As the Australian Defence Force mourns its 11th soldier to
die in Afghanistan, Private Benjamin Ranaudo, and more than 400 additional troops prepare to travel to the region, many Australians are asking what the future of the conflict holds.
After much anticipation, the United States has finally started to reveal its political and military strategy in the country.
Soon after entering office, President Obama delivered on an election campaign pledge by boosting troop numbers in Afghanistan from around 30,000 to 50,000. Last month the Administration removed General David McKiernan as its army chief in the warzone. McKiernan, who was effectively responsible for all foreign and Afghan forces in the country, was considered too much of a traditionalist to tackle the unconventional tactics used by the Taliban. He was replaced by the Special Forces-trained General Stanley McChrystal who is counted as an expert in counter-insurgency warfare.
Along with a major upscale in so-called targeted missile strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan, American and British-led forces of predominantly Afghan National Army soldiers have, since the beginning of July, commenced the most ambitious ground invasions of the Taliban heartlands of south and east Afghanistan in the past five years.
Operations Khanjar (Pashto for "sword strike") and Panchai Palang (Pashto for "Panther’s claw"), the respective American and British ground assaults in the southern province of Helmand, are the first of these invasions. Their ostensible aim is to "flush out" the Taliban and create enough stability for reconstruction activities and voting in the August presidential elections to take place safely.
According to Operation Khanjar commander Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, the operations will differ from previous expeditions because "where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces".
There is an inherently simple logic to this. In the past, foreign armies in Afghanistan would take over a region with overwhelming qualitative and quantitative military power only to quickly return to their fortress-like compounds. The Taliban — a loose term referring not only to the original members of the Taliban but also to a wide assortment of young tribesman lured by honour, anger or coercion — would merely melt into the civilian population or retreat to other areas such as the border regions of Pakistan. This time, Western planners hope that the decision to remain in remote captured areas and to develop infrastructure will prevent the Taliban from returning and reduce local sympathy for them.
But tensions between Afghans and foreign forces remain high.
The latest source of tension has been the murder of a police chief and five others in another vital province to the south, Kandahar, by private Afghan military contractor on the payroll of US Special Forces. Although the United States said the contractors acted alone, Afghan authorities held US forces responsible for the deaths.
And when Benjamin Ranaudo was killed last week, another Australian digger was seriously injured, along with three Afghan civilians, by an improvised explosive device in the central Afghan Baluchi valley. Australian forces have been involved in search and destroy and reconstruction missions in the area since 2005.
So far, 2009 has been the deadliest year of fighting for NATO forces in Afghanistan, with 207 killed since the beginning of the year. According to the website icasualties, the death toll for all of 2008 was 294. By contrast, US and ISAF officials claim that their forces have killed several hundred Taliban fighters in the same period. Although no official numbers are available, based on figures provided in media reports, Afghan National Army casualties are believed to number in the several hundreds too. Furthermore, up to 500 Afghan civilians have been killed in the fighting so far this year.
Despite the carnage, the war is expected to escalate and so are "hit and run" attacks by the Taliban — like the recent capture by insurgents of three Afghans and a US soldier in the eastern province of Paktika. Private Bowe Bergdahl soon appeared in a video calling for a withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, a key Taliban demand over the past eight years.
Although visibly shaken in the video, which is believed to have been released by the pro-Taliban Haqqani network, Bergdahl certainly appeared to be in better spirits than the thousands of insurgents and civilians imprisoned by US and Afghan authorities. One of those prisons, at the massive ex-Soviet Bagram Airbase, has been dubbed Obama’s Guantanamo Bay. Allegations of physical abuse eerily reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq are rife at Bagram.
As civil rights lawyer Kal Raustiala explains, the Obama Administration has taken a leaf out of the Bush White House arguing that US Constitutional protections of habeas corpus do not apply to Bagram Airbase because it is situated in a war zone.
That argument was defeated in the US Federal Court earlier this year. But the Obama Administration is appealing the decision and there are plans to expand Bagram’s prison complex, along with the infamous Pul-e-Chakri prison in the outskirts of Kabul.
"There are still perhaps as many as 18,000 people in legal black holes," according to the UK-based charity Reprieve. Up to 1100 of those are believed to be held at Bagram while Pul-e-Chakri may contain as many as four times that number. They include suspected terrorists from other countries. Inmate numbers are expected to rise with the capture of more real or suspected insurgents during the fighting this year.
To its credit, however, US authorities may be on the cusp of a new program to improve Afghanistan’s moribund prison and justice systems. As the New York Times reports this week, a US military review has called for a sweeping reform of detention and interrogation practices at Bagram and across the Afghanistan justice system in order to douse Taliban recruitment among resentful prisoners. The review also recommends the separation of the most ardent insurgents from other inmates. Ultimately, the US would finance Afghan-run prisons that would teach prisoners vocational skills and more moderate interpretations of Islam.
In the long term, reforms such as these may prove more powerful than more boots on the ground.
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