Taliban on the Run but Not Vanquished
USA Today features a front page assessment of the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
[…] Four years after they ousted the radical Islamic regime, U.S. forces are still locked in a deadly contest with Taliban holdouts in the badlands of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The ongoing war here, overshadowed by the chaos in Iraq, defies easy analysis. The Taliban fighters have suffered devastating defeats in battles with U.S. and Afghan government troops in Zabul province since May. And they have little chance of overthrowing the pro-U.S. government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai or reversing slow progress toward democracy here.
By Afghanistan’s rock-bottom standards, this is a period of relative peace and prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are coming home, convinced that their country has a future after three decades of war. In the rugged terrain along the Pakistan border, the Taliban can still play the spoiler Ã¢€” terrorizing the countryside with assassinations and bombings, attacking aid groups and making villagers like Mohammed think twice about openly supporting the Americans and Karzai’s government.
The stakes are rising. Afghanistan plans legislative elections Sept. 18 designed to sow representative government in an impoverished land blighted for decades by warlords, lawlessness and savagery. Hard-core Taliban insurgents are determined to disrupt the vote. Ã¢€œWhat we have now is just a battle of wills,Ã¢€ says Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
For American troops, their coalition allies and the Afghan government, much of the news from Afghanistan recently has been grim. Four Navy Seals were caught in a firefight with Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province last month; only one survived. A helicopter sent to rescue the Seal team was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade, killing 16 U.S. troops. It was the deadliest blow to U.S. forces since they invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. Monday, the U.S. military reported that six U.S. troops were wounded on Sunday by a roadside bomb in the same area where the Seals were ambushed. A U.S. soldier was killed and another hurt in an attack in the southern province of Helmand on Sunday, the military said earlier. This month, Taliban fighters kidnapped and hanged a key ally of Karzai in Zabul province. Overall, more than 700 people have been killed in an increase in violence since warm weather returned to Afghanistan in March.
Bad as the spring and summer have been, Afghanistan is not another Iraq, where 150,000 coalition troops continue battling a determined insurgency. More than 18,000 U.S. troops, 2,000 coalition forces drawn from 22 countries and nearly 9,400 troops with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have slowly expanded their hold on territory outside the Afghan capital Kabul.
U.S. troops have done most of the dirty work. They fight insurgents and search for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden along the Pakistani border. ISAF troops, deployed in the quieter northern and western regions, are scheduled to move into the turbulent south next year.
Karzai was elected last October. Millions of Afghans defied Taliban threats, went to the polls and exercised their right to vote. Despite a bewildering number of problems Ã¢€” balancing political power among different ethnic groups, cracking down on the opium trade, dealing with meddlesome neighbors Ã¢€” Karzai’s government looks secure.
The parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for last year but postponed because of security concerns and logistical problems, are planned for Sept. 18. They are unlikely to be delayed again.
Unlike Iraqis, most Afghans view U.S. forces and their coalition allies as neutral peacemakers, not occupiers, says Joanna Nathan, analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based, non-profit group dedicated to conflict prevention. Ã¢€œThe United States government is on the side of Afghanistan,Ã¢€ says Zabul Gov. Delbar Arman. The Taliban can’t operate nationwide like Iraq’s insurgents. Instead, the Taliban mostly has been banished to the border with Pakistan, where members find refuge with sympathetic tribesmen, Arman says. Wadir Safi, a political scientist at Kabul University, agrees. Ã¢€œThe Taliban cannot take over,Ã¢€ he says. However, Ã¢€œthey can confuse the minds and hearts of the people,Ã¢€ and discourage them from supporting the government or participating in democratic politics.
Interesting. Somehow, Afghanistan has all but fallen off the media’s radar screen, while every incident in Iraq is still front page news.