Afghanistan in perspective

Bret Stephens:

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... after a week spent shuttling between Kabul, Kandahar and Nangarhar province (in sight of Tora Bora), I found the notion of "losing Afghanistan" to be, at a minimum, overblown. Afghanistan has 34 provinces. Twenty-nine of them are more or less at peace, more or less better off than they were six years ago, and more or less governed by someone their own people can live with.

That leaves five provinces that are the country's belt of real insecurity. Together with the adjacent provinces in Pakistan, these form what is sometimes called Pashtunistan, in reference to the ethnic group from which the Taliban sprang. In many ways it's another country. But even here the evidence that it is being "lost" is slight.

Take Musa Qala, a town in Helmand Province that the British effectively ceded to insurgents in late 2006, after which it became the Afghan version of Fallujah. In December, NATO and Afghan forces retook the town, but not before flipping a former Taliban governor, Mullah Abdul Salaam, to their side. Mullah Salaam was rewarded by becoming district chief in Musa Qala, where he routinely denounces his former comrades as un-Islamic while providing intelligence to NATO forces.

Mullah Salaam's story is not unique. If anything, it shows that the term "Taliban" ill suits the current insurgency. This consists of Taliban remnants loyal to Mullah Mohammed Omar in Pakistan; foreign jihadists; four or five disaffected tribal warlords; and peasant fighters whose loyalties are often up for sale.

Overall, this group amounts to maybe 10,000 fighters. It draws its strength less from religious zeal than from its ties to heroin smugglers, making it more akin to Colombia's narcoterrorist FARC than to Iraq's Mahdi Army. As a military force, it is no match for the 70,000 foreign troops and a comparable number of increasingly effective Afghan soldiers.

"It used to be a Taliban trademark that they wanted to stand and fight," says Maj. Gen. Robert Cone. "Now we're seeing more asymmetric attacks." In other words, the increase in terrorism is a sign of the insurgency's weakness, not its strength. Last year's killing of Mullah Dadullah, sometimes described as "the backbone of the Taliban," has also had its effect, including what one Western official describes as "the promotion of mid-level leaders at odds with al Qaeda."

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This is not bin Laden and Zawahiri's Afghanistan. In fact they would be in trouble if they paid a visit. At this point they probably have more supporters on the Pakistan side of the border, but not enough to control much beyond their own perimeter.

It will be interesting to see how effective the Marines will be in the province that has been assigned to the British. If they can disrupt the poppy trade, the Taliban will be finished.

Across the border in Pakistan the Taliban problem continues to fester and the new government is using a losing strategy. Malou Innocent discusses what needs to be done.

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