Saturday, February 3, 2007

US will take control of NATO mission in Afghanistan

Afghan analysis as general bows out
2. February 2007, BBC News

For the last nine months, British forces have been in charge of Nato's mission in Afghanistan, commanded by the charismatic British officer Gen David Richards.

In that time the Taleban have hit back with a bloody insurgency which threatens to undo the progress the country has made with the help of the international community in the five years since the Taleban were overthrown.

Gen Richards took over on 4 May 2006, with 9,000 troops under his command and with an International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) responsible for Kabul, and the relatively peaceful regions of northern and western Afghanistan.

He took Isaf into the lawless south for the first time and assumed command of many of the American forces in the east of the country from the US-led coalition.

On Sunday, he hands over more than 31,000 troops and responsibility for the whole of the country to an American, Gen Dan McNeill.

After following him throughout his nine months, I spoke to three people from very different perspectives to assess Gen Richards' performance as well as giving the general himself a chance to comment on his own performance.

UN mission

The UN mission emphasises how communication has improved between the military and the international and Afghan actors. It has a positive view of the tenure of Gen Richards.

"He is acknowledged around the shop in Afghanistan as being a great leader, not just for Isaf, but for the international effort to support Afghanistan's transition," says Chris Alexander, the deputy head of the UN mission to Afghanistan.

But, he argues, there are still some serious issues that have not been addressed.

"There is a question of sanctuary and external support, there is a question of weak fragile government institutions as well and there is also the unequal, uneven development in the country which has sometimes fed the insurgency just as the narcotics problem has done also," he says.

The big battle in Kandahar province in early September, called Operation Medusa, is widely seen to have stopped a Taleban attempt to launch an attack to try to take Kandahar city.

"Operation Medusa was the centrepiece, operationally, of Gen Richards' time here, a pivotal moment in the story of the insurgency in southern Afghanistan today," Mr Alexander says.

"It restored confidence in southern Afghanistan that the Afghan government and Isaf had the resolve to stand against this challenge."

But Mr Alexander has a stark warning for the months ahead.

"The honeymoon is over. There was euphoria when the Taleban fell and a new government came in and people's expectations were extremely high," he says.

"Those high expectations have not been met and there is disappointment with the government, the international community and neighbouring countries."

Afghan government

Afghan Defence Minister Gen Abdul Rahim Wardak talks of a close relationship with Gen Richards but remains unhappy with the short time that commanders are in place

"Some new officer comes and it takes him some time to know the ground realities and the environment here and once he is fully able then I think he leaves," he says.

"This frequent changeover of forces and officers is definitely impacting on everything."

He also criticises the international community for not providing the Afghan National Army (ANA) with better resources much earlier.

"The ANA has been armed with 30-year-old weapons all used during the war with the Soviet Union... the result was that it was not an effective force," he says.

He is, of course, a lot happier now that the American government has pledged $8.2bn (Ł4.16bn, 6.3bn euros) to help fund the Afghan security forces.

Journalist and author

Nato's strategy has been to try to bring security and then provide development and help bring in better governance to win the people over.

This has involved trying to win hearts and minds.

Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and author of a book on the Taleban, argues the use of air power has killed civilians.

He says only bringing in more troops would help.

"The Taleban had calculated that, as Nato and British troops moved into the south, there would be this lull with the handover, so Nato forces were met with this huge and unexpected offensive.

"Richards had to reorganise his whole strategy and his whole philosophy around the fact that the softly-softly approach was clearly not appropriate," he says.

He also believes the communication is not in place to allow development to follow.

"Nearly a year after the deployment, there's a complete lack of co-ordination between the big aid agencies," he says.

"There's just this complete disconnect between the military and these aid agencies, and of course, with the private, international non-governmental organisations."

His summary, a common theme among commentators on Afghanistan, is that the source of the problem lies beyond the country's borders.

"There's no doubt that the Pakistani military has been very brazenly supporting the Taleban for the last five years.

"It is, in my opinion, totally impossible to defeat the Taleban, or to bring peace to southern Afghanistan, without dealing with the issue of Pakistan.

"I think at the moment the Taleban has the psychological ascendancy," he says.

"I think there's a widespread belief amongst a majority of Afghans that the Taleban are coming back."

Outgoing commander

Yet Gen Richards himself is, not surprisingly, brimming with confidence despite the challenges that remain.

He points to the victory in Operation Medusa as the most significant moment in his command.

"What I am saying to you is, like the chess player, we are working through the problem. We have neutralised the Taleban militarily. We are now energising the reconstruction and development and improvement of governance."

On Pakistan, he has built a relationship with Gen Musharraf and is more positive than most: "It's whether or not you believe that the government of Pakistan is actually helping us. I believe that they are," he says.

He is realistic though, predicting that there will be an upsurge of Taleban violence this spring.

"I have no doubt about that, but I am confident that just like they really, really tried last summer and failed, that we are on top of them," he says.

"I already have a plan for our spring campaign which will continue to disrupt their efforts.

"It's been a huge privilege and I think what we have done, when there was much scepticism about Nato and Isaf last year, is prove that Nato is actually a great going concern and can do what it has been asked to do."