Wednesday, October 18, 2006

NATO Commander Says Coalition in Afghanistan Failed to Follow Through After Ousting Taliban

ABC News
Commander: Mistakes Made in Afghanistan
NATO Commander Says Coalition in Afghanistan Failed to Follow Through After Ousting Taliban
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan failed to follow through as it should have after ousting the Taliban government in 2001, setting the stage for this year's deadly resurgence, the NATO commander in the country said Tuesday.

The mistake consisted of adopting "a peacetime approach" too early, British Gen. David Richards told Pentagon reporters. He said the international community has six months to correct the problem before losing Afghan support, reiterating a warning he issued last week.

"The Taliban were defeated. ... And it looked all pretty hunky-dory," Richard said of the environment at the end of 2001. "We thought it was all done ... and didn't treat it as aggressively as ... with the benefit of hindsight, we should have done."

Progress on security, rebuilding and good government didn't meet Afghan expectations, and this year the "Taliban exploited ... this sense of frustration amongst the people," Richards said in a televised conference from Afghanistan.

While it is unusual for a commander to criticize an ongoing military operation, Richards' comments came days after another British officer offered a much harsher assessment of the other U.S.-led war, in Iraq.

Asked for comment on Richards' remarks, Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Vician said Afghanistan was and is one of the world's poorest nations.

"It will take years of hard work by the Afghan people and the international community to reverse the effects of decades of occupation and civil war," he said. "Nonetheless, there has been significant economic growth and donor efforts to improve living conditions across the country," including improved health care, school enrollment, roads and other projects.

Insurgent bombings, ambushes and rocket attacks have surged this year. Since the Taliban was overthrown, many of Afghanistan's former rulers are thought to have found sanctuary across the border in Pakistan.

Five years later, NATO forces, along with Afghan army and police forces, plan a series of operations throughout the country this winter to do road building and other reconstruction projects in more secure areas and bolster security to prepare for reconstruction in less secure regions, Richards said.

Richards said that if there is not measurable improvement in six months, Afghans may choose "the rotten future offered by the Taliban" rather than the hopeful future that the coalition offered but didn't deliver.

"This is not just my view but that of many others," he said.

Bush administration critics have charged the Afghan campaign is lagging because the administration focused troops and other assets away from that country too quickly in order to plan and execute the invasion of Iraq, which they view as a diversion from the war on terror.

Just last week, Gen. Richard Dannatt, Britain's army chief, set off a political storm by calling for troops to be withdrawn "soon" from Iraq in part because their presence made the situation worse.

He later said he meant a phased withdrawal over two or three years.

Richards commands about 31,000 forces in Afghanistan. NATO early this month took command of 12,000 U.S. troops there, extending its security mission to all of Afghanistan.

The transfer of command gave NATO the biggest ground combat operation in its history, putting Richards in charge of the largest number of U.S. troops fighting under a foreign commander since World War II.

In "a tough summer" of fighting, NATO forces beat back the Taliban in southwestern Kandahar province, a former Taliban stronghold. "I think we have now established the psychological ascendancy over the Taliban" militarily, Richards said.

"We have now with the government and with the international community to exploit the window of opportunity ... that we now have as a result of military success," he said.

Asked why he was sure a new effort can achieve what wasn't done before, Richards said:

"I'm optimistic that we have understood the issue ... learned our lessons, and now can take this forward aggressively to deliver on the promises."