- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The British commander of the allied forces in Afghanistan said yesterday that his U.S. predecessors moved too quickly from the 2001 invasion to a “peacetime approach,” allowing the ousted Taliban to regroup and stage a counteroffensive this year in the southern provinces.

Gen. David Richards, whose NATO command this month took control of the 31,000 allied troops in Afghanistan, said that in 2001, “the Taliban were defeated, weren’t they? You know, wonderful work by a lot of people, mainly American and Afghan, and it looked pretty hunky-dory.”

But the general told reporters at the Pentagon that the Taliban was able to regroup because American forces remained somewhat isolated. The Afghan army was not established to the point that it could fill security roles in Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace, and other southern towns.

“The benefit of hindsight, you know, we thought it was all done, success was there and we could adopt a sort of peacetime approach to it and didn’t treat it as aggressively as a problem,” he said. “Your forces were doing a great work, but they were almost in isolation because the Afghan army and police weren’t there to help at that stage.”

He said there also was a “disconnect” in what the U.S.-led humanitarian and reconstruction effort could provide and what the Afghan people expected.

“The Taliban exploited it,” Gen. Richards said. “They exploited this sense of frustration amongst the people who just didn’t see all the good things that have been talked about.”

Asked about Gen. Richard’s remarks, Lt. Col. Todd Vician, a Pentagon spokesman, told the Associated Press, “It will take years of hard work by the Afghan people and the international community to reverse the effects of decades of occupation and civil war. Nonetheless, there has been significant economic growth and donor efforts to improve living conditions across the country.”

Gen. Richards said the new tactic has been to retake control of Taliban areas, move in reconstruction programs and maintain a security presence. He is giving the allies six months to start showing the Afghans that they can expect better services and security. If not, the alliance risks losing the populace to the insurgents.

“I think that’s why I’m optimistic that we have understood the issue broader, the way I’ve just analyzed, learned our lessons and now can take this forward aggressively to deliver on the promise,” said Gen. Richards, who led British troops in strife-torn Northern Ireland. “I will now construct a security operation that allows that work to start and then will ensure a continuing level of security, so that it can go on.”

The allies seemed caught off guard this spring, when the Taliban began surprise attacks on southern Afghan towns.

The coalition eventually poured more troops into the south and mounted major air and ground operations, routing the Taliban, whose spokesman conceded they had to retreat.

“We had to fight and fight we have,” Gen. Richards said. “There is no doubt anymore that NATO can fight if and when it’s required to do so, and it inflicted the biggest single defeat on the Taliban that had occurred since 2001.”

NATO’s new tactics played out this week in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province. Allied forces left the area after weeks of bloody fighting. Security will be handled by tribal chiefs and Afghan forces, with NATO on an emergency recall status.

Gen. Richards commands a force that includes troops from Britain, the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark.

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