December 19, 2007 / 10:25 AM / 12 years ago

ANALYSIS-NATO risks losing the war in Afghanistan

By Jon Hemming

KABUL, Dec 19 (Reuters) - The Afghan president says his country is improving — schools and hospitals are being built and the economy is stronger, but problems remain with insurgents.

"The construction of new schools and hospitals ... are the characteristics of our social policy," he says. "Our brave armed forces have significantly developed ... carry out combat operations, smash extremist bands."

But the time is is not 2007, it is 1987, and the president is Soviet-backed Najibullah, not the Western-backed Hamid Karzai. Yet 20 years later, Karzai is delivering a similar message.

Just two years after Najibullah made that speech his Soviet backers, worn down by constant casualties, withdrew their troops and abandoned the Afghan government to its fate.

Now diplomats and the military fear unless something is done to revitalise strategy against the Taliban, Western governments will also lose their will and pull out their troops. Without Western backing, Karzai’s government may not last very long.

"If we cannot show progress in the next year or two, or at least show we are moving in the right direction, we will have serious difficulty in keeping some of our partners engaged in Afghanistan," said one senior Western diplomat.

Six years after the Taliban were ousted following the Sept. 11 attacks, support for the war is waning and Canada, Germany and the Netherlands could withdraw troops by 2010, leaving a big hole that other NATO nations may be unwilling or unable to fill.

HOBBLED

The 38-nation NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is already hobbled by restrictions that mean most European nations only allow their troops to fire in self-defence and bar them from the more violent south.

U.S. appeals for 3,500 more military trainers, more helicopters and ground troops have largely fallen on deaf ears.

The shortage of troops means NATO, in the words of one analyst, "is left chasing the pieces round the chess board".

Some now question the validity of an alliance that won the Cold War, but is struggling against a rag-tag lightly armed militia. Failure in Afghanistan might damage NATO beyond repair.

Afghan and international troops have killed large numbers of Taliban fighters during clashes, but the insurgents are showing no signs of suffering from a shortage of recruits.

The almost inevitable civilian casualties resulting from reliance on air-strikes has led to a growing alienation of the population, especially in the south, analysts report.

Tactical victories, then, are not being translated into the strategic defeat of the insurgents.

"We are winning the battles and not the war, in my view. We have been very successful in clearing areas of the Taliban, but it’s having no real strategic effect," said Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon after a meeting in Scotland of nations with troops in Afghanistan.

HARSHER ENVIRONMENT

The harsher security environment has also curtailed the ability of U.N. agencies and NGOs to deliver humanitarian assistance, the United Nations said this week.

Waking up to the prospect of losing a campaign that was declared won six years ago, the United States and NATO have ordered a series of reviews of policy in Afghanistan.

Washington is also pushing for a civilian ‘super-envoy’ to lead and coordinate NATO and U.N. efforts in Afghanistan. Former Bosnian envoy Paddy Ashdown is widely tipped for the post.

"Wherever you look in Afghanistan, the signs are bad, but there is a growing awareness of what the remedies are," said another senior Western diplomat.

The question is whether those plans can work and the West does not end up withdrawing troops as the Soviets did before.

While Najibullah’s government held out for another three years after the Soviet pullout, Afghanistan endured a civil war that killed tens of thousands and made millions refugees.

"It is now like 1984-85, we have lost the countryside, Afghans cannot work for us because it is too dangerous for them, and in the next couple of years, allied countries will start dropping out and then it will be the end," said Kees Rietveld, a consultant working on Afghanistan for more than 20 years. (Editing by Alex Richardson and Jerry Norton)

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