The battle goes on

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MORE than two years after the attack on the World Trade Centre, an 11,500-strong US-led coalition force is not only still hunting Osama bin Laden but is facing the al-Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, writes Ian Mather.

Operation Avalanche, the biggest military operation since the Taliban fell in 2001, is currently under way in eastern Afghanistan, where 2,000 US and Afghan soldiers are trying to root out insurgents, but so far with little success.

The upswing in violence has forced the suspension of international aid work across huge swathes of Afghanistan, undermining the war-shattered country’s chances of recovering from 23 years of war and drought.

The UN’s international staff in Afghanistan has suspended most of its operations in 13 of the most volatile provinces in the south and east after the murder of a Frenchwoman working for the UN’s refugee agency, and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s top official in Afghanistan said last week that the UN may have to pull out of Afghanistan altogether if security does not improve.

The US would like to extricate most of its 8,500 troops to relieve itself of some of the military burden that has been compounded by problems in Iraq, and is promoting the idea that Nato should take over all foreign military operations in Afghanistan.

Washington would like Nato to expand the 5,700-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) based in Kabul to the rest of the country, and a UN mandate in October cleared the way for this. Almost all the ISAF troops are from Britain, which has 1,800 troops there, Canada and Germany. France has 500 troops protecting Kabul airport, and there are smaller contributions from not just other Nato nations, but some outside the Treaty, including Albania and Macedonia. In total, 25 nations have troops in Afghanistan.

When the takeover proposal was put to Nato ministers by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently there were not enough takers, though Nato last week announced new pledges of about a dozen helicopters and hundreds of additional troops. These include an infantry company from Norway, as well as troops from the Czech Republic, Belgian air-traffic controllers, and Spanish and Turkish intelligence specialists. But far more military resources would be needed for Nato to expand beyond Kabul.

Even so, US-led forces have just announced that they are to expand peacekeeping operations outside Kabul in a move to improve security ahead of elections next year.

The goal is the establishment of 12 to 15 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) around the country within 18 months, each with a 100 to 200-strong force.

However, their restricted mandate means that PRT soldiers cannot get involved in factional clashes, cannot intervene if they see human rights abuses, and cannot stop drugs production.

US officials insist that the foreign forces are bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan for the first time in more than 30 years. Among benefits are new schools and irrigation for crops.

The Americans have also introduced an ‘Adopt-a-Village’ programme to provide much-needed supplies and goods. The troops receive items such as shoes, boots, school supplies, basic cookware, toys and sweets for children from their home towns and bases, which they then distribute.

But none of this can disguise the fact that neither Bin Laden nor Mullah Mohammed, the Taliban’s spiritual leader, have been captured, nor that attacks on US and Afghan troops are spiralling.

Afghan troops say the insurgents are better equipped, more mobile, and using more sophisticated equipment like night-vision gear and satellite telephones.

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