How NATO Hopes to Turn the Tide in Afghanistan

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By any measure, NATO has had a pretty bad week in Afghanistan. Four Canadian soldiers were killed in clashes in the south over the weekend; 14 British troops died in a plane crash on Sunday; a suicide bomber killed a British soldier and four bystanders after ramming his car into a military convoy in Kabul; one NATO soldier died when he walked into an unmarked minefield, while another died in a mortar attack. And on Monday, a U.S. military plane mistakenly strafed Canadian soldiers, killing one. As if to underscore the challenge facing the alliance, U.N. officials announced last weekend that Afghanistan's opium harvest grew by 50% this year, to a record 6,100 tons — about 92% of the world's supply. Still, even in the face of that torrent of bad news, a new offensive, dubbed Operation Medusa, suggests that the alliance may be finding its feet, little more than a month after the NATO-led International Security Force took over southern Afghanistan from U.S. forces.

Operation Medusa, involving around 2,000 NATO and Afghan soldiers, is the alliance's biggest offensive to date against the Taliban. The operation is centered on the beleaguered southern district of Panjwai, which saw weeks of intense clashes between Taliban and coalition forces earlier this summer.

NATO commanders appear to have learned from their predecessors' experiences in the region, however. A heavy U.S. aerial bombardment in the area in May killed some 16 civilians, but also seemed to embolden the Taliban, who had returned to the region soon after coalition forces left to capitalize on local anger at losses inflicted by U.S. forces. This time, it seems, NATO intends to take and hold the contested area, no matter the cost. "When fighting such a war, it is inevitable that we will have casualties. It is a sad but necessary consequence of what NATO is doing [in Afghanistan]," says NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. "We have to win this fight, and we will do what ever is necessary to win it."

Having accepted the inevitability of suffering casualties of their own, NATO forces are doing their utmost to avoid further civilian deaths. A few days prior to the operation, the area was leafleted with warnings of the fighting to come. The plan was to rid the region entirely of civilians in order to isolate the insurgents. Tribal elders were informed about the NATO plans, and some held village gatherings to inform their own people. "Basically," says NATO spokesman Mark Laity, "it was made clear that this was not a place you would want to be hanging around." Laity says the alliance is giving up the element of surprise in order to tell people in southern Afghanistan that "we care about them in the south; clearly the Taliban don't."

Thousands of Panjwai residents poured into Kandahar and surrounding areas, joining thousands of others that had already fled the mounting Taliban activity. And so far, says Laity, there have been no formal complaints of civilian deaths, although NATO has vowed to fully investigate any such charges. While averting civilian casualties avoids a backlash, however, recent events in Lebanon — where Israel also repeatedly leafleted the civilian population, urging it get out of the way of Israeli military action — suggest that that such tactics don't always win over the local population.

Panjwai's strategic importance is its location and role in Afghanistan's economy. It is not far from the south's major city, Kandahar, which was once the Taliban's political capital. And the region is one of Afghanistan's most important agricultural areas, producing rich harvests of grapes, pomegranates and dried fruits marketed throughout south and western Asia. It represents the best example of how Afghanistan, served by better infrastructure, could shrug off its addiction to poppy cultivation and become an agricultural powerhouse. Perhaps for the same reason, the district has also been one of the principal staging areas for Taliban activities throughout the region. "Panjwai was both a threat and an opportunity," says Laity, and thus a very obvious target. "It was a no-brainer, really. With all the Taliban massing in one place, it makes them easier to take on."

Less than a week into the offensive, it's too soon to predict the success of Operation Medusa. Scheffer told reporters on Tuesday that the strength of Taliban resistance had taken him by surprise, though he was confident NATO troops would meet the challenge and drive them out of the area.

But, warns Jamil Karzai, a Member of Parliament from Kandahar, simply driving the Taliban away from Panjwai is not enough. "We have been seeing these kinds of operations in Afghanistan for five years," he says. "This is like trying to stop a running river. If you block it, it will find another way and destroy other villages. We need to stop it at its starting point. And these Taliban and al-Qaeda get their start in Pakistan and Iran."

In Greek mythology, Medusa was so terrifying that anyone who looked upon her was immediately turned to stone. NATO may be hoping its offensive has a similar effect on the Taliban — or, at least, to record a measure of success in countering a tenacious insurgency in a country where every foreign army before it has failed.