Sunday, March 19, 2006

British Face 20-Year War To Tame Taliban

By Christina Lamb
London Sunday Times
March 19, 2006

THE objectives of the British mission to Afghanistan could take as long as 20 years to achieve, according to a confidential Ministry of Defence briefing seen by The Sunday Times.

The assessment by senior military officers highlights the risks to the 3,300 British troops to be deployed to the lawless Helmand province and warns that even in five years the best that can be hoped for in terms of security and stabilisation would be “interim status”.

The disclosure contrasts with assurances given to the Commons by John Reid, the defence secretary, that the mission will be completed in three years.

Questioned last month about the danger that British troops could end up bogged down in southern Afghanistan, Reid told MPs: “We will make our judgment on the basis of changes on the ground: extension of central government control, a reduction in insurgency, growth of the Afghan security forces and economic development.

“The exit strategy involves one of the entrance aims: the achievement of a degree of success in all those respects in a relatively short time — three years — in the south.”

However, the Ministry of Defence briefing — given to Nato allies involved in Afghanistan — reveals that it expects only an interim degree of success in five years in meeting these aims and in combating narcotics.

The “end game” is estimated to require 15 to 20 years, suggesting that British troops may be the country for far longer than acknowledged.

It is a view echoed by Colin Powell, the former American secretary of state. Last week he warned the Canadian government that its troops in southern Afghanistan should prepare for an “extended” military campaign and should not put a time limit on their stay.

He emphasised the deteriorating security, pointing out: “There are Taliban elements that want to continue the fight.” More than 1,700 people were killed in Taliban attacks last year and there has been a recent spate of suicide bombings.

Helmand is regarded as the centre of Taliban activity in Afghanistan. More than half the schools in the province have been closed down by attacks.

But Afghan intelligence reports suggest the military threat may not be as great as feared, with fewer than 300 Taliban fighters in Helmand under five local commanders. These are all under the control of Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban’s one-legged former intelligence chief, who is believed to be based across the Pakistani border in Quetta.

Apart from a “Taliban/Al-Qaeda backlash”, one of the main risks to British troops emphasised in the briefing is that of a “hostile backlash” to counter-narcotics activity.

Afghanistan is the biggest producer of opium and more than 90% of the heroin sold in the UK comes from there. Helmand is the centre of this production. Poppy cultivation in the province has doubled this year.

An operation that recently got under way to eradicate it before the May harvest is expected to create enormous resentment both among farmers who have no other livelihood and among drug barons, some of whom are related to senior government officials.

Military officers have expressed concern that the British forces will be arriving in the wake of this unpopular campaign. “How can we win over hearts and minds when we will clearly be associated by locals with the end of their incomes?” asked one.

The governor of Helmand, Engineer Daud, is furious that the British troops are not already in the province to provide back-up to police and contractors destroying the poppy fields.

“This is the real challenge,” he said. “In fighting against terrorism we are only fighting Al-Qaeda and Taliban, but in fighting against drugs we’re not just fighting them but also our own people. We can’t do this alone.”

An advance party of Royal Marines and Royal Engineers has arrived in Helmand as barracks are built in the main towns of Lashkar Gah and Grishk. But the main deployment of 16 Air Assault Brigade, including the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, has been delayed until the summer.

The mission, which will cost £1 billion over three years, will be backed up by air power, including six Chinook and four Lynx helicopters as well as by Britain’s first deployment of eight Apache attack helicopters. A Ministry of Defence spokesman said this weekend the troops and equipment would not be fully in place until July.

One senior officer admitted he was worried the slow build-up would play into the hands of the Taliban, whose propaganda claims western nations are frightened to move into southern Afghanistan and are thus endlessly delaying.

“We need to come in with a real show of power to show we mean business, not this drip-drip effect,” he said. “It makes us look vulnerable.”

Senior British officials privately concede that the biggest threat to the troops may well come from across the border in Pakistan, where Taliban are believed to receive their training and funding.

There have been high-level talks between Whitehall and Islamabad over the issue. It was also raised by President George W Bush with General Pervez Musharraf, his Pakistani counterpart.

Earlier this month President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan gave Musharraf addresses and telephone numbers for senior Taliban officials in Pakistan and demanded their arrest. The officials included Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader.

Karzai also alleged that the Pakistani military was involved in their training. A furious Musharraf dismissed the information, saying: “I feel there is a very, very deliberate attempt to malign Pakistan by some agents, and President Karzai is totally oblivious of what is happening in his own country.”

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