NATO Faces New Job in Afghanistan

Melissa Block talks with NATO spokesman Mark Laity in Kabul about the organization's commitment in Afghanistan. An American four-star general will be put in command of the force in February. That force has faced difficult resistance in several regions of the country.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

At the White House today, President Hamid Karzai said the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan is absolutely working. But he said bringing stability to his country will require patience.

U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan are facing the worst fighting since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001. Mark Laity is the NATO spokesman in Afghanistan. I asked him how he explains the Taliban's renewed strength.

Mr. MARK LAITY (Spokesman, NATO): Well, I think what's happened, especially in the south, is that there had not been very many international forces in the south over the last couple of years and we'd actually created, if you like, a partial vacuum. And so the Taliban who'd been pushed out of that area when the coalition took over in 2002 had filtered back.

So what we're seeing this year is that as we've put in now thousands and thousands of extra troops, suddenly we've come across the numbers of Taliban who've basically filtered back in and we're having to deal with them.

BLOCK: But when, as you say, you push them out of, say, Kandahar, are they not just popping up a province or two over, winning hearts and minds among the people and causing you problems where you didn't expect to have them before?

Mr. LAITY: Well, obviously they move about, but one of the advantages of having gone from having a few hundred permanently placed troops in most of the southern provinces, we've gone to having 10,000. So there is not the same easiness of finding somewhere else to go. The hearts and mind issue is different. What we need to do to win hearts and minds in the south is two things.

We need to demonstrate that we are winners. The Taliban are telling the local people that they are going to win, where they're not. We have to demonstrate that, and then having demonstrated that, we have to demonstrate that we're going to give the people of the south a better life. So the NATO strategy is based on security, governance and development, and it's those three together that will win.

BLOCK: But in the meantime, the Taliban have allied themselves with the drug lords. There's been a huge surge in opium and that's creating jobs for people who are saying look, these people are giving me a way of life. I'm siding with the Taliban.

Mr. LAITY: Well, there's certainly a point that the Taliban are now, if you like, the drug lords' best friend. But I would slightly challenge the idea that they're they only people who give them jobs. I think there is actually the ability for a lot of people who are currently growing poppy to grow other profitable crops which are quite legal.

What you need is a stable economy in which you can then bring in the roads, the packaging, the marketing, which makes it easier to grow, sell and make a profit out of normal crops.

BLOCK: It sounds like what you're saying, though, is that for the short term, at least, they really don't have a choice, if it's places where there aren't other viable means to make a living and there aren't roads, why not turn to opium production?

Mr. LAITY: Well, I mean, it would be certainly be acknowledged it's harder, and when you have to deal with a problem like counter narcotics, you do not deal with it in isolation. You deal with it as part of the overall campaign, and that will take time. It will take time.

BLOCK: Some of the NATO member countries have been balking at sending more troops to Afghanistan. They've put conditions on where and how they can be deployed. Do you think that NATO countries have the resolve to stay in Afghanistan as long as this will take?

Mr. LAITY: Absolutely. I think everyone who's involved in NATO knows that they're there for the long haul, but I would also acknowledge we do need some more forces.

BLOCK: Why has it been so hard to get the troops you need, to get the member states on board?

Mr. LAITY: Well, I mean, first of all, we've got a lot of troops there. There's now 20,000 troops. I think there's a lot of calls on NATO troops. We're seeing people in Iraq, seeing people in Lebanon now. I think that these issues need working hard at, and that's what the NATO secretary general is doing.

BLOCK: Is part of the problem that you encounter, though, that countries that may have been happy to help with nation building are finding themselves being asked to send essentially combat troops to fight in a civil war that's basically going on in parts of Afghanistan, and that's not at all what they thought they would be signing up for?

Mr. LAITY: Well, I think it would be inappropriate to say what nations' motives are, but it's certainly true that I think that people had hoped that the Afghanistan operation would be something closer to peace support. I don't think anyone ever believed it was straightforward peacekeeping. What we've seen in the south is more intense combat. We are dealing with it, but we've obviously got to step up our game, and that's exactly what's happening.

BLOCK: Mark Laity, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. LAITY: Thank you.

BLOCK: Mark Laity is NATO spokesman in Afghanistan. He spoke with us from Kabul.

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