U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Thinks Locally

Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry shares a joke with provincial governor Gulab Mangal during a visit to remote Laghman province.
Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry shares a joke with provincial governor Gulab Mangal during a visit to remote Laghman province. (By Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 4, 2006

MEHTAR LAM, Afghanistan -- While the world may be wondering whether U.S.-led troops will ever find Osama bin Laden, Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry has his eye on smaller, more immediate tasks.

During a day in remote Laghman province last week, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan immersed himself in the daily concerns of local residents: the lack of a market road for farmers, the danger of bomb attacks against schools, the remoteness of the national government in Kabul.

"The real soldiers in Afghanistan are not necessarily wearing uniforms," Eikenberry said in a brief speech to Afghans in this provincial capital northeast of Kabul. "They are providing health care, teaching your families, building the community."

For most of the 23,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, the main task is still to hunt down, capture or kill anti-government fighters. But after several months of intensified attacks by insurgents, including roadside and suicide bombings, Eikenberry argues that the most effective antidote is to strengthen and protect Afghanistan's weak central government.

The day-long visit to Mehtar Lam, one of Eikenberry's weekly trips to remote areas across the country, had a carefully scripted agenda of nation-building, and its main target audience was the Afghan public.

By giving a high-profile, bearhugging welcome to Laghman's newly appointed governor, Gulab Mangal, Eikenberry firmly endorsed President Hamid Karzai's strategy of shifting respected leaders into provinces where they have no ties. The goal is to immunize governors from local politics as they attempt to fight corruption and terrorism.

By walking for nearly an hour through Mehtar Lam's main bazaar, surrounded by only a loose cordon of troops and pointedly bereft of helmet or flak jacket, Eikenberry projected an image of engagement, confidence and respect. The tour was designed to counter some Afghans' notion of U.S. troops as swaggering, heavily armed door-kickers.

And by inviting three cabinet members and several deputy ministers to accompany him by helicopter from Kabul, Eikenberry introduced residents of Laghman province to officials they otherwise never would have met. Each official gave a short speech to a gathering of local leaders, and the group accompanied Eikenberry on his market stroll.

Some of the challenges of building the national government were on display: Masooda Jalal, the minister of women's affairs, was received with cool politeness by the crowd of turbaned male elders and officials when she noted that "based on the constitution, based on Islam, women in Afghanistan have the same rights as men. They should take part in rebuilding the country. Women in Laghman should have the right to education, to health care, to legal aid, to economic development."

Four and a half years after the overthrow of the Taliban, Karzai's Western-backed government has little reach into the country's rural provinces. This leaves many regions open to influence by militia commanders, drug traffickers or insurgents, especially the revived Taliban militia.

The new Afghan National Army is spread thin, the new national police officers are still being trained and equipped. And few international aid groups feel safe enough to operate in provinces like this one, leaving a vacuum that Eikenberry hopes to fill with his holistic approach.

"If we can help officials from Kabul to get out there and connect, then people will start to see they really do have a government," the general said, adding that the professionalism and competence of Afghan ministers and governors has "improved strikingly" in the past several years. "Our success can only be defined in the eyes of the Afghan people."

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