By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 21, 2006
KANDAGAL, Afghanistan -- The stout new wood-plank bridge over the Pech River, paid for by the U.S. Army, was a strategic gift to the people of this remote area of eastern Afghanistan, where insurgents are active. The aim: to open the river's valley to markets and health care and thereby strengthen local support for the central government.
But even as U.S. and Afghan officials landed by helicopter in a cornfield Monday and snipped a ceremonial pink ribbon across the bridge, U.S. and Afghan soldiers were blockading the only road into the nearby Korengal Valley. Officials said some local tribes there had helped Taliban forces regroup after they were driven out of the area by the U.S.-led Operation Mountain Lion in April.
"There are serious sanctuaries in the Korengal Valley," said Lt. Col. Christopher Cavoli, commander of U.S. military forces in Konar province, who called the bridge and blockade combination a textbook application of counterinsurgency theory. Some Korengal elders are supporting the government, he said, and others are "colluding actively with the enemy. The goal . . . is to produce a fracture between two groups."
With this approach, Cavoli is attempting to negotiate the complexities of Afghan traditions and politics. Some local tribes have long-standing political relationships with both the Taliban and the government, feel both gratitude and resentment toward foreign troops and have constantly shifting alliances and conflicts with neighboring groups.
There is constant, low-level fighting in this area. Frequent Taliban attacks draw responding U.S. artillery fire. Several tribal leaders who attended the bridge ceremony Monday complained angrily that U.S. gunfire had killed their livestock and injured their children and that when they sent sick women to seek medical help, U.S. forces detained their male escorts.
"The American forces have created a lot of problems for us," said Zawahar Khan Mangal, a Korengali elder. "It is good that they have built the bridge, but the blockade has hurt us a lot." He said that Taliban fighters came and went in small groups but that "the people of Korengal do not support them. I don't know why they have ordered this blockade."
U.S. military officials said their troops had been extremely careful to avoid causing civilian casualties. Cavoli said that one U.S. artillery attack had killed some goats and that the owner would be compensated. He also said wounded Taliban fighters came to the U.S. military clinic posing as civilians.
Even in official speeches at Monday's outdoor ceremony, which was attended by senior U.S. and Afghan military officials as well as the Afghan deputy transportation minister, expressions of appreciation for the new bridge were mixed with bitter complaints about the road closure.
The man in the hot seat was Mohammed "Deedar" Shazeeli, the recently appointed governor of Konar and a prominent example of Afghan political complexity.
Shazeeli, a former anti-Soviet militia commander widely known by his nom de guerre, Deedar, was banned from running for parliament in 2004 because of past links to the Taliban. But since President Hamid Karzai sent him to Konar several months ago, U.S. officials said, he has been an engaging and forceful leader, reaching out to all the tribes with constant meetings but also ordering the controversial blockade.
"I came here to do my best and help bring construction and development," Shazeeli said in a long, energetic speech at the outdoor ceremony marking the bridge's opening. "I respect all the elders, I respect all the jihadi commanders. I will always listen to your problems." He promised that residents would soon see new mosques built as well as bridges, adding, "I only ask you to help your government bring security and stability to the area."
The bridge inauguration came one day after a similar ceremony in central Ghazni province. U.S. and Afghan military officials traveled by helicopter Sunday to Andar, one of the most conflict-ridden districts in Ghazni, to open a new district administration building as a symbol of efforts to restore authority and security.
But there, too, they discovered that residents had other pressing concerns. According to U.S. officials who took part in a meeting with several hundred Ghazni elders, many complained that local police officers who were supposed to provide protection against the insurgents instead abused residents constantly, even extorting money from women and children as they walked along the roads.
U.S. officials said they had forwarded those complaints to the Karzai government. Sources said senior officials in Ghazni, possibly including the governor, would probably lose their jobs.
In Konar, the fight against the Taliban is complicated by the area's economic mainstay, lumber. The rugged hills are full of ancient hardwood trees, and timber smuggling across the nearby Pakistan border is a major problem. U.S. military officials said that one local timber baron was a Taliban member and that Taliban forces helped smugglers avoid paying taxes.
Another complicating factor is religion. Although Konar is not known as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, officials said, it has some villages that were settled years ago by Pakistani clerics of the strict Wahhabi sect. The Taliban movement, which grew out of the same Muslim sect, finds some sympathy here.
Still, U.S. military officials assert that they are winning the battle in Konar and that most of the province's residents support the Karzai government. They said the strength of the Taliban in both the Korengal and Pech valleys, and its support among the local people, are much less than they were in June last year, when a U.S. Army helicopter was shot down in Konar, killing eight Navy SEALs and eight other men on board.
"I am very optimistic about the situation," said Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, senior commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who was at Monday's bridge ceremony. "A year ago, we couldn't even fly over this valley. This time, the local people brought tea and bread to our workers while we were building this bridge."