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NATO faces 'window of opportunity'

Coalition must bring Afghans onside before Taliban returns, commander says

Paul Koring, Globe & Mail, 18 Oct 06


WASHINGTON -- Military successes over the Taliban in recent months have opened a crucial six-month "window of opportunity" to prove to Afghans in the south that long-promised reconstruction and security can be delivered, NATO's commander in Afghanistan said yesterday.


However, British Lieutenant-General David Richards warned that "if we fail to deliver on the promises that they the Afghan people feel have been made to them," the Taliban will be back in strength next summer. "If you do not have the consent of the people in a counterinsurgency, at the end of the day, you're probably going to lose. So we need to explore these ways to get the people onside."


The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan failed to follow through as it should have after ousting the Taliban government in 2001, setting the stage for this year's deadly resurgence, he said. The mistake consisted of adopting "a peacetime approach" too early.


Gen. Richards stressed the urgent need for reconstruction, the development of a reliable and honest police force and alternatives to the poppy production that supports southern Afghanistan's economy.


"At some point the military can do no more, because we don't offer solutions to all the other complex issues that are confronting the country. We are just part of the solution," he said.


In a news conference by video-link to the Pentagon from Kabul, Gen. Richards warned that winning battles -- such as the heavy fighting near Kandahar last month in which Canadian and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops killed hundreds of Taliban fighters -- is pointless unless reconstruction follows.


"We established we could fight and it forced them to revert to asymmetric tactics: suicide bombing and that sort of thing. But having done that, we are now in a position where we've got to build on it. Because fighting for its own sake in a counterinsurgency will get us nowhere over time," he said.


The lieutenant-general admitted that parts of Kandahar province (the responsibility of Canadian forces) and neighbouring northern Helmand (where British troops are deployed) remain too dangerous and insecure for reconstruction to start yet.


"In some parts, we can and are getting on with reconstruction," he said. "But in others . . . we need to precede the reconstruction effort in those areas with some security operations," he said.


He also made it clear he is still strapped for combat forces. Despite welcoming promises of additional troops from Canada, Romania and Poland, Gen. Richards said that what he really needs is a heavily armed mobile reserve force of 1,000 soldiers that he could use to decisively tip a battle or launch a surprise offensive.


"We're getting by. We've stabilized the situation here this fall. But we could have done even better with that asset," he said, referring to a mobile reserve force.


The British general, who now commands more than 30,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, including about half of the 22,000 U.S. forces in the country, said the Taliban reinforces and re-supplies its fighters from neighbouring Pakistan.


But unlike the Afghan government, which accuses Pakistan of turning a blind eye to Taliban leadership and support bases inside Pakistan -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai told Associated Press yesterday that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is hiding in the southeastern Pakistani city of Quetta -- Lt.-Gen. Richards said he believes assurances of co-operation given by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.


"There is a Taliban problem in Pakistan," Lt.-Gen. Richards said. "And they do cross the border." But he insisted that Gen. Musharraf's forces are attempting to stem the flow. "The Pakistan army does great work in preventing much of it. But the fact is it's an 1,800-kilometre border. It's not easy," he said.

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