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Entries in Inter Press Service (3)


Afghanistan: Obama & Karzai Split Over Talks with Taliban? (Porter)

Gareth Porter evaluates Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington for Inter Press Service:

U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai sought to portray a united front on the issue of a political settlement with the Taliban in their joint press conference Wednesday. But their comments underlined the deep rift that divides Karzai and the United States over the issue.

Karzai obtained Obama's approval for the peace jirga scheduled for later this month --- an event the Obama administration had earlier regarded with grave doubt because of Karzai's ostensible invitation to the Taliban to participate.

Afghanistan Analysis: Karzai 2, Obama 1 (Cole)

On the broader question of reconciliation, however, Obama was clearly warning Karzai not to pursue direct talks with the Taliban leadership, at least until well into 2011.

Karzai played down the Taliban role in a peace jirga, saying that it was the "thousands of Taliban who are not against Afghanistan, or against the Afghan people... who are not against America either..." who would be addressed at the conference.

But he also acknowledged that the jirga would discuss how to approach at least some in the Taliban leadership about peace talks.

Karzai said, "Those within the Taliban leadership structure who, again, are not part of al Qaeda or the terrorist networks, or ideologically against Afghanistan's progress and rights and constitution, democracy, the place of women in the Afghan society, the progress that they've made... are welcome."

The "peace consultative jirga", he said, would be "consulting the Afghan people, taking their advice on how and through which means and which speed should the Afghan government proceed in the quest for peace".

Karzai thus made it clear that he would be taking his cues on peace talks with the Taliban from popular sentiment rather than from Washington.

That could not have been a welcome message to the Obama administration, because of Karzai's well-known pattern of catering to views of the Pashtun population, which are overwhelmingly favourable to peace talks with the Taliban.

Obama endorsed the peace jirga, but he limited U.S. support to "reintegration of those [Taliban] individuals into Afghan society".

Obama pointedly referred to what had evidently been a contentious issue in their private meeting --- his insistence that moves toward reconciliation with the Taliban should not go forward until after the U.S. military has carried out Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's counterinsurgency plan for southern Afghanistan.

"One of the things I emphasised to President Karzai," said Obama, adding "however", to indicate that it was a matter of disagreement, "is that the incentives for the Taliban to lay down arms, or at least portions of the Taliban to lay down arms, and make peace with the Afghan government in part depends on our effectiveness in breaking their momentum militarily."

Obama asserted that "the timing" of the reconciliation process was linked to U.S. military success, because that success would determine when the Taliban "start making different calculations about what's in their interests".

Neither Obama nor Karzai gave any hint that the Afghan president had agreed with that point. Karzai openly sided with tribal elders in Kandahar who were vocally opposed to the U.S. military occupation of Kandahar City and surrounding districts at a large shura Apr. 4.

An administration official who is familiar with the Obama-Karzai meeting confirmed to IPS Thursday that the differences between the two over the issue of peace talks remained, but that the administration regards it as positive that Karzai was at least consulting with Obama on his thinking.

Before the Karzai-Obama meeting, the official said, "A lot of people were jumping to the conclusion that [Karzai and the Taliban] are talking about deals. Now he is talking to us before making any back room deals."

Read rest of article....

Afghanistan Analysis: Is the "Kandahar Offensive" Crumbling? (Porter)

Gareth Porter writes for Inter Press Service:

Although Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's plan for wresting the Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar from the Taliban is still in its early stages of implementation, there are already signs that setbacks and obstacles it has encountered have raised serious doubts among top military officials in Washington about whether the plan is going to work.

Scepticism about McChrystal's ambitious aims was implicit in the way the Pentagon report on the war issued Apr. 26 assessed the progress of the campaign in Marja. Now, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai begins a four-day round of consultations with President Barack Obama and other senior U.S. officials here this week, the new report has been given even more pointed expression by an unnamed "senior military official" quoted in a column in The Washington Post Sunday by David Ignatius.

