Top Commander in Afghanistan Doubts Taliban Ever Defeated

How bad is the situation in Afghanistan?

So bad that U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, doubts the Taliban were ever defeated in the first place by the 2001 invasion. The invasion that the American, Afghan, and Pakistani officials once described as a success and the Taliban as a “spent force”.

“The question is, were they ever defeated, and I don’t think they ever were,” McNeill said.

McNeill is quoted in a story by the Washington Post that reports of an emboldened Taliban carrying out more attacks with a greater reach – right up to provinces ringing Kabul, the Afghan capital.

After six years of the United States being distracted by Iraq, the Taliban is gaining the advantage and the U.S. doesn’t have the strength nor resources to stop them.

Fighting and holding ground “is a problem for us,” McNeill said. “We’re not all the force we should be, both in size and capability.” Boosting Afghan army and police forces is a key goal because indigenous forces typically are the most effective in fighting a counterinsurgency, he said.

McNeill seems to stating that the US and its NATO allies do not have enough troops in Afghanistan (about 35,000) to hold territory taken from the Taliban. If I didn’t know any better, I would think McNeill was asking for more troops, but instead he probably knows that will fall on the deaf ears of the Commander in Chief Guy. So, instead, the hope is that the weaken Afghan government will be able to muster a large enough army and police force to be able to stand up to the Taliban and stop them.

What does Afghanistan think about the U.S. plan to Afghanize the war? Apparently not much and neither does the United Nations. According to Bloomberg news, the UN is advocating talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and President Hamid “Karzai said earlier this week his government is encouraging Taliban rebels not linked with the al-Qaeda network to join a process of national reconciliation.” The problem is determining just who is linked to al-Qaeda and who is not.

BBC News reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is “keen to promote reconciliation” with the Taliban and the Afghan government “is putting out feelers, trying to work out whether there is a genuine desire for contact among the central leadership of the Taleban.” And, really despite the optimism of Gen. McNeill, “senior officials at NATO and the UN say they are interested in the idea of formal discussions between the government and the Taleban, provided that the Afghan constitution is respected.”

The Bush administration is softening its ‘no talks with terrorists’ line too. In his recent visit to Afghanistan, Deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte said, “We would think that this proposal for talks should be handled in such a way by the government of Afghanistan… that it does not in any way undermine or prejudice all the important political, social and economic accomplishments that have occurred in this country since 11 September 2001.”

And is it any wonder that everyone now seems willing to negotiate with the Taliban? According to the UN, the rebels control seven out of 12 districts the Helmand province, the Taliban’s stronghold area in southern Afghanistan. And according to the Washington Post story, the Taliban’s surge has increased attacks more than 80 percent in June and July from the same period last year.

Analyses by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a project funded by the European Commission to advise private aid groups about security conditions across the country, found “a significant monthly escalation in conflict” in the first half of the year. Attacks by armed opposition groups increased from 139 in January to 405 in July, according to the project’s director, Nic Lee.

Every month there’s a 20 to 25 percent increase in offensive activity,” he said, adding that attacks in June and July were 80 to 90 percent higher than the same period last year, showing a general escalation in the conflict, rather than seasonal fluctuations.

“Attacks have spread across the entire southeast border area, with a rapid escalation in the east, and in the last four months in the center” around Kabul as well, Lee said. “These guys have the strategic intent to take back the country.”

Gen. McNeill surmises that the increase in attacks isn’t so much the doing of the Taliban or other insurgents, “but more likely was related to criminal activity, narcotics trafficking and tribal disputes. And in some cases, he said, levels of conflict are up because more NATO, U.S. and Afghan forces are pushing into areas of the country where they had never operated. There are an estimated 50,000 international troops here, about half of them American. ‘Logic tells you the number of incidents you report are going to be increased,’ he said.” As if increased activity of drug traffickers is a positive compared to the resurgence of the Taliban.

So while the UN presses for negotiations and Karzai has feelers out, his spokesman is mimicking Cheney’s last throes rhetoric. Humayun Hamidzada describes the increasing attacks as “acts of desperation” according to the Washington Post. “If you go and blow up 20 civilians, what does it show? Does it show strength? It shows their weakness. It’s no resurgence. It’s just showing who they really are.”

What the Taliban really are is a force keeping US/NATO forces on the defensive and forcing Gen. McNeill looking for ways to buy more time. After six years of occupation, he is looking for “faster development” to win Afghan hearts and minds.

“The will of the people is incredibly important to anybody who is waging a counterinsurgency operation, and I think the will of the people could have a finite shelf life,” he said. “If we can continue to show some steps of progress, especially in the business of reconstruction, then we can hang on to the people for a tad longer.”

But, time is running out and rather than negotiating from a place of strength, the Afghan government seems desperate to negotiate with the surging Taliban. As Afghanistan NGO Safety Office Nic Lee remarks:

“The Taliban has already fought one war for this country, and they were quite successful,” eventually ruling for five years, Lee said. “You don’t do that without learning how to do things: establishing supply routes, isolating Kabul, how to target aircraft.”

In an insurgency, he said, “you don’t have to win, you just need to make sure the other guys don’t, and they have time on their side.”

Or, as George W. Bush said back on April 17, 2002:

As the spring thaw comes, we expect cells of trained killers to try to regroup, to murder, create mayhem and try to undermine Afghanistan’s efforts to build a lasting peace. We know this from not only intelligence, but from the history of military conflict in Afghanistan. It’s been one of initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure. We’re not going to repeat that mistake.

In the United States of America, the terrorists have chosen a foe unlike they have any — they have never faced before. They’ve never faced a country like ours before: we’re tough, we’re determined, we’re relentless. We will stay until the mission is done.

Mr. Bush – we’re overextended, we’re distracted, we’re floundering. History in Afghanistan is repeating Mr. Bush, on your watch.

Cross posted at Daily Kos.

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