Afghan numbers don't add up
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - The United States plans to bolster the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) in Afghanistan with an additional 12,000 to 15,000 troops
to confront the Taliban-led insurgency. Influential European and American
think-tanks, such as the Senlis Council, also favor urgent extra deployment to
The nature of the war in Afghanistan is changing, though, and it is not the
sheer numbers that count. NATO has approximately 45,000 troops, including
15,000 American troops, while an additional 19,000 US forces operate
separately. It has also been reported that the Pentagon plans to spend US$20
billion on doubling the size of the Afghanistan National Army to 120,000
Beyond the Taliban, local alliances between warlords and former
mujahideen commanders against NATO have added a fresh dimension to the
insurgency, in addition to spreading resistance to many new parts of
It is this extension of the battlefield that alarms NATO, and its dilemma is
that if it pumps more troops into the country, they will have to be widely
spread and more open to attack. The alternative is to cede territory to the
A senior Afghan official who was recently removed from his high-profile
position told Asia Times Online that many of the "new" insurgents are former
associates of former mujahideen leader and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's
They had been lured into the American camp through various inducements,
including jobs, monetary benefits and the opportunity to take part in politics.
It was considered better to have them fighting in parliament than on the
However, once the Taliban insurgency took firm root in the south the writ of
the government evaporated and the peasants were allowed and encouraged to grow
poppy. By 2007, a parallel economy flourished and, finding the riches
irresistible, former warlords, tribal chiefs, clerics and other segments of
society sided with the Taliban.
This narco-economy of the Taliban so effectively enhanced their influence that
it spoiled all American efforts to eradicate warlordism, especially in and
around the capital Kabul.
Now, warlords associated with the Hezb-e-Islami (Khalis group) and the HI of
Hekmatyar are once again active and they have virtually laid siege around Kabul
- in Wardak province to the east, Kapisa to the northeast and Sarobi to the
Monday's incident in which 10 French soldiers were killed near Sarobi (four of
them executed after being captured) and 21 injured was also carried out by
militants loyal to the HI.
Steady Taliban buildup
After being ousted by the US-led invasion in 2001, every spring the Taliban
have launched offensives, although the initial ones were token. Up to 2005,
NATO concentrated its activities on Taliban pockets in the border region with
In 2006, the Taliban unexpectedly delivered their most successful offensive,
establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with. NATO feared the worst
for 2007, but the Taliban came up with nothing new, so 2008 was expected to be
a quiet year.
Nothing could be further from the truth. With the death of three Polish
soldiers on Wednesday, 181 foreign soldiers have already lost their lives in
Afghanistan this year and the fatalities at this rate will surpass the record
222 international troop deaths in 2007.
Also, the Taliban this year have focused on cutting NATO's supply lines in
Pakistan's tribal areas. Western media report of a clear deterioration in
NATO's supplies, including fuel, weapons and spare parts.
The emergence of warlords, in addition to posing a military threat, creates
problems for NATO as it is not prepared for this development. For years, NATO
and US intelligence has focused on clipping the wings of known Taliban leaders
and their connections; now they have to deal with the murky alliances of
warlords in new parts of the country.
This is going to be a struggle, as highlighted by the recent arrest of
Shahabuddin Hekmatyar from an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. He is
the brother of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but he is not a member of the HI and,
unlike his sibling, he was never a part of the resistance against the Soviets.
It appears he was offered up by Pakistan in a desperate effort by NATO to
unravel the links between the revival of warlordism in Afghanistan and the
The indications are that NATO wants to tackle the problem by pouring in troops.
These could help secure arteries, but as the Soviets - who in the 1980s had
more than double the NATO number of troops - learned, it's not size that
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at[email protected]