Afghanistan Analysis: Does General McChrystal Have Any Idea of What is Happening? (Mull)

The senior military officer criticised McChrystal's announcement in February that he had "a government in a box, ready to roll in" for the Marja campaign, for having created "an expectation of rapidity and efficiency that doesn't exist now", according to Ignatius.

The same military official is also quoted as pointing out that parts of Helmand that were supposed to have been cleared by the offensive in February and March are in fact still under Taliban control and that Afghan government performance in the wake of the offensive had been disappointing, according to Ignatius.

The outlook at the Pentagon and the White House on the nascent Kandahar offensive is also pessimistic, judging from the comment to Ignatius by an unnamed "senior administration official". The official told Ignatius the operation is "still a work in progress", observing that McChrystal's command was still trying to decide how much of the local government the military could "salvage" and how much "you have to rebuild".

That is an obvious reference to the dilemma faced by the U.S. military in Kandahar: the entire government structure is controlled by Ahmed Wali Karzai, the much-despised brother of President Hamid Karzai. The U.S.-supported provincial governor now being counted on to introduce governance reforms, on the other hand, is generally regarded by Kandaharis as powerless, as Jonathan Partlow reported in The Washington Post Apr. 29.

These negative comments on the campaign in Helmand and Kandahar by senior Washington officials pointing to problems with McChrystal's plan suggest that even more serious concerns are being expressed behind the scenes.

The Pentagon report on the war betrays similar doubts about the strategy being carried out by McChrystal, both by what it highlights and what it fails to say. Damning with faint praise, the report says the offensive waged in the Marja region and elsewhere in Helmand achieved only "some success in clearing insurgents from their strongholds".

Paralleling the quote from the "senior military official", the report says progress in "governance and development" in has been "slow". Demonstrating that the Afghan government could provide "governance and development" had been announced as the central aim of the offensive in Marja.

The section of the Pentagon report on the state of the insurgency goes even further toward declaring that the McChrystal plan had failed to achieve a central objective, concluding that the Taliban strategy for countering the offensive "has proven effective in slowing the spread of governance and development".

The key finding is that the Taliban have "reinfiltrated the cleared areas" of Helmand and "dissuaded locals from meeting with the Afghan government" by executing some who had initially collaborated.

The overall negative tone of the analysis of what happened in Helmand appears to reflect a decision by Pentagon officials to withhold its vote of confidence in the McChrystal war plan.

Read rest of article....

Afghanistan Analysis: The Growth of the "Taliban Zone" (Porter)

Gareth Porter, writing for Inter Press Service, complements the article we posted on Sunday pointing to a surge of Taliban activity over the last six months:

The Pentagon was still trying to spin its report on the war in Afghanistan issued this week as holding out hope because the instability had leveled off, even as some news outlets were noting that it documents the continued expansion of Taliban capabilities and operations.

Afghanistan Analysis: A Very Bad Six Months (White)

The most significant revelation in the report, however, is that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and the U.S.-NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) joint command now acknowledge officially that the Taliban insurgents dominate a vast contiguous zone of heavily populated territory across southern Afghanistan that McChrystal regards as the most critical area in the country.

The report admits that the population in key districts across most southern provinces is sympathetic to or supportive of the insurgents.

The contiguous zone of Taliban political power stretches all the way across the 13 provinces from Farah province in the far west of the country through Helmand and Kandahar to Wardak, Logar, Paktia and Khost provinces west and south of Kabul.

The extent of Taliban political power in southern Afghanistan, which had not been acknowledged previously by ISAF, is documented in a map showing an "overall assessment of key districts" as of Mar. 18.

The map shows for the first time the location and political and security status of 121 districts chosen late last year by planners on McChrystal's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Staff as the most important for a strategy of weakening the Taliban gains.

