Talking to The 'Second-Tier' Taliban

The UK Guardian reports on concerted effort to start unprecedented talks between the Taliban and British and American envoys.

Senior ministers and commanders on the ground believe they have created the right conditions to open up a dialogue with "second-tier" local leaders now the Taliban have been forced back in a swath of Helmand province.

They are hoping that Britain's continuing military presence in Helmand, strengthened by the arrival of thousands of US troops, will encourage Taliban commanders to end the insurgency. There is even talk in London and Washington of a military "exit strategy".

Speaking at the end of the five-week Operation Panther's Claw in which hundreds of British troops were reported to have cleared insurgents from a vital region of Helmand province, Lieutenant-General Simon Mayall, deputy chief of defence staff, said: "It gives the Taliban 'second tier' room to reconnect with the government and this is absolutely at the heart of this operation."

The second tier of the insurgency are regarded as crucial because they control large numbers of Taliban fighters in Pashtun-dominated southern Afghanistan. The first tier of Taliban commanders - hardliners around Mullah Omar - could not be expected to start talks in the foreseeable future. The third tier - footsoldiers with no strong commitments - are not regarded as influential or significant players.

Operation Panther's Claw is a recently concluded campaign in Helmand Province conducted by British troops. British commanders hope that campaign will prove a decisive turning point in the eight-year conflict. The operation took nearly 3,000 British troops, many engaged in gun battles, to capture an area of 150 square miles. The advances helped to secure the territory with a population of 80,000 which had been held by a estimated Taliban force of 500.

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A Spike in Casualties in Afghanistan

With the deaths of four more US servicemen in eastern Afghanistan, July became the deadliest month of the war for US forces. So far, 27 American servicemen have been killed this month exceeding the 26 killed last September. July had already become the deadliest month of the war for all foreign troops with well over 50 killed.

Britain suffered its greatest one day loss since the 1982 Falklands War when eight men were killed in a single day earlier this month prompting an outpouring of grief in the United Kingdom. At least 187 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, more than the 179 lost during the six years of the Iraq war.

While military casualties rising, the situation in Afghanistan is also taking a heavy toll on civilians. In the remote west, 12 Afghan traders were killed when their van hit a roadside bomb most likely meant for Afghan or foreign troops. And with the Afghan elections now a month away, we can expect the casualties to mount as the Taliban insurgency attempts to disrupt the polls.

Now British commanders are warning that the extra 700 troops sent to help secure the August 20 presidential election will have to stay longer and even more may be needed if the goal of seizing ground from the Taliban and then holding it is to be achieved. If the British are staying longer and considering more troops, can longer US stays and more US troops be far behind?

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It's McChrystal's War Now

The US Senate unanimously confirmed Army Lt. General Stanley McChrystal  as commander of US Forces Afghanistan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Lt. General McChrystal now succeeds Army General David D. McKiernan as top commander in Afghanistan. Before serving as director of the Joint Staff, Lt. General McChrystal was the commander of Joint Special Operations command spending the majority of his military career commanding special operations and airborne infantry units. He is a West Point graduate, class of 1976.

While this was going on in Washington over at NATO headquarters in Brussels, NATO defense ministers were putting the final touches on a new command structure in Afghanistan that would solidify US control on military operations. Not surprising given the growing dominance of the United States in the alliance's campaign in Afghanistan. More from the New York Times:

The plans, expected to be approved Friday, the last day of the ministerial meetings here, would split military operations from training missions, putting three-star American generals in charge of both commands, said the diplomats, who would speak only anonymously, as is customary.

The generals would report to the new overall military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who will be responsible for the overall NATO strategy and who has been given extensive leeway by the United States to pick his direct subordinates.

To soothe European worries about an American takeover of the NATO campaign, General McChrystal will retain the British deputy commander of the alliance's mission in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Jim Dutton.

But diplomats say the reorganization of the Afghanistan command reflects the reality of United States dominance of the military campaign there.

The United States currently supplies 28,850 troops of the 61,130-strong NATO mission in Afghanistan, according to the alliance. Those figures do not take into account a separate American contribution under Operation Enduring Freedom, the counterterrorism efforts that are concentrated mainly in the south and along the border with Pakistan.

But when President Obama's surge in Afghanistan is complete, the United States will have about 68,000 troops there.

"Any concerns should not be about too much America," said James Appathurai, a NATO spokesman. "It should be about providing from other allies both militarily and in terms of civilian support."

