NATO chief warns of Afghan tipping point
By FISNIK ABRASHI, Associated Press Writers
KABUL, Afghanistan – NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan warned on Sunday that a majority of Afghans would likely switch their allegiance to resurgent Taliban militants if their lives show no visible improvements in the next six months.
Gen. David Richards, a British officer who commands NATO’s 32,000 troops here, told The Associated Press that he would like to have about 2,500 additional troops to form a reserve battalion to help speed up reconstruction and development efforts.
He said the south of the country, where NATO troops have fought their most intense battles this year, has been “broadly stabilized,” which gives the alliance an opportunity to launch projects there. If it doesn’t, he estimates about 70 percent of Afghans could switch their allegiance from NATO to the Taliban.
“They will say, ‘We do not want the Taliban but then we would rather have that austere and unpleasant life that that might involve than another five years of fighting,'” Richards said in an interview.
“We have created an opportunity,” following the intense fighting that left over 500 militants dead in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, he said. “If we do not take advantage of this, then you can pour an additional 10,000 troops next year and we would not succeed because we would have lost by then the consent of the people.”
NATO extended its security mission last week to all of Afghanistan, taking command of 12,000 U.S. troops in the war-battered country’s east. The mission is the biggest ground combat operation in NATO history and gives Richards command of the largest number of U.S. troops under a foreign leader since World War II.
Some 8,000 U.S. troops will continue to function outside NATO, tracking al-Qaida terrorists, helping train Afghan security forces and doing reconstruction work.
Afghanistan is going through its worst bout of violence since the U.S.-led invasion removed the former Taliban regime from power five years ago. The Taliban has made a comeback in the south and east of the country and is seriously threatening Western attempts to stabilize the country after almost three decades of war.
Taliban militants have acknowledged adopting the suicide attacks commonly used by insurgents in Iraq, launching 78 suicide bombings across Afghanistan this year which have killed close to 200 people, NATO said Sunday.
There were only two suicide attacks in 2003 and six in 2004, according to Seth Jones, an analyst for the U.S.-based RAND Corp. He said there were 21 in 2005.
Richards, who will lead the NATO forces in Afghanistan until U.S. Gen. Dan K. McNeil takes over in February, said the Taliban may lose support among Afghans if it continues the attacks.
“The very cowardly use of suicide bombers, the tragic use of suicide bombers, reveals weakness on the part of the Taliban, not strength,” he said.
Richards said NATO troops have also seen an upsurge in violence along the eastern border with Pakistan since that country’s government signed a deal with pro-Taliban militants last month to end fighting that broke out after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.
U.S. military officials have said the number of attacks on coalition and Afghan troops has tripled in the tribal border region. Afghan and Western officials have repeatedly accused Pakistan of not doing all it can to block the flow of insurgents over the border, but Pakistan has rejected the charge.
Richards, who will travel to Pakistan for meetings with military leaders on Monday, urged “partnership and cooperation rather than confrontation” in dealings with Pakistan.
The U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces killed five suspected insurgents in a clash in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, the Ministry of Defense said. One suspected insurgent was detained following the gunfight in eastern Paktika province.