Afghanistan's shaky recovery is threatened by increasingly violent attacks from the Taliban, which is using Pakistan as a base to launch assaults against Afghanistan that have killed thousands of civilians in the last year. The Taliban's campaign has included using suicide bombers, planting roadside bombs, shooting civilians, and attacking police and security forces, all part of efforts to try to destabilize the nation and overthrow the democratically elected government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
What’s the current security situation in Afghanistan?
It is rapidly worsening. Taliban attacks have killed more than 2,000 people in the last year, prompting a recent counterattack mission by U.S.-led coalition forces that has killed more than 600 Taliban militants since the beginning of June. All this comes as NATO prepares to take over many security duties in southern Afghanistan from the United States at the end of July. The increasing violence makes the prospects for NATO's new mission even more troubled, experts say. "It's dicey," says Dennis Kux, a South Asia specialist and senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "[NATO's] stretched very thin in Afghanistan, the pressure from the Taliban is increasing, there are equipment shortages, and the United States is trying to get out. It's a real challenge for them to succeed," he says.
Which groups provide security?
Security, such as it is, in the country is provided by three groups: the U.S.-led coalition forces under the Combined Forces Command, the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and the Afghan security services. ISAF was originally meant to help the Karzai government establish order and maintain security in the Kabul area, but it slowly expanded its mandate as unrest spread in the country, particularly in the east and south. Next month ISAF will move into the restive southern provinces for the first time.
How large are the forces?
There are more than 26,000 coalition troops from twenty-five countries in Afghanistan, according to CENTCOM. The United States has roughly 20,000 troops in the country, with plans to draw down to about 16,000 by the end of the year. There are also some 7,500 coalition troops from allied nations. ISAF currently has about 12,000 forces in Afghanistan, experts say, with plans to increase to 20,000 by the end of the year.
Which NATO forces will take over U.S. security duties in the south?
Security duties in the south will primarily be handled by some 3,000 British troops in Helmand province, roughly 2,200 Canadians in Kandahar, and about 1,500 Dutch soldiers in Oruzgan province. Small numbers of troops from Denmark and Romania are also involved in the NATO expansion effort. Other ISAF members elected to have their troops serve in less volatile areas. U.S. forces, which were due to hand over the small southeastern province of Zabol, are still in charge there as a kind of test case for security, experts say.
In addition to these forces, non-NATO ally Australia—which has been deeply involved with NATO efforts in Afghanistan—has several hundred well-regarded commandos deployed in the south. "They're some of the few troops that actually do fighting," says Amin Tarzi, an Afghanistan analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
"[Australians are] some of the few troops that actually do fighting," Tarzi says .
What kinds of challenges do the NATO troops face?
The escalating violence in the south and the effective impotence of Karzai's government will be the biggest challenges for the new force, experts say. In addition, Afghanistan is still plagued by rampant corruption, overt drug cultivation and trafficking, and lawlessness. NATO troops have a limited mandate to do counter narcotics work, and different countries have different operational rules: for example, some soldiers can shoot to kill, while others can only fight in self-defense. ISAF also suffers from a critical lack of equipment—including cargo helicopters and fighter jets that can launch air strikes—so if the United States does not provide these capabilities, the NATO mission won't have them, which will limit its effectiveness, experts say.
What’s the role of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams?
There are nine Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) run by NATO, and fourteen by the coalition. They serve in provinces across the nation. The teams are responsible for jump-starting economic development in Afghanistan's provinces; however, the perilous security situation, particularly in the country's east and south, means that most PRTs require military protection to do their work. One PRT in central Bamian province, run by New Zealand, is seen as a model for successful operations, credited with building community relations, fostering economic development, and effectively establishing security and policing in the region.
But some experts say most PRTs are less effective. Most of the teams are very small, with fewer than 100 people, and they are often assigned to work in areas the size of large U.S. states. Most of their resources are devoted to overhead and security, with little manpower or funds left over for actual reconstruction. "My view is that PRTs are keeping the flag up, not much more than that," Tarzi says.
How strong is the Taliban now?
They are growing in strength, most experts say, becoming increasingly sophisticated in their training and mounting larger and more complex attacks. Taliban-attributed attacks have killed thousands of Afghans—and several dozen foreigners—in the last year, the most violent period since the U.S.-led invasion overthrew the Taliban in 2001. The group is attracting growing numbers of followers, young men influenced by or affiliated with al-Qaeda or local militias loyal to Afghan warlords. Many young Afghans are also being radicalized in madrassas in neighboring Pakistan and returning to volunteer for suicide missions or fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The group is flourishing, especially in areas like the south, where the central government has the least power. "The Taliban feed off the weakness of the state," Tarzi says.
Many young Afghans are also being radicalized in madrassas in neighboring Pakistan and returning to volunteer for suicide missions or fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
What is Pakistan’s role?
Many Afghans, including Karzai, blame Pakistan for providing a safe haven to Taliban fighters and allowing them to use the border area to launch attacks in Afghanistan. While President Pervez Musharraf and other Pakistani officials deny these charges, most experts say the Pakistanis are deeply involved. "They're helping [the Taliban] by not putting a lid on them," Kux says. "They're keeping their hand in the game." Experts say the Pakistani support—or benign neglect—of the Taliban serves many strategic goals for Islamabad. The Pakistani leadership can cater to domestic religious parties that back Musharraf and support the Taliban, appease Islamists in Pakistan, pressure Karzai not to get too close to India, and position themselves to have influence in Afghanistan when the Americans leave.
How strong are the Afghan armed forces?
There are currently about 40,000 members of the Afghan National Army (ANA), well-regarded for their professionalism and courage. "They were a very well-disciplined, very aggressive force that was highly skilled and had great respect from the American units they worked with. And American units all wanted to be out in the field with the Afghan National Army, which speaks volumes for the ANA," said Lt. Gen. David Barnes, former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. But most experts agree that the ANA, however capable, is still heavily reliant on U.S. and coalition troops for equipment, funds, leadership, and everything else it needs to function.
The coalition had planned to build the ANA to 70,000 soldiers by 2008, still a modest figure to maintain security across Afghanistan. But Karzai's government, which currently relies on international aid for nearly its entire budget, cannot afford to pay the salaries of its soldiers. When the pay stops, some experts say the army could easily break into separate armed militias serving warlords. "Are they loyal to the state? That question has not yet been answered," Tarzi says.