‘The Taliban Is Hitting, but Not Winning’

BRUSSELS—(ENEWSPF)—25 May 2010. Op-ed by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.

The news from Afghanistan over the past few days has been disturbing: a Taliban terrorist attack in Kabul; a failed but dramatic attack on a NATO base; and reports of Taliban intimidation in Central Helmand and Kandahar, where Afghan and NATO forces are ramping up operations.

None of this can or should be dismissed. But it is important to frame accurately what is happening in 2010. We know that there will continue to be Taliban and other insurgent terrorist attacks. It would be impossible to try and stop or prevent each and every one.

The point is that in 2010, preventing each and every attack is not the point. Yes, there is an Afghan and NATO offensive in 2010 — but ours is a political offensive, and it is aimed right at the heart of the Taliban.

The aim of this political offensive is, in essence, to change the political conditions in the key strategic areas of Afghanistan, so that the most extreme elements of the insurgency — those that will not under any circumstances give up terrorism and intimidation — are marginalized. Our aim is to ensure that they will not have the political support that they would need to pose a strategic challenge to the Afghan government — after which they will wither on the vine.

There are a number of steps being taken to address that political challenge. They are all Afghan–led, but NATO is providing support across the board.

First, President Karzai’s peace jirga, which will begin in few days, will pave the way for an internal Afghan peace process. The jirga will set out the conditions by which Afghans who no longer wish to support the Taliban can take on a peaceful, honorable life within the Afghan system.

Second, the Kabul Conference, at the end of July, will agree on the foundations for a transition to Afghan lead, politically and militarily. Our aim is to begin that transition process this year.

Third, there will be elections in September to give the Afghan Parliament a new mandate. The elections must be well run and they must be inclusive. There is already one very encouraging sign: 20 percent of those who have signed up to run in the elections are women. That is remarkable for Afghanistan, and an example for the region.

The political and military operation in Central Helmand and Kandahar reflects this political focus. There will be no D-Day in Kandahar. Our effort there is a combined Afghan and international civil-military campaign to change the political situation, to gradually enhance security, to strengthen governance and to expand the government’s authority in key areas of insurgent influence.

It is slower than a military assault. It is not visible in the same way as an attack on an air base or a suicide attack in downtown Kabul. And it will take time.

But three months after the launch of our effort in Central Helmand, there are clear indications that this political offensive can work. In an area where there had been no governance except Taliban brutality, local leaders are now meeting freely and regularly to chart their own future. Twenty two new schools are teaching over 3,000 students, of which over 400 are girls — something impossible in that area just a few weeks earlier. Because of better security, more than 20 markets are now open for business. And because people feel safer, road traffic has quadrupled in the past 10 weeks.

Of course, the security situation remains difficult. Taliban are hiding among, and attempting to intimidate, the local population. Their weapon of choice — the improvised explosive device (IED) — remains a lethal threat to local residents, government officials and our forces as well. Fortunately, the number of IED strikes in Central Helmand is declining, while the number of IED finds is rising, in part because local people are tipping soldiers off about where they are being planted.

No one has any illusions that success in Afghanistan will be easy. We — the Afghan people and the soldiers in the NATO-led mission — have already paid a heavy price, and there are many difficult days ahead.

But slowly and surely, the Afghan government will continue to get stronger and more legitimate in the eyes of its people. More and more Afghans will turn away from the Taliban. And Afghanistan will become a place where terrorism can find no home, no safe haven, no launching pad and no inspiration.