Washington (AFP) Oct 28, 2010
A NATO commander on Thursday cited "encouraging signs" that a pivotal push against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan was making headway, but cautioned it would take until June to know if the offensive was making genuine progress.
In a bid to break the back of the insurgency, US-led troops and Afghan forces have cleared key roads in Kandahar province, disrupted insurgent supply lines and bolstered security in Kandahar city, British General Nick Carter told reporters by video link.
A growing number of Afghans were tipping off Western troops to homemade bombs planted by the insurgents, while some Pashtuns were volunteering to join the Afghan army for the first time, said Carter, who leads coalition troops in the southern region, the birthplace of the Taliban.
"These are encouraging signs. They are, by no means, huge measures of success. But you can see the general direction of travel," Carter said from Kandahar Air Field.
Amid waning public support for the mission in Europe and the United States, the offensive in Kandahar -- backed up by an influx of US troops -- is seen as a make-or-break effort to turn around the war in the symbolic heartland of the mainly Pashtun insurgency.
US and NATO officials have sought to portray the war effort as making slow and steady progress in Kandahar and elsewhere, but reports from the ground have been mixed.
Despite plans to begin a US withdrawal in July 2011, some US and European officials have been more skeptical in private, saying the insurgency remains resilient after nine years of war and in no rush to seek a peace deal.
Carter, however, said there was "definitely momentum, a sense that probably the initiative is now with us and not, as it was a year ago, with the insurgency."
But "it won't be until June next year that we'll be sure that the advances we've made during the course of the last few months are genuinely successful."
Next summer would be an important test because insurgent attacks in the south tended to fade in winter months without foliage to provide cover, and then in the spring, most men were busy with harvesting poppy and pomegranate crops, the general said.
If security gains are still in place starting next June, then NATO would know that its concerted campaign against the insurgency in the south was working, he said.
Carter said some main roads and highways around Kandahar city were now more secure, including Highway One to the west of the city that was once sowed with roadside bombs.
In what he called another hopeful sign, Carter said more Afghans were telling NATO and Afghan forces where homemade bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), were planted.
In the Zhari district to the west of Kandahar city, the number of explosives found or defused compared to the number that hit coalition forces -- what the military calls the find-to-strike ratio -- was at "about 40-3 at the moment," said Carter, an "extraordinary statistic."
With dozens of new checkpoints, outposts and concrete barriers circling Kandahar city, NATO and Afghan forces have set up a "ring" of security around the city that was beginning to bear fruit, he said.
As an example, he said more Afghans had ventured outside after dark during the end of Ramadan, which he called a sign of growing confidence in security conditions.
The advances were still tentative, he said, adding: "But I suspect if you wandered around the streets of Kandahar now -- and I know journalists who've done that -- they'll tell you that the man in the street is in a better place than he was three or four months ago."
In an assault dubbed Operation Dragon strike, NATO and Afghan troops last month moved to push the Taliban out of areas surrounding the city, in Panjwayi, Zhari and Arghandab.
Carter suggested the Taliban had been mostly rolled back from Arghandab, northwest of Kandahar city, and the challenge was now making sure competent figures stepped in as local leaders to win the trust of Afghans.
Coalition forces meanwhile continued to battle insurgents in Panjwayi and Zhari.
"And I sense that we'll still be clearing for another couple of weeks," he said.
earlier related report
"There's a fixed date for NATO in the framework of its new strategy, that's the start of 2011, because in 2011 we're going to transfer a whole series of districts to the Afghans," he told RTL radio.
"At that moment, there could be the first movements or first withdrawals of Allied forces from Afghanistan. In any case, that's the calendar set by Barack Obama, that in 2011 the first American troops could quit Afghanistan.
"And that's what a certain number of European countries have started to say," he explained, insisting that this has nothing to do with a threat issued against France on Wednesday by Islamist militant kingpin Osama bin Laden.
Asked whether the threat, contained in an audiotape broadcast by the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, was genuine, Morin said: "We're still in the course of trying to authenticate it. It's too soon to say.
"It's not impossible," he added. "All of our services and all of allies believe Osama bin Laden is alive."
In the tape, the apparent voice of Bin Laden warns that, by sending troops to fight in Afghanistan and by banning the Islamic full face veil on its own territory, France had left itself open to retaliation.
He also said that last month's kidnap of five French nationals from the uranium mining town of Arlit in Niger by Al-Qaeda's North African wing had been intended as a warning.
"How could you take part in occupying our countries and support the Americans in killing our children and women, and then expect to live in peace and security?" the voice demanded.
"It is very simple: As you kill, you will be killed, as you take hostages, you will be taken hostage, and as you compromise our security, we will compromise your security," he said in the two-minute message.
Two French journalists have been held hostage by suspected insurgents in Afghanistan for more than 300 days, but Bin Laden did not refer to them.
Morin insisted that France's decision to begin looking towards the exit in Afghanistan from next year had "absolutely no link" to any threat.
"Radical Islamist movements always invoke our presence in Afghanistan, it is a frequent demand," he said, recalling that French troops have been on the ground since 2001 and have lost 50 of their comrades fighting there.
France has around 3,500 soldiers in Afghanistan attached to the US-led NATO force fighting Taliban insurgents and allied Islamist groups, mainly in the hilly districts just east of the capital Kabul.
Morin said that French and Afghan government forces had made great progress in one formerly violent area around the town of Sarobi, where "stabilisation and pacification are really ensured.
"We hope that in the course of 2011 we'll be able to transfer security to the Afghans," he explained.
NATO's strategy across Afghanistan is to push insurgent forces from restive districts while training a national government force to eventually take charge of security on their own.
Some experts question whether this can happen quickly enough to allow major NATO troop withdrawals by next year, but Morin said he was confident and that Afghan "warriors" have now become "soldiers" in "a real army."
Mainland France remains at the second highest level, "reinforced red", of its national terror threat matrix, with troops deployed around tourist sites and transport hubs and security forces on high alert
On Wednesday, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said that, while Bin Laden's apparent threat had not been proved genuine, France faced a real threat of terror attacks and its "vigilance must be total."
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