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U.S.-led coalition losing Afghanistan

by Don Melvin Friday, Sep. 15, 2006 at 2:36 PM

Time to "cut and run" - Almost five years after a U.S.-led coalition attacked Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks, experts warn that the country is slipping away.

U.S.-led coalition losing Afghanistan

LONDON - Almost five years after a U.S.-led coalition attacked Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks, experts warn that the country is slipping away.

The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban are back, controlling half the country by some estimates. Fighting in the south is some of the fiercest that Western troops have faced in 50 years.

On Wednesday, NATO announced that suicide bombings have killed 173 people in the country this year amid an escalation of violence that has seen at least 40 militants slain and an aid worker gunned down.

Beyond that, opium production has soared almost 60 percent this year, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. And extreme poverty is driving people back into the arms of the Taliban, according to a European think tank.

In short, many international experts think that the war on terror is on the verge of being lost in Afghanistan while the U.S. forces grapple with continuing problems in Iraq.

"The U.S. has lost control in Afghanistan and has in many ways undercut the new democracy in Afghanistan," said Emmanuel Reinert, executive director of the Senlis Council, a policy research group with offices in London, Paris, Brussels and Afghanistan.

"I think we can call that a failure, and one with dire consequences which should concern us all. The U.S. policies in Afghanistan have re-created the safe haven for terrorism that the 2001 invasion aimed to destroy."

This is a startling reversal from the early heady days. The initial victory came quickly after U.S.-led offensive began on Oct. 7, 2001. Kabul, the capital, fell on Nov. 13. A few days later, most of the country was under the control of the coalition and its Afghan partners, the Northern Alliance.

But things have begun to go very wrong. Violence has flared, particularly in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan and Zabul. In June, an American-led force of 11,000 troops launched the biggest offensive against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan since 2001, in a push named Operation Mountain Thrust.

The result has been fighting that American and British officers have described as ferocious. An analysis of coalition casualty figures from May 1 to Aug. 12 by the U.K.-based Royal Statistical Society showed that an average of five coalition soldiers were killed by the Taliban every week, twice as many as during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Afghanistan, a mountainous country of 31 million people that is slightly smaller than Texas, has long been a graveyard for foreign troops. Most recently, in 1989, the Soviet Union pulled out after nine years of trying to control the country ended in failure.

On Aug. 1 of this year, 8,000 NATO forces took military control in the south from the U.S.-led coalition. But the situation has not stabilized. NATO commanders are calling for up to 2,500 more troops to augment the 18,500 already there, along with greater air support.

U.S. Gen. James Jones, NATO's supreme allied commander, said the alliance's 26 nations had failed to deliver fully on commitments to staff and equip its force in the country. He said much of the international strategy for Afghanistan's reconstruction was on "life support," the Financial Times newspaper reported.

Foreign ministers from the alliance's 26 member nations will meet in New York next week to discuss NATO's operation in Afghanistan. But so far, the London-based Times newspaper reported, citing unnamed sources, most NATO countries have balked at the thought of sending more troops. Only tiny Latvia is reported to have responded positively, promising to increase its troop presence in Afghanistan from 36 to 56.

Just as violence has increased, opium cultivation has also reached record levels. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crimes reported this month that about 408,000 acres are now being used to grow opium, up 59 percent this year alone. In 2001, during the last year of Taliban rule, the figure was less than 20,000 acres

The Taliban cracked down on opium cultivation then, but now may be thriving on it. Revenue from the harvest is expected to be over billion this year, said Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the Office on Drugs and Crime.

Reinert, of the Senlis Council, believes that efforts to eradicate opium cultivation are part of the reason the U.S.-led coalition has lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan population.

Farmers whose crops have been forcibly eradicated often have no other means of feeding their families, he said.

"There is a really huge humanitarian crisis in southern Afghanistan," he said. "I have never seen that in Afghanistan before. It's like Darfur. That's like 15 minutes away from the Canadian camp in Kandahar."

While the coalition eradication effort fuels anger, Reinert said, the Taliban, using "social-service tactics," respond to the needs of the poor, compensating farmers whose opium has been eradicated by the coalition.

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