NATO ALLIES FAIL TO DELIVER IN AFGHANISTAN
Report by WARSHIPS IFR reporters.
Additional reporting: Jim Garamone, American Forces Press Service
American and British troops in southern Afghanistan were last month (June) consolidating their gains after a successful series of offensive operations south of the town of Garmsir, in which the Taliban lost an estimated 200 fighters and were ousted from an area key to the extremist faction’s supply chain. Three American marines were killed and dozens injured during the operation, which was carried out by more than 2,000 leathernecks of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (24th MEU) and 200 men from the UK’s 5th Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland (The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders). The British, having been engaged in combat operations in Helmand for two years, acted as guides for the US Marines through particularly tough terrain. The USMC and UK push was initiated in late April, the first such by the American marines following their arrival to make up a shortfall in NATO combat troops in Helmand. The aim was to snuff out the opium trade and cut off Taliban elements in the north of the province from their sources of arms and manpower coming up from Pakistan. By mid-May it was estimated that around 150 enemy fighters, a fair proportion of them ‘foreign fighters’, had been killed and that there remained 500 Taliban militants to account for. Colonel Peter Petronzio, Commanding Officer of the 24th MEU, said, as operations got in gear: “The insurgents are finding that every time they engage with the marines, they lose. The marines are gaining ground every day and secure more of the routes through the district. The support we have received from our allied partners has contributed to our many successes thus far.” The Garmsir series of operations added up to a major success but it was feared that, as has happened in the past, allied forces will struggle to hold onto the territory in the face of any upsurge in insurgent activity. The initial success of the Garmsir operation was overshadowed by subsequent British casualties and the jailbreak at Sarposa Prison in Kandahar, in which 400 Taliban prisoners escaped following a suicide and rocket attack on the prison walls. Earlier press reports that the Taliban were a tactically beaten force rang hollow as details of the jailbreak surfaced and cast doubt on NATO intelligence efforts in the region. The incident re-ignited worries over the loyalty of some Afghan Army units and led to speculation that the raiders were assisted by inside information, despite the fact that 15 prison guards were killed. In a further indication that Western forces are increasingly stretched in southern Afghanistan, American Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last month issued a plea to NATO members to make good on pledges of greater commitment of combat troops in Afghanistan. The bulk of the fighting has been carried out by American, British, Canadian, Danish, Baltic States and Dutch troops. Key NATO members Germany and Italy have refused to deploy their soldiers into combat zones, preferring to stay in more placid areas of Afghanistan. Gates spoke during a news conference at NATO headquarters following two days of meetings with the defence ministers of alliance members. According to a US official who was there, and later spoke with reporters, Gates “was on fire”.
It was revealed that the American Defense Secretary had a 10-page speech prepared, but that “went out the window” as he began to speak. Gates started by saying he is particularly impassioned about Afghanistan because in May, US casualties in the war-torn country exceeded casualties in Iraq for the first time: 19 fatalities in Afghanistan compared to 14 in Iraq. Gates has been pushing for months for NATO nations to follow through on promises made earlier to increase their participation in Afghanistan. The alliance’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is still short three battalions of troops in southern Afghanistan.
The NATO effort, which is providing security for Afghan reconstruction to get underway, also needs trainers and enablers, such as helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). France, the United Kingdom and Poland have said they will send additional units to the country and other NATO countries have pledged smaller numbers of troops to serve as military and police trainers. Last month Britain came good on its promise, adding a further 200 soldiers to its forces already in-country, boosting the UK total to 8,000. Gates was reported to have told his NATO counterparts: “I know I’ve been a big nag, and I know I’ve been a pain, but for NATO to continue to be tied up in politics and issues between governments that are irrelevant to whether we are making progress in Afghanistan, I just don’t have patience anymore, I really have limited patience for these kinds of surrogate debates.” The Secretary reportedly said: “... failure to do so has caused gaps in security in Afghanistan. We’ve got kids dying because of the gaps.”
Gates ordered more than 3,000 US Marines to Afghanistan in March but they will be withdrawn in the autumn and there are no plans to replace them. Some 2,000 American marines are supplementing forces taking on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in NATO’s Regional Command South. The rest are serving as trainers and are part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the US-led effort directed against Al-Qaeda elsewhere in Afghanistan. The US Department of Defense official revealed that Secretary Gates made it clear to his NATO colleagues that the narcotics trade must be dealt with. Gates is said to have declared counter-narcotics “is not a tangential job”. Gates pointed out that the narcotics trade feeds corruption in local, provincial and national governments in Afghanistan. The Taliban is reported to feed off the drug profits to buy in weapons and pay fighters to kill NATO troops. Gates is pushing for ISAF to do more against drug labs and traffickers. Gates also urged the European NATO nations to send a strong message to Pakistan, which finds itself struggling to deal with rising radical Islam, including the headquarters of the Taliban in its wild borderlands as well as fugitive Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
See box, overleaf. The DoD official elaborated on this point: “It’s important for the Pakistanis to hear loudly from Europeans that the security challenges there are a threat to Europe in addition to being a threat to Afghanistan.”
The most lethal threats to NATO troops in recent months have become suicide bombers and roadside Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), with the deaths and horrendous injuries suffered by Western troops giving NATO ministers pause for thought. They doubt the public support is there among their civilian populations to suffer such casualties. However, Secretary Gates reportedly told the ministers that US medics have made enormous advances in recent years in prosthetics and in dealing with traumatic brain injuries.
“If you are interested in working together on these issues, write me and let’s see what we can do,” Gates said. “We’re all in it together. We’re a family, and we should work together on these kinds of issues as well.”
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The Taliban, whose spiritual home is Kandahar, in the far south of Afghanistan, have for years made common cause with Al-Qaeda, ‘foreign fighters’ being among the most resolute foes of NATO troops. It was claimed last month, during President Bush’s farewell tour of Europe that a joint mission involving American Special Forces, Britain’s Special Boat Service (SBS) and Special Reconnaissance Regiment had allegedly been mounted in northern Pakistan, in order to cut off the head of the Al-Qaeda snake. The aim was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. It is believed he continues to hide out in the badlands along the Afghan-Pakistan border, although it has been suggested more than once that he is already dead. Bin Laden and many of his top Al-Qaeda fighters were nearly eliminated at the end of 2001, when Coalition forces had them cornered in the notorious Tora Bora mountains complex.
However, not wishing to put too many Western boots on the ground, the Coalition commanders sent in Afghan fighters with the result that the Al-Qaeda leader and his men were able to slip away, allegedly due to substantial bribes buying them an escape route into Pakistan.