“Things have gotten a bit hairy,” admitted British Lieut. Colonel Graeme Armour as we sat in a dusty, bunkered NATO fortress just outside the city of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, a deadly piece of turf along Afghanistan‘s southern border with Pakistan. A day earlier, two Danish soldiers had been killed and two Brits seriously wounded by roadside bombs. The casualties were coming almost daily now.
And then there were the daily frustrations of Armour’s job: training Afghan police officers. Almost all the recruits were illiterate. “They’ve had no experience at learning,” Armour said. “You sit them in a room and try to teach them about police procedures – they start gabbing and knocking about. You talk to them about the rights of women, and they just laugh.” A week earlier, five Afghan police officers trained by Armour were murdered in their beds while defending a nearby checkpoint – possibly by other police officers. Their weapons and ammunition were stolen. “We’re not sure of the motivation,” Armour said. “They may have gone to join the Taliban or sold the guns in the market.”
By Joe Klein
A US soldier is covered in dust close to Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has arrived in Afghanistan, where the United States is looking to increase its military presence to fight a mounting insurgency.(AFP/File/David Furst)
The war in Afghanistan – the war that President-elect Barack Obama pledged to fight and win – has become an aimless absurdity. It began with a specific target. Afghanistan was where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda lived, harbored by the Islamic extremist Taliban government. But the enemy escaped into Pakistan, and for the past seven years, Afghanistan has been a slow bleed against an array of mostly indigenous narco-jihadi-tribal guerrilla forces that we continue to call the “Taliban.” These ragtag bands are funded by opium profits and led by assorted religious extremists and druglords, many of whom have safe havens in Pakistan.
In some ways, Helmand province – which I visited with the German general Egon Ramms, commander of NATO‘s Allied Joint Force Command – is a perfect metaphor for the broader war. The soldiers from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force are doing what they can against difficult odds. The language and tactics of counter-insurgency warfare are universal here: secure the population, help them build their communities. There are occasional victories: the Taliban leader of Musa Qala, in northern Helmand, switched sides and has become an effective local governor. But the incremental successes are reversible – schools are burned by the Taliban, police officers are murdered – because of a monstrous structural problem that defines the current struggle in Afghanistan.
The British troops in Helmand are fighting with both hands tied behind their backs. They cannot go after the leadership of the Taliban – still led by the reclusive Mullah Omar – which operates openly in the Pakistani city of Quetta, just across the border….
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