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As more blood spills, the military sees progress

Civilian deaths rise and danger zones spread, but officials point to a stronger Afghan army and weakened Taliban

GRAEME SMITH, Globe & Mail, 2 Jul 07

Article link


KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- The troops in southern Afghanistan seem to have done everything right this year. They infiltrated the Taliban, killed many of their top leaders and held all the major cities and towns. The spring offensive has been thwarted, and the insurgents who last year threatened Kandahar city have scattered into small groups capable only of minor skirmishes.


But a troubling paradox has emerged amid those successes, as this year also brought rising violence, a surge in civilian casualties, and worsening security conditions for aid workers. The new Afghanistan has never seen more blood.


Interviews with a dozen key officials in the country, including Canada's top military commander, the Canadian ambassador and senior United Nations staff, reveal a deeply ambivalent view of the security situation in the first half of the year. They're proud of their accomplishments, but worried about mixed signs of progress.


An ambassador from a major troop-contributing country voiced his bafflement during a recent meeting in Kabul, saying it's hard to understand why ordinary people in Afghanistan feel less safe now, despite the military advances on the ground.


"You have a deepening perception that it's all going tits up," said a participant at the meeting. "But at the same time, in a military sense, there's progress."


More are dying in the conflict this year. An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 insurgents, civilians, soldiers, and others were killed in the first six months of 2007, meaning the violence has intensified by as much as 50 per cent over last year. But the rate of intensification has slowed -- last year's increase was 300 per cent -- which gives some officials reason for optimism.


"If we hadn't gotten their senior leadership, we'd be in a different fight now," said a top military official.


The sharp increase in the number of Taliban commanders killed or captured this year is believed to have slowed the insurgency, but it may also have contributed to the Taliban's dispersal into smaller combat groups. Last year, the Canadian troops faced down an army of hundreds, if not thousands, of insurgents southwest of Kandahar city.


This year, the largest band of fighters encountered by the Canadian battle group amounted to perhaps 40 gunmen.


This has allowed the Canadians to resume work started in the spring of 2006, when soldiers roamed to the farthest corners of the province to assert government control. The insurgents' thrust at Kandahar city forced Canadians to concentrate their entire strength on defending a 20-square-kilometre space last September. Now, the soldiers are patrolling an area that measures 60,000 square kilometres.


The growing battlefield has caused serious disadvantages for the foreign troops, however, as a limited number of soldiers are dispersed across a vast expanse. Taliban spokesmen have described this as their new strategy, saying their smaller guerrilla units can cover more territory and draw the international forces further from the safety of their bases.


So far, the Taliban's new methods haven't been successful. NATO and U.S. forces have suffered about 100 deaths this year, which means they're dying at roughly the same rate as last year. But as the fighting rips through more villages it leaves behind a bloody trail of civilian casualties, which have roughly doubled this year. Some estimates say the foreign troops and their Afghan allies, not the Taliban, are now to blame for the majority of civilian deaths.


New Taliban tactics A group of doctors was drinking green tea at Mirwais hospital in Kandahar earlier this spring, chatting about the worsening security. Ordinary people in the city have reason to feel more relaxed this year, now that foreign troops have forced the Taliban far enough from the city limits that there's little chance of insurgents spilling through the gates. But anybody linked with the government, even doctors, have felt increasingly anxious about the Taliban's shift to terrorist tactics.


A mobile phone rang as they spoke, and a hospital administrator picked it up. All he could hear was screaming, at first, then the desperate voices became recognizable to the medical staff in the room. It was the sound of their colleagues crying for help. A man came on the line, identified himself as a Taliban fighter, and told the hospital workers that the insurgents had captured five outreach workers bringing medical care to refugees west of the city.


That kidnapping dragged on for weeks, and ended when the Taliban beheaded a doctor and released the others.


The International Committee for the Red Cross says health workers across the country are seeing greater numbers of people injured or displaced so far in 2007 compared with the same period last year, although the agency declined to release statistics.


"I feel quite strongly that there's been an intensification of the conflict, and it's spreading," said Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC delegation in Kabul. "It's definitely getting worse."


The ICRC also describes the insecurity climbing northward, out of the volatile south. Kabul newspapers have been full of stories in recent months about the Taliban encroaching on the capital.


No serious battles have been waged near Kabul, however, and an assessment by the United Nations casts doubt on the idea that the insurgency is moving north.


The general trend revealed by the UN maps is worsening security across a broad swath of southern and eastern Afghanistan.


Twelve months ago, 15 per cent of the country was deemed highest-risk for travel by aid workers. Now, it's up to 25 per cent.


But some aid workers have defied the risk assessments. The National Solidarity Program, one of the most successful initiatives in Afghanistan, has continued to expand its network of local councils that propose and implement small public works. Canada recently spent $2-million to expand the NSP into the Khakrez and Spin Boldak districts of Kandahar, and officials say the program has reached both areas despite the fact that their status worsened on the UN maps.


