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."
At one stop, Eikenberry sat down for a private briefing by the U.S. commander of the Laghman Provincial Reconstruction Team, one of a dozen small coalition units across the country that support development projects and monitor local problems. The general demonstrated an intimate knowledge of the major political figures and recent events in this obscure but strategically located province.
He talked in detail with U.S. and Afghan officials about a variety of problems, including corruption among local authorities, the recent unsolved assassination of a district administrator and the periodic bomb attacks against schools, military facilities and other targets.
In the main bazaar, Eikenberry strode casually along the street, towering over throngs of young boys. He stopped to chat with surprised vegetable sellers, and then climbed up a rickety set of stairs to a tiny doctor's office, where he politely asked whether there were any female physicians in the capital. The answer was four.
Many Laghmanis say the most important step the government could take is to build a paved road so that farmers could bring crops and livestock to the country's main east-west highway, about 15 miles south of here.
Eikenberry repeatedly asked people about the road, and he suggested he might be able to use U.S. military funds to help build it.
In his speech to the Afghan audience, he described the U.S.-led coalition and NATO forces, which will take over foreign military leadership here this summer, as "partners" in bringing better security, justice and development to the country.
In an interview in Kabul after the tour, Eikenberry did not seem fazed by the growing number of attacks in the past year after several years of relative calm. He emphasized progress in government and institution-building since 2001 and a need for the United States to shift away from a military role as Afghans become better able to govern and defend themselves.
He declined to comment on relations between Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Its government is a strong U.S. ally, but many Afghan and U.S. officials view its rugged tribal region along the border as a haven for Taliban and other insurgent forces. Many intelligence analysts have expressed belief that bin Laden and senior Taliban leaders are hiding there.
"In the end, Osama bin Laden is just one man," Eikenberry said in the interview. He vowed that U.S. military efforts would be "unrelenting" until the al-Qaeda leader is captured or killed, but he reiterated his conviction that the key to fighting terrorism is bolstering the reach, relevance and writ of the Afghan government.
"This is a real long campaign, and we are on the 50-yard line," he told Marines who protect the reconstruction base after pinning medals for valor and service on a number of them. "The Afghan army is getting stronger, the police are making progress," he said. "The real battle now is to enable the Afghan people to stand up their own society."