Tuesday, March 9, 2010

U.S. general in Afghanistan has eyes on Kandahar next

KABUL - NATO-led troops are wrapping up the biggest military offensive of the Afghan war and laying the groundwork for the next push into the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal said yesterday

The 30-day campaign to wrest control of the southern town of Marjah in Helmand province has served as a rehearsal for the offensive in Kandahar, where the Taliban had their capital when they controlled the government and harbored al-Qaida before the U.S. invasion in 2001.

"We have essentially got control" of Marjah now, McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in the Afghan capital, Kabul. "We are absolutely going to secure Kandahar."

The coalition will wait for more international forces to arrive before its offensive to take control of Kandahar. That might be possible by mid-year, McChrystal said.

The Marjah assault by 15,000 international and Afghan troops was intended to restore freedom of movement with neighboring areas and revive a legitimate economy in an area dominated by opium poppy cultivation and trafficking. It's the first big test for President Barack Obama's December decision to expand the U.S. force to 100,000 this year in a bid to reverse Taliban gains and train the Afghans to begin taking over in July 2011.

Gates will assess the progress of the military surge and examine Afghan President Hamid Karzai's plan to hold a peace loya jirga, or council, in April to persuade Taliban leaders to end their insurgency and join the government.

"We ought not get too impatient," Gates told reporters traveling on his plane to Kabul for the unannounced trip. "It's their country, it's their fight. We're there to help, and how the politics play out in the end game will have to be an Afghan-led endeavor."

The conditions for the Kandahar offensive will be different than Marjah and more complex, said McChrystal and Mark Sedwill, the newly appointed civilian representative for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which leads the 34-nation coalition. The U.S. has forces in and around Kandahar and will add more in the coming months.

"Kandahar has not been under Taliban control; it's been under a menacing Taliban presence," McChrystal said. "There won't be a D-Day that is climactic. It will be a rising tide of security as it comes."

He and Sedwill are working with Karzai and local authorities to lay the political groundwork for the operation and will wait until more of the additional international forces arrive before launching an offensive.

Marjah "is in many ways a template for the way we want to take this campaign forward over the next year to 18months," McChrystal said.

Local officials there, backed by coalition forces and international civilian agencies, are pressing to restore government services to win the support of local people.

Karzai due in Pakistan.

ISLAMABAD: Afghan President Hamid Karzai is scheduled to arrive in Pakistan on Wednesday on a two-day visit and is likely to formally ask Islamabad to hand over Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar for trial in Afghanistan.

Baradar, the second most senior leader of the Afghan Taliban, was arrested last month by security agencies from Karachi and both the US and Afghanistan have expressed a desire to get hold of him.

Diplomatic sources said Karzai would explore the possibilities of extradition of Baradar to his country in an attempt to boost his sinking popularity over the war against Taliban, which many consider a lost cause.

They said the Afghan government had also expressed the desire to conduct Baradar’s trail in their country during a meeting of the interior ministers of the two countries in Islamabad last month. Interior Minister Rehman Malik assured his Afghan counterpart Muhammad Hanif Atmar that Pakistan would “consider” any formal request by Afghanistan.

The situation has changed since then as a Pakistani court banned handing over Mullah Baradar to a foreign country. But sources said Pakistan could strike a deal by asking Afghanistan to help bring Dr Aafia back, who was handed over to the US by Afghanistan for trial.

Born in Wetmak village in the southern Uruzgan province of Afghanistan into an ethnic Pashtun Popalzai clan in 1968, a young Baradar struck up a friendship with Mullah Omar that would “change his life”. His arrest dealt a serious blow to the Taliban and handing him over to the Afghan authorities would be a morale booster for their forces.

Reintegration: Sources said Karzai would also seek Pakistan’s assistance in stepping up the process of reintegration and reconciliation with the Taliban, after Saudi Arabia refused to play any role in arranging a “deal” with Taliban.

During the London Conference on January 28, Karzai openly asked Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to help secure peace with the Taliban. He later paid a visit to the kingdom to meet King Abdullah in this regard, but Abdullah refused to be “dragged into the mess”.