ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER: In Afghanistan, the Taliban are getting stronger, and according to The Washington Post, US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates thinks the current NATO mission is a failure. The US are preparing to send the Marines to take over more of the fighting. But is there a split in NATO over the future of the mission? Is there a military solution to the problem? Or are negotiations with the Taliban the only realistic course? To give us a clearer picture of the situation, we go to Syed Saleem Shahzad.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Saleem, the question of what to do in Afghanistan is being hotly debated in the United States and in Canada. In Canada, a panel that was commissioned by the Canadian federal government released a report saying that, more or less, Canada should keep doing what it's doing, wanting more NATO troops on the ground. Tell us what's happening on the ground. I know you just returned from Kabul. What's happening in Afghanistan? And what is this split between the US and NATO all about?
SYED SALEEM SHAHZAD, PAK. BUREAU CHIEF, ASIA TIMES ONLINE: Well, one thing is obvious, that NATO is divided on the strategic question in Afghanistan. This is very obvious. There is an impression within the British camp, which is operating in the southwestern Afghanistan, especially in the Helmand province: they think that the last five, six years' policies, which were essentially run by the United States of America, were a failure. And now the British actually want to revamp the whole strategy. Actually, they want to play a game of carrot-and-stick in Afghanistan with Taliban. At one hand, obviously, they offer a military solution, a military offensive in the restive southern provinces. But at the same time, they are aiming to talk to some of the Taliban commanders. So this is their strategy. But, you know, the Americans are not agreeing with this whole idea, and it appears that they believe that it would fall flat on their face and on NATO's face. So these are a few things on which the NATO alliance is actually divided.
JAY: Is there a moderate section of the Taliban to be dealt with? Or is that an illusion?
SHAHZAD: There are contradictions all over. This process of dialog with Taliban is not a new idea. It's pretty old. I mean, it started in 2003, actually, when in Quetta some CIA operatives spoke to a section of Taliban. But thing is that whenever they spoke to Taliban, they always dish out the proposal that they would accept Taliban in the government, but without Mullah Omar and without al-Qaeda. I think this is the problem. All their previous overtures with the local Taliban commanders were just a failure, because both overtures were not supported by the Mullah Omar or the Taliban leadership. So, I mean, they have to, I mean, speak with the right people, and the right person is Mullah Omar.
JAY: But the US policy is increased counterinsurgency. The idea of any kind of negotiation with Mullah Omar seems to be completely off the table.
SHAHZAD: Either they would speak to Mullah Omar, or alternatively they have to fight, and they have to wipe out Taliban from southern Afghanistan. But, for that matter, they have to send a couple of thousand more troops to southern Afghanistan, and they have to revamp their combat strategy; they have to place their war machine with full force.
JAY: To wipe out Taliban inside out, doesn't it also require an assault in the Northwest Frontier Provinces and Waziristan in Pakistan? And then what does that lead to? What does that do to the Musharraf government? How would the Pakistan army put up with such a thing?
SHAHZAD: The thing is that NATO needs to choke all the supply lines coming from Pakistan, only then pressurize Pakistan to conduct the operation in the tribal areas. So only then it would be a success.
JAY: But you think it could be a success.
SHAHZAD: Yeah, it is quite possible. But it is essential that they have to supply more soldiers on the Afghan side of the defense.
JAY: How many extra US or NATO soldiers do you think it would be?
SHAHZAD: I think at least 25,000 more soldiers are required to be posted all along the Afghan border.
JAY: But what about my question? Doesn't it require also a campaign inside Pakistan? Because the Pakistan army doesn't seem to want to take this on.
SHAHZAD: But the thing is that they have to take Pakistani forces into the confidence, and they should have a joint strategy to clip the wings of Taliban from both side of the borders.
JAY: And what do you think most Afghans want? Do they want this massive campaign? Or would they rather see negotiations?
SHAHZAD: Afghans, like all folks in the world, want prosperity. And development works. And if they would feel that Americans or the foreign forces mean it, they would certainly support it. At present, at the moment, they don't feel it; they just view them as foreign occupation forces which did not deliver anything to the areas in the last six, seven years. So that's why they are reacting. Otherwise, they are the same people who actually booted out the Taliban in 2001 from the Helmand province, which was the heartland of Taliban. Actually, they want the representation of southern Afghanistan, the Pashtun heartland, in the central government and the provincial government. If you talk to the common folk, they want their rights, their political rights, one way or other. They don't have any particular obsessions in terms of Taliban or anti-Taliban forces. I don't find this thing that they would particularly support a dialog with Taliban or they would particularly support the military operations against Taliban. I think they want their representation in the federal government. And, actually, you know, Taliban is more a generic name of the Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan. That's why they are supporting them. Otherwise, if they are given full representation in the central government, in the provincial government, of course they would more than happy.
JAY: What does the Karzai government want? And what does the leadership in Kabul and the north of Afghanistan—what do they want? Do they want a negotiated settlement of some form? Or do they want increased US-NATO presence and they want a big military campaign?
SHAHZAD: There is a confusion within the Afghan government. The Afghan government doesn't have any independent agenda. Generally they follow the American dictates rather than any other country or the NATO.
JAY: So they would support a big military campaign.
SHAHZAD: Yeah, they would support a military campaign.
JAY: You know, last year, there was talk about a big spring offensive. It didn't really seem to realize itself. Now there's talk again about a spring offensive this year. What do you think we're looking at in terms of Taliban military activity?
SHAHZAD: The Taliban is more obsessed to cut down the military supply lines of the NATO coming from Pakistan, and they will focus more to chop off the land supply lines of the NATO coming from Pakistan, because if the NATO does not get the oil supply line from Pakistan, there will be a serious problem in operations. So this is what the Taliban's new strategy is for the spring offensive 2008.