By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 3, 2006
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Four years into a mammoth reconstruction effort here that has been largely led, funded and secured by Americans, the United States is showing a growing willingness to cede those jobs to others.
The most dramatic example will come by this summer, when the U.S. military officially hands over control of the volatile southern region -- plagued by persistent attacks from Islamic militias -- to an international force led by the NATO alliance. The United States will cut its troop strength by 2,500, even though it is not clear how aggressively NATO troops will pursue insurgents, who have shown no sign of relenting.
At the same time, the U.S. government is increasingly allowing Western allies, or Afghans themselves, to take on the tasks of rebuilding a country that has suffered more than two decades of fighting and remains beset by poverty, drugs and insurgency.
The United States says that its shifting approach complements Afghanistan's evolution into a self-sustaining democracy and that Washington has no plans to pull out altogether.
"The Afghans have to have enough space to make their own decisions, even to stumble sometimes," said U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann. "But we shouldn't leave them without critical support before they're strong enough."
As the U.S. presence becomes less visible, however, Afghans are starting to question whether the U.S. support is sufficient. Some Afghan officials express concern that the Bush administration's priorities are simply shifting elsewhere and that the United States may abandon their country prematurely, much the way it did in the early 1990s following the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
Funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which topped $1 billion for 2005 and has helped build highways, schools and clinics across the country during the last four years, will be reduced to just over $600 million in 2006, unless Congress appropriates more money.
On one of the biggest threats facing the country, the illicit drug trade, the United States has largely ceded leadership to the British government and is pinning its hopes on Afghan provincial governors to eradicate poppy fields. Although U.S. officials have warned repeatedly about the need to curb the burgeoning opium business, they have so far spent only modest amounts to help and now say Kabul must take the initiative.
Politically, too, the United States has been less willing to exert its influence. The previous ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, played a strong, high-profile role here, negotiating directly with recalcitrant regional leaders and openly advising President Hamid Karzai. Neumann, who arrived several months ago, is a quieter presence who rarely interferes in Karzai's decisions.
Earlier last month, to the surprise of many Afghans, the U.S. Embassy stood by silently during a struggle for the leadership of the new parliament, in which Karzai's government was believed to have backed a radical Islamic scholar and ex-militia leader accused of past human rights abuses over a more moderate candidate who had run against Karzai for president.
Some foreign allies are encouraged by the signs that the United States is willing to loosen its grip and allow others a greater role in the country's rebirth. Several Afghan officials said they welcomed the increased responsibility.
"We don't want to be a permanent burden on the international community," said Defense Minister Rahim Wardak. "This country has been defended by us for 5,000 years. That is our duty." Still, Wardak noted, the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. support after the decade-long Soviet occupation ended in 1989 precipitated a civil war that culminated with the Taliban movement taking power.
"I hope the international community, and especially the U.S., has learned the lesson of what happened," he said. "I hope that history will not repeat itself this time."
The transfer of power in southern Afghanistan will provide the first critical test of the new U.S. strategy. The shift will allow the Bush administration, which has spent more than $47 billion on military efforts in Afghanistan since 2001, to cut the U.S. troop presence by 13 percent, from 19,000 to 16,500.
The move will leave U.S. forces in charge only in the eastern provinces, and only until NATO is ready to assume command there as well. That could happen later in the year, allowing the United States to reduce its troop commitment further.
The reduction, the first since the U.S.-led invasion, comes after a year in which nearly 100 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, more than double the deaths during 2004. Military commanders said the higher toll was a result of their more aggressive strategy for battling the insurgency. They also asserted there would be a seamless transition when NATO troops take over, with help from the Afghan army.
"It's understood that NATO will be in a position to carry on the same counterinsurgency fight that we're running today," said Col. Don C. McGraw, who directs U.S. military operations here.
But the Afghan army remains in its infancy, and mounting a counterinsurgency has not been NATO's job. Questions remain about whether it will be willing to take on that task once its troops are deployed in the south, where on Monday, a suicide bomber in the city of Kandahar attacked a convoy of foreign troops, injuring a U.S. soldier and two Afghan civilians.
Until now, NATO has commanded the north and the west, which have been less violent than the south and the east. In Kabul, its troops have been a familiar and friendly sight on street patrols. In the countryside, they have spent much of their time coordinating reconstruction efforts -- and none chasing Taliban insurgents.
NATO's rules of engagement will be loosened when it takes over the south, allowing its forces to be more aggressive, but it is unclear exactly how much more. One member country, the Netherlands, is wavering over whether it wants to send troops to the area, a longtime Taliban stronghold that has recently been the site of numerous battles and suicide bombings. Maj. Andrew Elmes, a British spokesman for the NATO force -- officially called the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF -- said he expects its soldiers will primarily serve in a peacekeeping function, unlike U.S. troops, who have been initiating battles with insurgents.
"If you think of a policeman, who is armed but he doesn't go out looking for a fight, that's along the lines we're looking at," he said of the expanded ISAF mission, which will add 6,000 soldiers to the 9,000 currently in the country.
Some knowledgeable Afghans predicted that such a limited NATO role would not succeed in the more dangerous territory. "The threat in the south is terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime," said Ali Ahmad Jalali, who recently resigned as Karzai's interior minister. He spoke by telephone from Washington, where he now teaches at the National Defense University. "If they don't get involved in fighting those things, what will they be providing for the security of the country?"
Another major question is how the transition will affect U.S. efforts to track down top fugitives such as al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, all of whom are believed to be hiding in the region.
NATO has said it will not spend its time hunting individuals. The U.S. military will keep only a small residual presence in the south, but officials maintain that they will bring in Special Operations troops as the need arises.
"If Mullah Omar shows up in Kandahar," McGraw said, "we'll go to Kandahar."
Still, the U.S. willingness to cede authority in the south suggests just how remote the possibility of catching notorious fugitives within Afghanistan may be. Many security officials here say they believe bin Laden and others are across the border in Pakistan, where the United States has a much smaller presence.
That likelihood is another reason many Afghans wonder how much longer the United States will stay, and whether it is as committed to reconstruction as it is to catching terrorists. The possible dramatic cuts in USAID funds for Afghanistan -- the result of tightened budgets because of heavy U.S. spending in Iraq and domestic hurricane relief -- have increased that concern.
Neumann said the $623 million in aid planned for 2006 will not be enough, and he is hoping Congress will allocate more through a supplemental spending bill, as it has in past years. But he acknowledged that getting lawmakers to understand the importance of the U.S. commitment here "takes more explanation" than it once did.
Despite considerable reconstruction in the past four years, he said, much more needs to be done. Building more roads, he said, would strengthen the government, improve security and cut opium production by giving farmers access to markets for other products.
"This is too critical to just say we want victory but we want it on the cheap," Neumann said. "We're still in a war, and we need to win."