By Kim Gamel and Robert H. Reid Associated Press
KABUL — A new and possibly decisive chapter of the Afghan war is unfolding. The U.S. is preparing a major attack on the Taliban, the militants are being squeezed in their Pakistani sanctuaries, and the Afghan government is trying to draw them into peace talks.
While “not prepared to say we’ve turned a corner,” the top U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said at a NATO meeting Thursday that he is more optimistic than last summer and now believes the situation is no longer deteriorating.
Much could still go wrong. Even if all the cards fall in NATO’s favor, the conflict will likely persist for years.
But the U.S. and its partners now have a better shot at blunting the growth of the Taliban, the austere Islamic movement that rebounded four years ago after being driven from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion after it refused to severe links to al-Qaida.
If NATO recaptures the momentum, it could encourage the militants in time to seek a political settlement, which U.S. officials believe is the only way to end the conflict.
For now, attention is focused on what will be the first big test of President Barack Obama’s surge — an assault by thousands of U.S. Marines and soldiers on Marjah, a southern Afghan city of 80,000 people and the hub of Taliban logistics. Aid teams are supposed to follow the troops to re-establish public services and government control in hopes of winning public support.
Taliban already feeling pressure
The Taliban, mindful that Obama also pledged to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in mid-2011, claim to be undaunted.
“The number of Taliban fighters is increasing day by day, not only in the south but in the north of Afghanistan as well,” says Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi. “It doesn’t matter if the Americans increase the number of soldiers, the Taliban will continue to pursue jihad,” he said.
But they are already feeling squeezed. Village elders and former Taliban fighters say many militants are returning from Pakistan because of stepped-up U.S. missile strikes there — one of which is believed to have killed the commander of the Pakistan Taliban — and Pakistan’s offensive last year against Taliban in South Waziristan near the Afghan border.
At least some of the returning fighters have expressed interest in government offers of reconciliation. And those who fight on may be easier to handle in Afghanistan, corralled against NATO firepower, rather than in Pakistan, where foreign troops are banned from ground combat operations and the main weapon is missiles fired from pilotless drones.
Years of coalition struggle to prevail
For years, it has been hard to see any glimmer of hope amid rising casualties, roadside bombs and suicide attacks in a chaotic country with a centuries-old tradition of banishing foreign armies.
Last year, according to AP’s count, at least 499 U.S. and NATO service members died in Afghanistan, almost as many as in the previous two years combined, and U.S. officials warn of more bloodshed to come.
Taliban shadow governments now operate in nearly all the 34 provinces. Taliban courts mete out Islamic justice and settle village property disputes often faster — and many Afghans say more fairly — than the government’s own judiciary.
Last month, Taliban suicide fighters stormed the center of Kabul, paralyzing the capital for hours and sending government officials fleeing to bunkers before the attackers were killed.
Previous attempts at reconciliation faltered, in part for lack of funding. The U.N. says only about 170 ex-militants left the insurgency last year under local peace plans.
“We’ve done a good job bringing them in,” said Sana Gul Kochai, the head of the reconciliation program for the eastern province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan. “But of course they become disappointed and demoralized when they don’t get land or jobs.”
Qari Fazel Rahman Farouqi, who fled Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and led a cell attacking NATO supply convoys in Pakistan, said he was willing to take a chance on reconciliation. The bearded commander recently reported to regional reconciliation authorities in Jalalabad with 18 of his men.
If he gets what was promised — especially immunity from prosecution — he believes hundreds of his comrades may follow.
Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations and an adviser to the U.S. military on Afghanistan, said one of the risks of robust peace overtures is that the Taliban will take them as a sign of desperation.
“One of the things the other side is trying to find out is how committed are we to succeeding,” Biddle said.