U.S. President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to win the war in Afghanistan. On taking office in January, he promptly ordered 17,000 U.S. troops to reinforce U.S., NATO and allied forces in the Central Asian country. The reinforcement were an interim measure while Obama’s national-security team conducted a two-month strategy review, the results of which would guide the American war effort moving forward.
The final review is not expected to wrap until the end of March, but there have been hints regarding its major findings. Observers expect Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy to de-emphasize traditional combat power in favor of diplomacy, reconstruction and assistance to the Afghan government.
“I think that if there is a reconciliation, if insurgents are made to put down their arms, if the reconciliation is essentially on the terms being offered by the government, then I think that we would be very open to that,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told U.S. National Public Radio.
U.S. allies welcomed the prospect of negotiation. In Uruzgan province, in southern Afghanistan, Dutch and Australian forces have been fighting a holding action against the Taliban along a major supply route connecting Afghanistan’s poppy-growing regions to the Taliban’s strongholds in western Pakistan. Australian Brigadier David Hook described the situation as a “stalemate.”
Two years ago, Dutch, Australian and Afghan forces fought a fierce battle in Uruzgan after hundreds of Taliban fighters assaulted the town of Chora. (See video here.) Scores of Afghan civilians and police died, as well as two Dutch soldiers and an unreported number of Taliban. Some of the Afghan civilians were reportedly killed by errant Dutch artillery and air strikes. Around ten children were killed in a suicide bombing targeting Dutch forces visiting a school.
Hook’s comments to the press have highlighted some of the challenges in negotiating with the Taliban. He said the Taliban in Uruzgan are loosely organized, so there is no single entity with which to negotiate. Afghan officials said Uruzgan’s militants operate in widely scattered small groups and many of them come from other provinces.
Furthermore, making peace with militant elements requires convincing them that they’re joining the winning side, Philip Hatton, an Australian official, told The Sydney Morning Herald. “There are an active minority who support the Government and an active minority who support the insurgency. The vast middle ground is waiting to see which way to jump.”
Dutch and Australian efforts in Uruzgan heavily emphasize reconstruction. The main Australian contingent comprises civil engineers equipped with construction vehicles, tasked with building roads, bridges and schools. The Australians maintain a vocational training center for Afghans at their main base in Uruzgan. Australian police advisors train the Afghan National Police force in the province.
While awaiting high-level decisions on Afghanistan strategy, coalition forces in Uruzgan continue fighting, at times calling their overwhelming firepower superiority. In early March, a U.S. Navy F/A-18F fighter jet strafed suspected militants reportedly planting bombs in Uruzgan’s major city of Tarin Kowt, according to the U.S. military. U.S. and British aircraft also performed “show of force” missions, flying low to frighten suspected militants.
Insurgents’ bombs are the major threat in Uruzgan. On March 14, a bomb struck an Afghan police vehicle, injuring the occupants. Earlier that day, the police and coalition forces in Tarin Kowt had found and destroyed “five large containers of homemade explosives as well as more than ten 107-millimeter rockets” that could be used in bombs, according to the U.S. military.
A week prior, Afghan police said they killed five Taliban in a firefight in Tarin Kowt.
“There are elements of the Taliban that are absolutely irreconcilable and frankly will have to be killed,” Gates told U.S. TV network PBS.
“But there may be other elements that are willing to and maybe a majority who do it because it’s a job because they get paid, there may be some who do it for other reasons but I think there is the potential for reconciliation.”
(Photo: Australian Ministry of Defense)