The US seems to have expressed “unease” with the reported truce negotiated by the British military in Afghanistan with tribal elders representing the Taliban followed by a withdrawal of British troops at Musa Qala and restoration of the captured to local militia. Over the summer, the UK had, as part of the NATO mandate, deployed 4,300 troops across Halmand to end insurgency and begin reconstruction. Reports say that British forces fired close to half a million rounds killing more than 1,000 Taliban fighters losing only 17 with more than 70 injured.
US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann admitted that there “is a lot of nervousness” about the truce and in particular about “who” was involved in the truce and arrangement and a great of skepticism on “whether it will hold.” Unsure of what the outcome of the deal will be, Neumann says that the “jury is out” on the effectiveness of this experiment and said that the capacity of the local militia and tribal elders to maintain peace and keep the Taliban out “must be rigorously tested.” He was afraid that these areas may once again become “a sanctuary” for and “governed by the Taliban.”
Afghan Government officials also appeared nervous about this deal saying that local warlords often use such truce to build up forces, reorganize, and regroup to achieve tactical advantage. They cite many instances where the erstwhile Soviet Union was duped by “Mujahideen” or freedom fighters. Outgoing British forces commander in Halmand Ed Butler admits that the UK “could be being duped” and “that the Taliban may be buying time to reconstitute and regenerate.” However, Butler argues that the control and power must move “to the hands of the tribal elders who are turning to the government of Afghanistan for security and development.” Butler and others reject suggestion that they negotiated truce with the Taliban arguing that it was the Governor of Halmand who negotiated truce with tribal elders who had forced the Taliban to stop fighting.
Neumann dismissed these arguments saying that even according to NATO analysis, tribal leaders South of Halmand were pro-Taliban primarily because of poor local governance and criticized the naiveté to believe that “anyone who is sympathetic to the fight on the other side is forever outside the pale of negotiation.” He says that it is dangerous to cede “an area that that is under the Afghan government flag but is not under the actual authority of the Afghan government.” He advocates that there be no more compromises or truce deals “until those questions have been answered.” Neumann was also critical of several European nations willing to deploy troops only in secure and quieter areas and not to fight the Taliban in the South.
NATO’s Supreme Commander General James Jones agreed with Neumann’s assessment and singled out France , Germany , Italy , Spain , and Turkey for waffling on the NATO decision and inserting caveats on what are acceptable operations for their forces and what are not. Jones says that it is important to keep the pressure on when there is a “turning point” in the conflict where the outgunned and outflanked Taliban will desist from direct confrontation and instead resort to terrorist tactics of using car bombs and booby-traps.
The timing and causes of the British desire to disengage is interesting. Several recent reports suggest that the British use of overwhelming force against entrenched Taliban in many cities have destroyed several houses, mosques, and schools. While such collateral damage is inevitable in this sort of a fight, the big question is what is the UK or NATO doing to rebuild these buildings. Officials argue that they have spent a great deal of money to rebuild broken houses but there also allegations of corruption, nepotism, and siphoning away funds from such reconstruction work. It is unclear whether this truce deal was an effort to walk away from such criticism and damage.
There are several interesting parallels between this particular truce deal and those made by Pakistan . Firstly, Pakistan had also entered into a truce with the Taliban using the Governor of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the tribal elders. Secondly, Pakistan has also insisted that their deal was with the elders and not with the Pakistani Taliban. Thirdly, Pakistan also claims that the tribal elders were able to successfully restrain the Taliban. Fourthly, Musa Qala area is similar to the NWFP and other tribal agency where the Pakistani flag flies but without absolute control of the Pakistani Government. Fifthly, there is a direct correlation between the rise of cultivation of poppy and heroin manufacture with the increase of Taliban’s sphere of influence in both areas.
While Neumann was right to criticize the deal pointing out all the obvious discrepancies, it is surprising that his Government has benignly accepted the deal and praised Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for it. While he wants the Europeans to stay and fight the terrorists directly, there is increased discussion in his nation on troop withdrawal from Iraq which is arguably worse off that Afghanistan . This incongruence in assessment and inconsistency in judgment is alarming and reinforces Indian viewpoints that the US views terrorism as the al Qaeda and Taliban and only if oriented against the US . If the US is truly interested in fighting terror, it needs to go beyond these narrow definitions and look at one that is more encompassing and acceptable whose goals can be met.
Against these disagreements, there are news reports, fuelled by Defense Secretary Des Browne’s statement that he expects Iraqi forces to take control of their own security within a year, that speculate that the British may be exploring a timetable within which it can withdraw from Iraq. Browne’s statement was reinforced by Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells’s statement that he would be “surprised” if “there isn't that kind of capacity there for taking on a lot of the work that's done at the moment by the coalition forces” within “a year's time.” Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office quickly doused such speculation and other reports that he was asking the Iraqis to take more control saying that British troops will stay on till objectives are met. However, they did say that a process of “transition and handover” was being worked out. Nervous Iraqi officials also sought to douse such reports saying that the international community cannot “cut and run” and expect a fractured nation with unprepared armed forces to “face the difficult challenges on our own.