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NATO Grapples with Afghan South

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: July 11, 2006

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Nearly five years after a U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban government, security in Afghanistan remains tenuous and the country's future is uncertain. The last few months have seen a resurgence of Taliban forces that coincides with NATO's expanding role in security operations. On July 11, in a surprise visit to Kabul, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pledged to root out the Taliban fighters (AP), who are concentrated in the south of the country. In fact, NATO forces are embroiled in a months-long effort to do just that. The most recent episode of Operation Mountain Thrust, as it is called, killed some forty insurgent fighters (MSNBC). A New York Times interactive feature takes a close look at the campaign.

The size and effectiveness of the Afghan insurgency remain a bit unclear. Retired U.S. General Barry McCaffrey recently reported that despite some progress, Taliban forces are operating in ever-growing units (PDF). Both McCaffrey and Bill Roggio, a civilian blogger embedded with Western forces in Afghanistan, say Taliban fighters are still unable to stand up to Western militaries, and their real strength is their ability to blend into local populations and slip across the border into Pakistan. During her June 28 visit to Kabul, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with RFE/RL about efforts to control this long, treacherous border, and the potential for Afghanistan's instability to spread into nearby nations. A recent report from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) examines this "ever dangerous neighborhood" (PDF), and the Economist has a special report on the danger of a destabilized Pakistan.

Guerrilla fighters are not the only trans-border threat. Afghanistan produces nearly 90 percent of the world's opium poppies (PDF) and though efforts to limit poppy production reduce the actual acreage cultivated, Western officials say this year's harvest could be the biggest ever (Asia Times). In addition to providing cash for warlords and insurgents, the cultivation of poppies poses a challenge to NATO-led provincial reconstruction teams aiming to spread the influence of the Afghan central government. The work of these groups is described in another USIP report (PDF).

With NATO forces set to formally take charge of patrolling volatile southern areas on July 31, CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot says challenges abound (LAT). U.S. Lt. Gen. David Richards says this new responsibility is "hugely important" (TIME) for the alliance. Lt. Gen. David Barno tells CFR.org's Esther Pan the United States will make sure its NATO allies have the capacity to patrol southern Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the BBC looks at what life is like for the average Afghan, and a CFR Special Report looks at how to take Afghanistan "from turmoil to normalcy."

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