PARIS – As the United States prepares to commit 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the commander of NATO and American forces there said on Monday that the coalition was “not winning” the war against the resurgent Taliban in parts of the country.
Gen. David D. McKiernan’s assessment echoed that of President Obama who said in an interview that the United States was not winning the Afghan war and who raised the possibility of the American military reaching out to moderate elements of the Taliban, much as it did with Sunni militias in Iraq.
In an interview published in the French newspaper Le Figaro on Monday, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, took the idea further, saying the West should accept a pro-Taliban leadership if Afghans choose such an administration in elections set for next August.
“In Afghanistan, there will not be an exclusively military solution,” he said, adding: “We should accept the result of the forthcoming elections whatever it is.”
He said there was “no question” of making Afghanistan a Western-style democracy.
“If nationalist-minded Taliban come to power through the ballot-box and respect the constitution, that is the Afghans’ business,” he said. “What we reject is support for international jihad,” he said, using an Arabic term meaning struggle or holy war.
The remarks by General McKiernan in an interview with the BBC seemed to likely to play into a debate in Britain over Washington’s perception of British effectiveness in some of the most hotly-fought areas of Afghanistan.
Britain has some 8,300 soldiers in Afghanistan, the biggest European contingent, most of whom are fighting in the southern Helmand province. Of the 17,000 American troops set to be deployed, around one half of them are to be sent to Helmand.
The United States currently has 14,000 soldiers serving with NATO forces and 19,000 under exclusively American command.
In the radio interview on Monday, Gen. McKiernan said there were areas in the north, east and west where coalition and Afghan forces were winning the battle to curb the Taliban.
“But there are other areas – large areas in the southern part of Afghanistan especially, but in parts of the east – where we are not winning,” he said.
“More has to happen along multiple lines of operation in order for anybody by any metric to say that the Afghans are winning or the efforts of the coalition are winning,” he said.
General McKiernan told the BBC that he was “very satisfied” with the British troops’ effort in Helmand.
“Our challenge in the southern part of Afghanistan is that we don’t have enough of a persistent security presence in all the areas that allow the other lines of operation – better governance – to develop in that area,” he said.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain has resisted requests by the Obama administration to commit more troops to Afghanistan, and has joined with Washington in urging other European nations – particularly Germany and France – to increase their deployment of combat forces.
But some Britons are concerned that the United States wants a stronger response to the Taliban in the south, which could cause casualties and erode British public support of the mission.
“Although the British in Helmand province are trying harder than the Germans, French or Italians in their respective zones, in U.S. eyes we, too, are relatively risk-averse,” columnist and author Max Hastings said in a newspaper article last December.
“NATO troops always have a choice about whether to go looking for the Taliban – and accepting the inevitable casualties. U.K. commanders know body bags are bad news politically. The more aggressive our soldiers are, the more will come home dead,” he wrote.
By ALAN COWELL
Published: March 9, 2009
Source: The New York Times