The contiguous Taliban zone includes but is not limited to 58 of the 121 key districts, of which seven have populations assessed as "supporting" the Taliban, 25 with populations "sympathetic" to the Taliban, and 21 with populations that are "neutral".

Only five of the districts within that zone are shown as having populations that are "sympathetic to" the Afghan government and none that are "supporting" the government.

The degree of Taliban political dominance in the south is partly obscured, however, by an obvious effort to portray the attitudes of the population in Helmand and Kandahar provinces more favourably than is reflected in reports from those locations.

Eight of the "neutral" districts shown on the map are in Helmand province, where it has acknowledged in the past that the population was largely sympathetic to the Taliban.

The districts of Nad Ali, in which Marja is located, Naw Zad, Lashkar Gah and Sangin are all shown on the map as having "neutral" populations, even though it has been well documented that the populations of those heavily opium poppy-growing districts had turned decisively against the government and foreign troops over government eradication efforts and the abusive behaviour of police associated with local warlords.

The population of Nad Ali had been shown in an assessment in late December as being supportive of the Taliban. Naw Zad and Sangin districts, on the other hand, had been assessed as "neutral" in December.

A report by The Guardian's Jon Boone last week quoted a recent British visitor to Sangin as remarking on the "intense hatred of people who hate everything you stand for" he had felt from people there.

McChrystal's staff apparently defined "neutral" so as to include populations in districts where U.S. and NATO forces have carried out operations aimed at clearing the Taliban and are now the object of attempts to change their political views.

Earlier this year, however, an ISAF official familiar with the assessment on which the command was basing its plans clearly included those same districts among those in which the Taliban were regarded as having gotten popular support. The official told IPS in an interview in late January, "We have a system of 80 districts where Taliban influence is strongest, where people support the Taliban for whatever reason."

That set of 80 districts that are the most pro-Taliban in the country is same set of 80 "Key Terrain districts" defined in the new Pentagon report as "areas the control of (and support from which) provides a marked advantage to either the Government of Afghanistan or the insurgents."

The ISAF official also said that "about one-fourth" of the 80 districts in which the Taliban had the strongest support would be in the "contiguous security zone" that ISAF was planning to establish in Helmand and Kandahar provinces this year. That coincides with the 19 districts in those two provinces that are shown on the Dec. 24 assessment map as "neutral", "sympathetic" to the Taliban or "supportive" of the Taliban.

If the districts labeled on the map as "neutral" are understood to be pro-Taliban as well, the districts in all three categories form an almost unbroken chain of territory with populations leaning toward the Taliban across the full length of the Pashtun south.

The 80 districts described by the ISAF official in January as providing the strongest support to the Taliban apparently included only those pro-Taliban districts that had the largest population and were closest to the major lines of communications. The list does not include a large number of other districts in several Pashtun provinces of the south where the Taliban insurgents predominate but which are farther from the major roads.

The evidence of a coherent Taliban zone of political control in the new Pentagon assessment is consistent with an Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) Provincial/District Threat Assessment as of Apr. 23, 2009, which was reported by BBC last August. An ANSF security map reflecting the ASNF assessment showed almost every district in the Pashtun south except for Nimruz province as being either "high risk" or Taliban-controlled.

Although McChrystal seemed to reject the idea that the Taliban had broad political support in his initial assessment last August, an "integrated campaign plan" jointly agreed by McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry that same month hinted strongly at such support in Pashtun areas.

The campaign plan document concluded, "Key groups have become nostalgic for the security and justice Taliban rule provided."

McChrystal's announcement earlier this year that ISAF would establish a "contiguous security zone" which would include the bulk of the population of Helmand and Kandahar provinces may have been a response to the recognition that the Taliban had formed its own zone of political dominance in southern Afghanistan.

However, given recent evidence that foreign troops have been unable to clear insurgents from Marja, and that local leaders and elders in Kandahar are opposing U.S. military operations in and around the city, that objective now appears to be well beyond the reach of U.S. and NATO troops.