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    South Asia
     Aug 22, 2008
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 Afghanistan.

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 troops.

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 Afghanistan.

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 resistance groups.

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 Hezb-e-Islami (HI).

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 battlefield.

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 south.

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 Pakistan.

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 Taliban insurgency.

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 matters.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Aug 20, 2008)


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