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NATO, UN dispute war's progress

Commander rejects world body's assertion that situation in Afghanistan has worsened

Graeme Smith, Globe & Mail, 15 Nov 06

Article Link


QALAT, AFGHANISTAN — A dispute has emerged between the United Nations and the top NATO commander in southern Afghanistan, as the two most powerful organizations in the country say they have reached opposite conclusions about the progress of the war.


The conflicting assessments -- after the first UN review of the mission in three years -- is part of a growing list of differences over vexing questions such as negotiating with the Taliban and counter-narcotics policy.


The UN Security Council sent senior envoys to Afghanistan this week to review the mission. They arrived in time to observe a meeting of top Afghan and foreign officials last weekend in Kabul, where they heard a bleak report that estimated that the number of insurgent attacks had climbed to 600 a month as of the end of September -- up from 300 a month in March.


But the envoys were shown a more optimistic view during a military tour of the dangerous southern provinces yesterday. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization whisked the ambassadors and representatives from 10 countries by helicopter to a reconstruction centre in the ancient city of Qalat. The envoys saw young Afghans learning to weld metal, and nursing students taking a first-aid course.


This display of NATO's proudest accomplishments in the south didn't seem to temper the UN view of the situation.


"Security this year has certainly gotten worse," said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the UN delegation.


NATO's top commander in the south flatly disagreed.


"I don't think the situation has got worse at all," said Dutch Brigadier-General Ton van Loon. "I think we are going steadily upwards."


The commander continued: "There's been fighting over the summer. But particularly after the summer you can now see -- and that's what we tried to demonstrate to the Security Council here as well -- that there is progress being made."


The disagreement over this year's progress isn't the only point of conflict between the many international organizations and foreign countries working in Afghanistan, although it's one of the few arguments that officials are willing to pursue in public. Other points of contention include negotiating political settlements with local Taliban groups; national caveats that prevent some NATO countries from fighting in the south; counter-narcotics policy; and how to discourage other countries from supporting the insurgency.


Mr. Edwards politely ducked a question about why his UN bosses disagree with NATO's view of the situation, but he emphasized that the international community needs to talk about the problems in Afghanistan and agree on solutions.


"This has been a difficult year," Mr. Edwards said. "We need to adapt. We need fresh ideas, we need imagination, so we can make development happen in this complex environment."


The worst insecurity affects only about 20 per cent of districts in the country, Mr. Edwards said, and many areas in the north and west have flourished with newfound security and investment. But the south has slipped into crisis, he said.


"There's an increased number of incidents, there's an increase in sophistication in the insurgency, there's clearly more money going into the insurgency, there's a narcotics problem," he said. "There are numerous problems here, and they all need addressing."


But the NATO commander said the worst fighting is finished in the most notorious regions of the south.


"We're at a breaking point," Gen. van Loon said. "The fiercest fighting in Panjwai and Pashmul is over. We have clearly shown the Taliban that if they want to fight us, we can defeat them."


Now that NATO has asserted its military dominance, the commander added, talks with village elders can persuade them to stop the insurgency.


But many Afghans have grown skeptical about the foreign troops. They were initially awed by the power and accuracy of U.S. bombs in 2001, but five years later many complain about civilians killed by errant bullets or air strikes, and self-defeating actions by forces that don't seem to understand the country.


Gen. van Loon acknowledged this problem, saying the only solution is close contact with local people who can guide him.


"We are maybe like the blind boxer," he said. "We can hit very hard, but they need to talk to us to make sure we hit the right target."

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