Afghanistan: Pentagon says insurgency growing

US and allied foreign forces are facing "a classic growing insurgency" in Afghanistan, Admiral Michael Mullen, the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told US legislators on February 1.

Mullen's congressional testimony was disputed three days later by US Army General Dan McNeill, the commander of 39-nation International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), who told reporters that he thought the Afghan insurgency had "probably stayed about the same" scale as it was a year ago.

However, McNeill also said he needed more NATO troops to fight the Afghan insurgency.

There are about 43,000 troops in the NATO-led ISAF, up from about 35,500 when McNeill took command a year ago. Of the current total, 16,000 are US troops. There are an additional 13,000 US troops operating outside the ISAF, engaged in "counter-terrorism" operations and training a new Afghan army.

'Not winning'

A February 3 US McClatchy Newspapers analysis article cited two reports on Afghanistan, issued a week earlier, to support Mullen's view of the situation. One was issued by the US Atlantic Council, a pro-NATO think tank. It declared that "NATO is not winning in Afghanistan".

The other was issued by the Afghanistan Study Group, co-chaired by retired US Marine Corps General James Jones, who was the top NATO commander until mid-2006, and Thomas R. Pickering, a former US ambassador to Russia and other nations.

The ASG report argued that the NATO effort in Afghanistan "is under serious threat from resurgent violence, weakening international resolve, mounting regional challenges and a growing lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan people about the future direction of their country". It stated that the US and NATO "have tried to win the struggle in Afghanistan with too few military forces".

McClatchy reported that "the US military, stretched thin by the war in Iraq, is hard-pressed to send more than the 3200 additional Marines to Afghanistan" and that the "growing insurgency there is fuelling rifts within the NATO alliance as Germany and other nations refuse to allow their troops to participate in offensive operations in Afghanistan".

The February 3 British Observer reported, "Attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan surged last year, according to previously unpublished figures from allied military forces fighting insurgents". The paper reported that the statistics, compiled by the ISAF, show attacks on international troops and the Afghan government have gone up by between a fifth and a third since last year.

The Taliban are the main Afghan insurgent force. They are descendants of the right-wing Islamist movement that was created, with Washington's backing, in 1994-95 by the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

With the ISI's help, the Taliban took over most of Afghanistan in 1996, defeating the warring Islamist factions that had seized Kabul in the wake of the 1992 collapse of the country's post-1978, pro-Soviet, secular nationalist government. The US and its allies ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001.

In 2007, 117 US and 115 other foreign occupation troops died in Afghanistan, the highest number since the US-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001.

Opium trade booms

The Vienna-based UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), releasing its latest Afghanistan Opium Winter Rapid Assessment Survey on February 5, warned that "Europe, Russia and the countries along the Afghan heroin routes should brace themselves again for major health and security consequences" from another bumper opium harvest. Afghanistan produced 8200 tonnes of opium in 2007.

Last year's survey recorded a record 193,000 hectares used to grow opium — a 17% increase over 2006. The increase was mainly from large-scale cultivation in the south, particularly in Helmand province, which alone accounted for 53% of the total Afghan opium crop. But wet weather expected this year may push up poppy production, according to the report, which was based on interviews with 469 Afghan village leaders in 265 districts between December 10 and January 14.

In the south, 85% of villages surveyed indicated they would grow opium poppy this year. Nearly a third of villages said they had received cash advances from drug traffickers to grow poppy. Last year, Afghanistan was estimated by the UNODC to have accounted for at least 90% of the world's supply of opium — the main ingredient in heroin.

In 2000, the Taliban regime — in collaboration with the UNODC — had imposed a ban on poppy cultivation that reduced output from 3000 tonnes that year to only 185 tonnes in 2001. But under the US-installed puppet regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, opium production quickly surged, reaching 3400 tonnes in 2002.

On November 24, the London Times reported that "President Karzai's half-brother Wali, head of Kandahar's provincial council, continues to be accused by senior government sources, as well as foreign analysts and officials, as having a key role in orchestrating the movement of heroin from Kandahar eastward through Helmand [province] and out across the Iranian border".