Partly, this reflects the uncontroversial nature of the NSP, which gives money to tribal elders for whatever projects they deem necessary. The Afghan government often meets greater resistance when it tries to implement other parts of its agenda in rural areas, such as poppy eradication and girls' education. Villagers become even more rebellious when they suffer at the hands of government officials who exploit their power for personal wealth or tribal gain.


One senior Western analyst said a few tribes that control the government in southern Afghanistan have exploited NATO's muscle to grab a bigger share of the drug trade, breeding resentment.


It's a theme increasingly echoed by military officials, although they're usually more diplomatic in talking about their allies.


"We need to help this government become less predatory, less corrupt," said Brigadier-General Phil Jones, the UN's top military adviser in Afghanistan. Health and education continue to improve, Brig.-Gen. Jones said, "but some of the other indicators are going backwards, not forwards."


'Baby steps' Brigadier-General Tim Grant, the top Canadian commander in the country, sat in the back of a troop carrier on a sunny afternoon last week, and watched the heat ripple over the bleak hills of Shah Wali Kot district. Time seemed to pass more slowly in that stark landscape, where nothing moved except a few clouds.


Foreigners should have patience with the new Afghan government, he said. He acknowledged that corruption exists, even nodding his head and declaring "Absolutely!" when it was suggested that local officials reap profits by eradicating their competitors' opium crops.


"At the end of the day, it's baby steps," he said. "This country has been without a reasonable facsimile of a democratic government for 30-odd years, and in an almost constant state of conflict or war. We won't fix this problem overnight."


Arif Lalani, the new Canadian ambassador, also seems hopeful. Sitting in his Kabul office, the ambassador looked at the UN maps showing worsening security and shook his head. Statistics don't tell the whole story, he said; Kandahar city has transformed since he visited in April of 2006.


"I drove through the centre of town and I can see the difference," he said. "Storefronts are open, economic activity, kids playing on the streets."


The ambassador continued: "I myself have been amazed. We're now building bridges, canals, rehabilitating schools and providing basic assistance. All of that, I think, is progress, and that's hard to factor into a UN access map."




Brigadier-General Tim Grant, the top Canadian commander in Afghanistan, travelled with a reporter this week to an artillery position north of Kandahar city. Sitting in the back of an armoured vehicle, he discussed reasons for optimism. A bigger Afghan army


"The army has made significant progress and we will continue to see progress as we restructure our battle group to allow for more training of Afghan national army kandaks, infantry battalions. And over the course of the next couple of months, we're going to see the number of kandaks triple in this province, which is phenomenal news. We believe that with our help they will become effective, and they will be able to, quite frankly, within a year or two, be taking the lead on fighting, with our support."


The Pakistan border


"We have people talking to one another. Military leaders on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have the cellphone numbers of each other, and they're talking to each other when tensions rise ... and that's stuff that wasn't happening a year ago." Fewer insurgents


"It has gotten worse from the standpoint that the types of attacks the Taliban have used have changed dramatically. They're no longer meeting us on the battlefield, so to speak. So the use of suicide bombers and roadside bombs has increased dramatically since last year.


"The question we wrestle with is, is it good or bad that they've switched from a conventional to non-conventional terrorist-type approach? At the end of the day, I think it's a sign that the Taliban movement as a whole is faltering. They don't have the leadership any more to bring large groups together."



(Jan 1 - June 12)


__Southern region __

Kandahar 253

Zabul 136

Helmand 91

Uruzgan 32

Nimroz 19


__Southeastern region__

Khost 205

Ghazni 88

Paktika 82

Paktya 72


Western region

Farah 60

Herat 36

Badghis 10

Ghor 9


Northern region

Balkh 23

Faryab 14

Sari Pul 13

Jawzjan 5

Samangan 2


Northeastern region

Baghlan 37

Kunduz 18

Takhar 11

Badakshan 6


__Central Highland region __

Daykundi 6

Barmyan 1


Central region

Logar 56

Wardak 47

Kabul 42

Kapisa 18

Parwan 13

Panjsher 0


__Eastern region__

Kunar 233

Nangarhar 121

Laghman 63

Nuristan 35



)Jan 1 - June 12, figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding)

Southern region 29.2%

Western region 6.1%

Northeastern region 3.4%

Northern region 3.1%

Southeastern region 22.5%

Eastern region 24.5%

Central Highland region 0.4%

Central region 9.7%



2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007

USA 12 48 48 52 99 98 50

Other 20 9 6 31 93 50

Total 12 68 57 58 130 191 100



(People killed in Afghanistan's conflict, including insurgents, civilians, soldiers and all others.)

2005 2006 2007

1,000 4,000 2,500-3,000




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