From afar, G8 seeks a handle on Afghanistan

June 25, 2009

Luke BakerLuke Baker is a political and general news correspondent at Reuters. –

The mountains and deserts of southern Afghanistan are far removed from the elegant charms of Trieste in northern Italy, but there will be a link between the two this weekend.

Foreign ministers from the Group of Eight nations meet in the Italian city on the Adriatic on Thursday for three days of talks, with the state of play in Afghanistan, as well as developments in Iran and the Middle East, front and centre of their agenda.

Nearly eight years and tens of billions of dollars on from the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew the Taliban, the United States and its allies appear no closer to bringing long-term stability to the country, with the Taliban resurgent throughout the south and west and the instability expanding across the border into Pakistan.

One of the major areas of unrest is Helmand, a vast desert and mountain province in the far south where around 8,000 British troops have been deployed for 3-1/2 years and 10,000 U.S. Marines are steadily being sent in as reinforcements.

While 18,000 troops backed by helicopters, jets, Predator drones, armoured vehicles and endless advanced weaponry may sound like more than enough of a match for bands of bearded militants who usually aren’t armed with much more than a Kalashnikov rifle, it’s not always the case.

Helmand, split down the middle by the Helmand river, is larger than Switzerland and has a daunting mix of terrain that the Taliban and their followers are far more familiar with than foreign troops sweating in heavy, cumbersome combat gear. And it’s not just the challenges of the topography, it’s the sheer size of the area that stretches any army’s capability.

When I was in Helmand late last year, British troops at a Forward Operating Base in the far north of the province told me that they didn’t have enough troops or back-up to venture any further than three kilometres from their small fortified camp to take on the enemy.

“The Taliban know it. If we attack them, they go just over three kilometres away and we have to come back to base,” an officer at the remote outpost told me.

The absurdity of that situation partly explains why Britain and the United States have acknowledged that Helmand is currently in a “stalemate”, a position they hope will be broken with a new strategy and the increase in troops in the coming months.

But the deadlock in fighting and the need for more manpower– there are 90,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, 50 percent less than in now relatively more stable  Iraq — is not the only concern on the agenda for the G8 foreign ministers.

As well as trying to agree amongst themselves how they can best support the U.S.- and NATO-driven effort, they need to assess the implications of non-cooperation from Iran, on Afghanistan’s western border, and the widening instability in the Pakistan tribal areas on Afghanistan’s eastern border. Iran was due to send a delegation to the G8 meeting, but in the wake of international condemnation of the fallout from its disputed presidential election, it has cancelled its participation.

Afghanistan’s election in August, when President Hamid Karzai will seek reelection despite broad unpopularity in the country and among some of his Western backers, will also be a focus of discussion. Karzai’s high-profile makes him stand out among the 41candidates registered for the Aug. 20 poll. That greater degree of visibility is likely to secure him enough votes for reelection, according to some opinion polls, even if many Afghans express frustration at the scare progress made during his past 5 years in power.

Politically, socially and militarily, Afghanistan remains hugely in flux nearly eight years on from the Taliban’s overthrow. While army commanders admit there can be no military solution to the conflict, diplomats and development experts are struggling to find a political way forward either.

Three days of talks among eight foreign ministers in Trieste is unlikely to go very far in resolving what is becoming an ever more intractable conflict 5,000 kilometres away.

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To suggest the Taliban was overthrown eight years ago is contradictory. Why then and against whom has the war on terror been expanded in Pakistan? Millions more refugees have now been created by expanding this conflict. Is it possible our own actions make this war more of a quagmire than the lack of troops or the impossible terrain? How many more Afghans and Pakistanis can we continue to make homeless and not encourage recruitment for the Taliban?

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