NATO's Challenges in a Taliban Stronghold

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A car bomb killed eight people in southern Afghanistan on Monday, the latest event in a surge in violence in the region. Rachel Morarjee, reporting from Kabul for London's Financial Times, talks with Madeleine Brand about the challenges the NATO forces face in a region that was once a stronghold of the Taliban.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

We turn now to Rachel Morarjee. She's a reporter for the Financial Times in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and she's just returned from the south.

And Rachel, we just heard Mark Laity say that NATO will have 8500 troops in the south, more than the coalition had. So is NATO better equipped, better positioned to fight the Taliban than the coalition was?

RACHEL MORARJEE reporting:

It's a really open question. NATO does have more troops, but one of the main things that may hamstring them is that they don't have any more air power than the coalition did. This means that their troops are spread out over a much wider area, but they don't have the helicopters to be able to be able to traffic them and move those troops from one hot spot to another, that the Taliban open up on one front, they can end up with troops stranded somewhere else.

Those troops are spread over a much, much bigger area. They're going into areas like Helmand(ph), which is the top drug producing province for Afghanistan, which previously had been a black hole, and they're staring at massive amounts of trouble.

BRAND: Now, I understand NATO also has a different strategy. In other words, they don't want to run around chasing Taliban fighters so much as establish bases from which to fight.

MORARJEE: It's a nice idea. It seems, though, so far, to have given the initiative straight to the Taliban. The initial idea that NATO had, that British forces had when they deployed in Helmand, which has been the main thrust of the deployment so far, was to start off with the provincial capital in Lashkargah and then move outward from Greshk, which is the sort of main commercial hub, and establish a sort of small ink spot of security which could then move outward and create an area where development could go forward.

What's actually happened, of course, is that the Taliban has been hammering district centers across the province and drawing these troops out into fire fights in areas that they haven't anticipated going. The British troops have a huge base in the middle of the desert, Camp Bastion, which is, according to one British official who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, a huge white elephant that does very little to secure the Afghan population.

BRAND: You've just returned from southern Afghanistan. How did the people there view this hand over? How do they view NATO troops?

MORARJEE: I think in Helmand, everybody in southern Afghanistan, is very much hoping for something better. But the hope and the euphoria which ushered in the 2004 presidential elections has gone. And it's replaced by a real disappointment of what this government - of what the Afghan elected government has been unable to deliver. It's been an unholy confederacy of drug runners, thugs, child abusers, in positions of power that have preyed on the local population. And so ordinary Afghans are very much on the fence, they're undecided about what to do and whether to support the Taliban or the coalition. And they're undecided about who's going to win. Nothing that people thought was going to happen has come to pass. The worst thugs are still in power, nobody who's not in the drug trade is making any money, and there are no jobs.

BRAND: Rachel Morarjee is a reporter for the Financial Times. We reached her in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Thank you, Rachel.

Ms. MORARJEE: Thanks, Madeleine.

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