Taliban hinder NATO 'ink-spot' strategy

A Canadian soldier and 21 civilians were killed Thursday in separate attacks in Afghanistan.

Any Taliban fighters approaching Camp Bastion are visible for miles because the main British base in southern Afghanistan is slap-bang in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing around Bastion but seas of dust.

"We have tied up thousands of troops protecting a white elephant in the middle of the desert. The Taliban won't be able to attack us, but we are not doing anything to protect the Afghan populace with this base," says a British officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The location of the British base in southern Helmand Province highlights one of the many problems which face incoming NATO forces in the former Taliban strongholds of Helmand, Uruzgan, and Kandahar Provinces.

NATO took over command of southern Afghanistan from US forces this week, promising to breathe new life into development, which has ground to a halt in the face of a reinvigorated Taliban. With double the number of forces that their US predecessors had, NATO plans to set up secure zones, then slowly expand them outwards like "ink spots" on blotting paper. But the virulence of insurgent attacks are already taxing the force, further delaying the reconstruction needed to win over what British commander Ed Butler refers to as the "floating voter."

"There is not a popular uprising in southern Afghanistan, but people are sitting on the fence. They are no longer sure whether the Taliban or the government will be the winning side," says Joanna Nathan, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Even before this week's handover, insurgents dramatically stepped up attacks in an apparent bid to knock off-balance the incoming NATO force. Nine British soldiers have died in the two months since they were deployed to Helmand, three of them in a well-planned ambush just a day after NATO took command of the region on July 31. Thursday, a Canadian soldier was killed by a roadside bomb, and 21 civilians died from a suicide car bomb in a Kandahar market. Over 1,000 people – most of them militants – have been killed since May.

NATO forces now number 8,000 across Afghanistan's four southern provinces, with some 4,000 departing US forces redeploying to eastern regions along the Pakistan border.

For the last four years US troops have focused their efforts on battling Al Qaeda and the fight to catch Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan's restive south. The task of rebuilding its shattered infrastructure has fallen by the wayside, and popular discontent has grown.

So has the opium crop, which is set to be the biggest ever this year in Helmand Province, which produces over 30 percent of Afghanistan's $2.8 billion harvest. In many parts of the south there are few other jobs.

Five years after the fall of the Taliban, the changes people expected to see in their lives have not materialized. Over 200 schools across southern Afghanistan have shut their doors in the face of violent threats and many more people have pulled their daughters out of the schools that remain open.

The Taliban have stepped into the security void that has opened up, setting up shadow administrations, offering people a chance to cultivate their drugs unmolested and promising a return to the law and order they enforced before 2001.

"It was better when the Taliban were in power. There is no peace, no security. Things have got much worse over the past year," says Haji Faeda Mohammed Khan, an elder from Kajiki district in Helmand, where there has been heavy fighting in recent weeks. Mr. Khan had no love for the Taliban but was sick of the violence which meant his sons were unable to get an education and there were no jobs.

"The American have done spectacularly well at battling insurgents, but because they have had a shortage of troops they haven't been able to do [as much reconstruction]," says incoming NATO commander Lt. Gen. David Richards.

But it's not at all clear that NATO's larger force is up to the task of providing security either. The numbers may be deceptive as NATO forces have no more helicopters – and thus are less mobile – than outgoing US troops. Furthermore, different military cultures of the British, Dutch, and Canadians who are the main troop contributing nations may make unified operations tricky.

And thus far, British troops who have spearheaded the NATO deployment have been not been able to do any reconstruction. Instead they have been tied up in pitched battles with Taliban militants in districts around Helmand Province.

The strategic ink spots now look more like haphazard inkspatters as British forces have found themselves drawn out from their bases, farther and faster than they had foreseen to prevent key districts in northern Helmand like Sangin and Now Zad falling to the Taliban.

Military officials now concede that they will have to pull back to avoid being spread so thin that they do not have a decisive amount of force anywhere. They know it will be a slow process.

"Our mission aims to allow development and government to reach areas where it hasn't been before. There will be no instant victories,' says NATO spokesman Major Luke Knittig.

For many in the Afghan south who have waited over five years to see any tangible chance in their lives, it may not be soon enough.

Haji Abdul Wahed a senator from the Helmand capital Lashkar Gar said that last month the Taliban took control of two districts in the province, Garmser and Nawai-i-Barakzai. "The Taliban were calling us and saying they would overrun Lashkar Gar. People were confused and bewildered," he says.

British, Canadian, and US forces ran the Taliban out of the two districts within a day but it dealt a blow to public confidence.

"If this happens again, people will loose faith in the British," says Mr. Wahed.

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