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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 February 2007, 20:26 GMT
Afghanistan: Winning or losing?
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Sharp disagreements over the conduct of the war against the Taleban in Afghanistan emerged at a seminar in London timed to coincide with a visit to Britain by the Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Poppy growing in Afghanistan
One tactical change could be the licensing of poppy growing
An international think-tank, the Senlis Council, called for major changes in tactics, including the licensing of poppy growing, to be used for medicines.

The British Medical Association also advocated such a policy recently.

But a senior strategist on counter-terrorism in the US government said that both the strategy and the current counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan were correct.

'Reality check needed'

Criticism of the anti-Taleban campaign came in a 187-page document from the Senlis Council, whose subtitle "Losing Friends and Making Enemies" summed up what its researchers have concluded.

Our policies are failing President Karzai
Norine MacDonald

The lead researcher (and president and founder of the Council) Norine MacDonald, a Canadian lawyer, told the meeting: "We are winning the battle but losing the war."

She said that the international community had reached the "tipping point" in Afghanistan. "The military has done an excellent job but, despite our good intentions, our policies are having a negative effect."

She said that Nato, which is leading the fighting, needed a "reality check and a frank assessment".

"The international community has failed to convince local people, especially in the south, that it is there to help them," she claimed.

She castigated the failure to provide decent hospitals in the main towns of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, even though civilians were being wounded by Nato bombings. Both cities were in Taleban sights for their expected spring offensive.

Canadian soldier in Afghanistan
A Nato expects a Taleban offensive in the spring

She attacked the current counter-narcotics policy, which relies in part on eradication of the poppy fields.

Noting that the United States already manufactured morphine and codeine from poppies grown under license in Turkey and India, she called for a similar approach in Afghanistan.

Otherwise, she warned, the Taleban would gain in support.

"Our policies are failing President Karzai."

'Toughest enemy'

After this onslaught, the audience at the International Institute for Strategic Studies might have expected a defensive display from Dr David Kilcullen, Chief Strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism at the US State Department.

The fundamentals, the bones of the situation, in Afghanistan are quite sound
David Kilcullen

A former Lt Colonel in the Australian army, Dr Kilcullen has become influential in counter-insurgency thinking.

He presented a very different view of Afghanistan.

"The fundamentals, the bones of the situation, in Afghanistan are quite sound," he said.

"Challenges remain and will have to be tackled but the prospect for success remains good."

He said that the Taleban offensive of last year had failed. It had a narrow base of appeal and most Afghans supported the Karzai government.

He conceded that the Taleban were "the toughest enemy anywhere and I have seen the enemy up close. They are professional as a military force and also as a subversive force."

Hamid Karzai
Most Afghans support the Karzai government, says Dr Kilcullen

He also rejected the suggestion that opium production should be licensed.

A "hearts and minds" strategy, he said, did not mean that you simply had to be nice to the civilian population.

"You have to persuade their hearts that it is in their interest that you win but their minds that you will win. Gratitude does not work in Afghanistan. You have got to get them to make a choice.

"The Taleban has a political strategy of defending the poppy fields, in order to detach the people from the government and we have to counter that."

It was at times difficult to accept that the speakers were talking of the same country but Dr Kilcullen declared to a sceptical questioner: "I am not painting a rosy picture but simply the facts."

The main address of the day came from a senior British military figure who has had close knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan.

He spoke off the record so cannot be directly quoted but it would be fair to say that he, too, expressed some optimism about the future and seemed somewhat irritated that the media did not always share this.

However he also cautioned against over-optimism and pointed to a gap in Nato troop deployment along the Afghan side of the frontier with Pakistan, which allowed the Taleban to come and go.

The meeting gave a glimpse of the issues being discussed at about the same time by President Karzai with the British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

More than five years after the war that removed the Taleban from power, they have again become a force to be reckoned with.


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