Monday 8 December 2008

Taliban tightens the screw

The news that new talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are to take place in Dubai in the next few days is welcome, although the Taliban leader Mullah Omar has issued an uncompromising statement - his first for some time - in which he appears to argue that Coalition forces in the country are on the brink of defeat.
Speaking on the eve of Eid e Ghorban, Mullah Omar suggests that the collapse of the US economy is directly related to its military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq and warns that sending more troops to back the regime in Kabul will not relieve the situation. "Thus the current armed clashed which now number into tens, will spiral up to hundreds of armed clashes. Your current casualties of hundreds will jack up to thousand casualties of dead and injured simultaneously," he says.
He does not specifically mention the Dubai talks, but last time negotiations took place, at the end of September, the Taliban leadership denied that they had happened. "The Afghan Islamic Emirate leadership council considers such baseless rumours as a failed attempt of the enemy to create mistrust and concerns among Afghans and other nations and Mujahideen. No official member of the Taliban is currently or in the past negotiating with the US or the puppet Afghan govrnment. A few former officials of Taliban who are under house arrest or have surrendered do not represent the Islamic Emirate."
Precisely who is involved in the negotiations and their importance will be the subject of a future posting, but whatever is happening in Dubai, it is clear that the Taliban and other groups opposed to the Karzai government are now in control of much of the country. According to a bleak new report from the independent International Council on Security and Development, the Taliban now has a permanent presence in 72 per cent of the country - up from 54 per cent a year ago (see map above).
The report claims that four of the five routes out of Kabul to neighbouring countries are now unsafe for Afghan or international travel. It points to a growing nexus between the Taliban and criminal elements who are "closing a noose" around the capital.
"The Taliban are now dictating terms in Afghanistan, both politically and militarily," says the report. "At the national level, talk of reconciliation and power sharing between undefined moderate elements of the movement and elected government officials is commonplace. At a local level, the Taliban are manoeuvring skilfully to fill the governance void, frequently offering a mellower version of localised leadership than characterised their last stint in power."
The report continues: "It is their combination of recruitment bulk and propaganda know-how that enables the Taliban to outlast NATO-ISAF and US forces. Simplistic though it may be, their unity of purpose gives them a distinct edge over the cumbersome command structure of Western security and development efforts."
"We don't see the figures in this report as being credible at all," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai. "The Taliban are only present in the south and east, which is already less than 50 percent of the country." And the Afghan government has also rejected the report and said "in addition to the questionable methodology of the report and its conceptual confusion, the report has misinterpreted the sporadic, terrorizing, and media-oriented activities of the Taliban."
Yet it is clear that travel in Afghanistan is now almost impossible for most aid workers, who cannot even visit the projects they are supposed to be financing.
And just across the border in Pakistan supporters of the Taliban have in recent days been engaged in a campaign of attacks against military supply convoys entering the country via the Khyber Pass. On Sunday 7th December insurgents broke into a depot on the ring road outside Peshawar and set fire to 50 containers. The previous night they had burned more than 100 vehicles (see picture above) carrying military supplies. Security guards said that around 200 militants had entered the terminal shouting Allah-o-Akbar and 'Down with America'. A week ago 22 trucks carrying food supplies were burned in the same area.
While these attacks are unlikely to act as a serious threat to the military mission in Afghanistan, they are certainly more than pinpricks. More important than the effect on supplies is the propaganda value. They demonstrate to the average Afghan that Karzai's government is losing control of the country. And in a country where historically people wait to see who is winning before deciding who to support, time is running out.

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