Mr. Appathurai said that the command changes would help the cohesion of the campaign and make General McChrystal's job more manageable. "It frees him up to do the fully strategic political-military activity that a commander has to do," he said.

Afghanistan is clearly now Lt. General McChrystal's war. Speaking at his confirmation hearing back on June 2, Lt. General McChrystal outlined the challenges in Afghanistan.

"Afghans face a combination of challenges - a resilient Taliban insurgency, increasing levels of violence, [a] lack of governance capability, persistent corruption, lack of development in key areas, illicit narcotics and malign influences from other countries," he said. "There is no simple answer. We must conduct a holistic counterinsurgency campaign, and we must do it well."

His remark about "malign influences from other countries" is curious. I am not quite sure which countries have a malign influence on Afghanistan. Unfortunately the comment drew no response from the Senators. But I was also struck by other portions of his confirmation hearing.

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In Afghanistan, No Margin for Error

"Apologies are not sufficient, so we do try to compensate families and communities where we've made mistakes. But that's not sufficient either. In fact, there is nothing I could do or say that would replace the loss of a loved one. There's not enough money in the world to replace the loss of a family member." -- General David McKiernan

A week ago  General David McKiernan, the senior US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, apologized for civilian casualties caused by international forces, saying there is not enough money in the world to replace the loss of an Afghan life. General McKiernan made the remarks  a week ago Sunday, following repeated calls from President Hamed Karzai  for explanations of civilian deaths. In his remarks, General McKierman acknowledge that NATO forces did make mistakes - "and for that I apologize" - but that the international forces were working hard to minimize civilian casualties during military operations against the Taliban.

Taliban attacks in Afghanistan have increased to the highest levels seen since the group was driven from Kabul in 2001 so it is tempting to see a correlation between civilian deaths and the resurgence of the Taliban. That such a relationship does exist would be hard to deny  but I question that if every civilian death translates into broader support for the Taliban. The above Al Jazeera report suggests that as civilian deaths mount, the Taliban gains wider support.  

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On Afghanistan, the US and Europe See It Differently

If you have ever been to India, there is a common expression that goes "the same but different." When it comes to Afghanistan, that phrase seems apt. On the other side of the Atlantic in the European view, President Obama won European agreement for "substantial" NATO troop commitments. Here's the UK Guardian:

Barack Obama today won agreement for substantial Nato troop reinforcements in Afghanistan, when nine European nations, including Britain, said they would send up to 5,000 troops and logistical help ahead of the presidential elections there in August. Britain is to send 900 extra troops almost immediately, who will remain until October.

The decision, made at a Nato summit in Strasbourg, will be a profound political relief for the US president, who badly needed to be able to show his domestic audience that his offer of a new style of partnership with Europe could reap tangible results.

David Miliband the foreign secretary said the surprisingly large number of troops offered was proof of a palpable "Obama effect."

On this side of the Atlantic, the American view is quite different. Here's the New York Times:

European leaders offered few extra troops on Saturday for President Obama's intensified effort in Afghanistan, with most of the soldiers only on temporary security assignment, underlining deep divisions within the alliance over the war.

As expected, European allies agreed to provide up to 5,000 new troops for Afghanistan, the White House said Saturday. But 3,000 of them are to be deployed only temporarily to provide security for the August elections in Afghanistan. A further 1,400 to 2,000 soldiers will be sent to form embedded training teams for the Afghan Army and the police.

The Europeans have given more, but not much, and largely limited to the period around the August election. Germany said it would send an additional 600 troops. Spain offered 600; Britain, 900. European nations also offered more financing, promising about $100 million more to support the training mission and an additional $500 million in humanitarian aid.

Mr. Obama is raising the number of American troops this year to about 68,000 from the current 38,000, which will significantly Americanize the war.

So let's see, the Europeans are sending 5,000 troops with 60% of them coming back after the August elections while the United States is sending 30,000 troops that will be there indefinitely. I daresay the Afghan war has been become an American war. NATO seems AWOL and perhaps rightly so for it's likely to be a bloody mess. As per the Foreign Secretary's remarks, I can only shudder to think what Europe's commitments would have been without the "Obama Effect."

And maybe I am wrong but I thought the President had committed to 17,000 more troops just after coming into office plus another 4,000 troops just over a week ago when the Af-Pak Strategic Review was completed. That's 21,000 by my math. When did the President commit another 9,000 troops? When did 21,000 more troops become 30,000? Am I missing something or is the New York Times wrong?

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