Pt 1 of 6 Times Special Series on Afghanistan

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  1. Vision of victory in Afghanistan - but time is on the Taleban's side
    In the first of six special reports, The Times outlines the challenges facing Western forces in Afghanistan

    Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor

    Nadali and Wootton Bassett are 3,550 miles and several centuries apart. The latter is the comfortable Wiltshire village near RAF Lyneham that has become the symbol of public mourning at the terrible loss of life among British forces fighting in Afghanistan. The former is a primitive Afghan village in the heart of the Helmand river valley that has changed little in hundreds of years and where the deeply conservative population ekes out a meagre livelihood from growing poppy and other crops.

    Yet the two places have more in common than they know. They have been thrown together by fate to decide the outcome of the battle waged by British and other Western forces against the Taleban. If the campaign proceeds along its present course, there is every indication that public support in Wootton Bassett — and, by extension, across the rest of Britain — will turn against the war. A similar public reaction is being felt in the US, Canada, Germany, Italy and the other key nations contributing to the Nato forces on the ground.

    If the bloody campaign that has marked this summer in Helmand continues to threaten the lives of villagers in Nadali and other communities in southern Afghanistan, they will reluctantly conclude that the Taleban offer a better chance of peace and stability than a weak and corrupt central Government in Kabul that is backed by foreign forces.

    The populations of both countries are tired after eight years of war and impatient for a solution. The most immediate challenge facing Afghanistan is not the Taleban but its own Government; in particular, President Karzai, once seen as something of a saviour but now regarded by many as a liability.

    He was re-elected last month with 54.6 per cent of the vote, enough for an outright win in the first round, but reports of massive electoral fraud and the recount of 10 per cent of the ballots could yet deny him victory and force a run-off against his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. With winter approaching, there are fears that a new vote cannot be held until next year, further undermining the credibility of a government weakened by widespread corruption and whose authority barely stretches beyond the precincts of Kabul. Another alternative is to call a Loya Jirga, or grand assembly of Afghan leaders, to agree on a way out of the constitutional crisis.

    Without a credible leader with a clear mandate to rule, the entire mission in Afghanistan is under threat. A government that can bring security and services to ordinary Afghans is by far the West’s best exit strategy. Without a respected central authority, the Western mission is doomed. That is why there is a real urgency about the US-led campaign. Mistakes may have been made by the Bush Administration, but the war is now squarely President Obama’s problem and he will be judged on the outcome.

    While foreign diplomats, led by the US special envoy Richard Holbrooke, address the constitutional crisis in Kabul, the military campaign is being stepped up on a scale not seen since the Soviet invasion 30 years ago.

    General Stanley McChrystal, the newly installed commander of US forces, is overseeing a surge of troops that will bring the tally to 68,000, alongside 35,000 from other Nato contributors. He is expected to request additional soldiers in a report to Washington. The American counter-insurgency tactics — revised in Iraq by General David Petraeus, now the regional commander — call for a massive force deployed on the ground to protect the civilian population and to enable development and the local economy to recover. The tactic worked well in Iraq, where the Sunni Muslim population turned against the insurgency and supported the Americans. Afghanistan, however, is more complex, the terrain more rugged and the key Pashtu-speaking population in the south less open to outsiders.

    The only government institution that has been strengthened since the ouster of the Taleban in 2001 is the Afghan National Army. Much of the Nato effort is focused on training and equipping a force that should have 134,000 soldiers in uniform by the end of 2011. The rise of the Afghan military is seen as the only way that foreign forces can begin to lower their profile and gradually hand over responsibility for security to the locals — much as American forces have done in Iraq.

    In Washington, London and other Western capitals there is now a sense of urgency. Defeat in Afghanistan could mean the end of Nato as an effective military alliance. Western leaders long ago gave up any hope of building a modern, democratic state in Afghanistan and are lowering public expectations at home. The best they can hope for is to stabilise security and attempt to lure or bribe moderate elements in the Taleban into negotiations.

    A key figure in this delicate work is Sir Graeme Lamb, a retired British general who performed a similar role in Iraq’s restive Anbar province. “I always said in Iraq, you can buy an insurgency if you have enough money,” he said. “If somebody is on the wrong side of the wire and is inclined to come back, then I have to set the conditions, or we have to set the conditions, whereby that young man comes back in, so he is not a pariah.”

    For soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, the greatest threat to life and limb comes from the deadly roadside bombs planted along their patrol and supply routes. For the Taleban fighters, the ghostly drones that patrol the skies day and night and rain down missiles without warning are the most feared enemy.

    The commanders know, however, that the ultimate weapon is something less tangible. Major-General Nick Carter, the incoming commander of 9,000 British forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged before he took up his command that time was not on his side. A few days later Mullah Omar, the fugitive Taleban commander, responded in a message marking Eid al-Fitr — the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — by predicting another defeat of British forces in Afghanistan. “We would like to point out that we fought against the British invaders for 80 years, from 1839 to 1919, and ultimately got independence,” he said. “Today we have strong determination, military training and effective weapons. Still more, we have preparedness for a long war, and the regional situation is in our favour.”

    Time is running out. Most experts accept that the Western mission in Afghanistan probably has two to three years to get it right before the battle is lost.

    RICHARD BEESTON is the Foreign Editor of The Times. He has covered a dozen wars and conflicts over the past 25 years. He first reported on Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s