Hope Dawns in Afghanistan

New tactics and fresh American troops may finally turn the tide.

In what seems to have become an annual tradition, American-led forces in Afghanistan have begun their fall offensive. NATO forces and units of the Afghan National Army are seeking out the Taliban in the hopes of destroying them in open battle. Thus far, there has been little contact with the enemy. It is likely that the Taliban will choose to avoid the Allied forces, leaving behind roadside bombs and ambushes, at least in the initial phases before turning around and fighting back on territory they are familiar with. While there will be casualties amongst the Western troops, if all goes according to plan, ground held by the Taliban will soon be controlled by NATO, enabling the Afghan government to begin to assert control and win the hearts and minds of the locals.

Eight thousand NATO and Afghan troops are a formidable force, and will of course be backed by the full might of NATO’s aircraft and artillery. But to a certain extent, this is déjà vu all over again. The current drive by U.S. and Afghan forces is sweeping through the Zhari district near Kandahar City, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban. The Canadian Forces already cleared this sector in 2006. After the success of that operation, however, the Taliban gradually filtered back in and reasserted control after the Canadian units moved on to fight in other areas. It is hoped that this time, with the U.S. surge complete and more Afghan troops available, it might be possible to secure the territory for good.

There is some cause for optimism. A recent assessment by the local Canadian commander reported that the security situation in the district controlled by his troops had recently improved, a fact he credited to the surge of U.S. forces. The Canadian commander’s cautious optimism is in accord with those of his U.S. counterparts; even an official as high as Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently expressed his belief that the surge of an additional 30,000 American soldiers into Afghanistan was helping to bring down violence and increase the effectiveness of the Allies’ efforts to rebuild Afghanistan and deny the Taliban an opportunity to return to power.

In addition to the surge, there are recent signs that NATO and particularly the United States are willing to go further than ever to seek out and destroy the Taliban, wherever they may be. In a surprising development, NATO helicopter gunships recently violated Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty and invaded that country’s airspace. They were responding to an attack on a NATO base inside Afghanistan by Taliban forces, who fled into Pakistan after carrying out their attack. NATO helicopters hunted them down and discovered them inside Pakistan, a traditional safe haven for militants returning from attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan. The NATO helicopters flew into Pakistani airspace and engaged the Taliban troops, killing at least 30, and perhaps as many as 60.

The Pakistani government has of course protested, but they ought to know better — Pakistan has its own problems with the Taliban and despite a successful counteroffensive inside their own country, has shown little ability to secure its border with Afghanistan. Sending armed helicopters into Pakistan is certainly an escalation over and above the usual missile strikes by unmanned U.S. drones (which also continue), but is a logical escalation of the war. If Pakistan cannot close down its border with Afghanistan to free movement by the Taliban, NATO must do it for them. There can be no victory in Afghanistan until NATO’s enemies are denied their safe harbor. The missile and gunship attacks should continue, both to deny the Taliban their sense of impunity along the border and to impress upon the Pakistani government, long believed to be in bed with the Taliban, that NATO will no longer tolerate an open border.

This message should be heard loud and clear in the corridors of Pakistani power, especially since it has recently been confirmed by U.S. officials that the CIA has created a secret army of 3,000 Afghans believed to be reliable. They have waged a secret war along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, exploiting the same vulnerabilities and ease of access, that has for too long aided the Taliban, to locate and kill high-value terrorist leaders. Little is known about this outfit, but they are described as well trained, effective and “one of the finest Afghan fighting forces.” If continued drone attacks, conventional airpower and this secret army can help to seal the border with Pakistan, defeating the Taliban around Kandahar City and throughout the entire country will be made a much easier task.

Easier, but by no means easy. Afghanistan is already America’s longest war, and many allies, even traditionally steadfast ones, are tiring of the seemingly endless struggle. Even in the midst of this expanded effort in Pakistan and the current offensive near Kandahar, the U.S. military is warning that any progress towards victory against the Taliban will come slowly. The current efforts, even if completely successful, will not win the war, but will buy time for the Afghan government and military to continue developing its own strength.

How this gradual improvement will play with the frustrated American electorate is still unclear. President Obama made much of his taking ownership of the Afghanistan War. With midterm elections imminent and the presidential vote in 2012 coming up fast, combined with the President’s hopes for a drawdown of American forces starting in 2011, it remains to be seen whether or not successes on the ground will be matched by a firmness of resolve in Washington.

Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected].