surge", will be in charge of the Afghan offensive.

The total Western military presence in Afghanistan stands at 70,000 and most other Nato countries are reluctant to commit significant numbers of further troops to the conflict. Britain is likely to send another 3,000 troops in time for the Afghan elections in August and Italy will says it will add another 500. However, countries such as Germany, which has a force of about 4,500 in the north, are unlikely to add more. There is, indeed, a feeling in some Nato countries in Europe that there is already too much emphasis on the military option and too little on civil factors, and that the American decision to merge their counter-terrorist mission, Operation Enduring Freedom, with Nato's Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) is a mistake. One senior Western diplomat said: "Merging the two missions is a big problem. There are German troops complaining for instance that they have lost access to some villages because the Americans have bombed them. Even having 120,000 troops will not solve this. We need a comprehensive policy and what there has been of it is too little, too late."

US officials counter that the military escalation is just one part of the Obama strategy, which also aims to tackle opium production; endemic corruption in public life including people close to Mr Karzai, and the lack of governance.

These particular issues have also led to growing disenchantment with Mr Karzai among the international community and the Obama administration has warned the Afghan president that he may not be Washington's automatic candidate in the forthcoming elections.

In her confirmation hearing as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton labelled Afghanistan as a "narco-state" with government "plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption". During a visit to Kabul last year, Joe Biden, then the Democrat vice-presidential candidate, is said to have stormed out of a meeting with Mr Karzai after complaining of "not getting straight answers". Mr Karzai's supporters now accuse the Americans of behaving like "colonial masters" and charge them with pursuing policies which have added to the lawlessness.

It was thus unsurprising that some Afghan officials seized on a report by the US Government Accountability Office yesterday, revealing that the US military had failed to keep track of thousands of weapons shipped to the country. The report stated that the US military failed to keep adequate records of 87,000 rifles, pistols, mortars and other weapons sent to Afghanistan between 2004 and 2008. There were similar failings with 135,000 light weapons donated to Afghan forces via the Americans by 21 countries and the records of the serial numbers of 41,000 weapons also given to the Afghans have gone missing.

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