By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
KABUL, Dec. 3 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Afghanistan on Monday to weigh new strategies for quelling insurgent violence, which has escalated here in recent years despite increases in U.S. and NATO troop levels.
Senior defense officials said that under one initiative being considered, local tribesmen would be trained and armed to fight Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan, the stronghold of the radical Islamic militia. Attacks in that region have been particularly intense, and one senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States is "seeing early indicators that there may be some stepped-up activity by al-Qaeda."
"One of the clear concerns that we all have is that in the last two or three years there has been a continuing increase in the overall level of violence," with attacks "highly focused" in the south, Gates told reporters Monday.
"I'm not worried about a backslide as much as I am how we continue the momentum going forward," Gates said.
The tribal initiative would begin with a British pilot project in Helmand province and would be broadly similar to a U.S. military drive in Iraq that has recruited thousands of local fighters -- including tribesmen and former insurgents -- to police their neighborhoods, the officials said.
In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the plan reflects a concern among senior U.S. officials that coalition forces have relied too much on the central government to build security forces, an approach they say runs counter to both tribal culture and the need for community policing.
A new opinion poll released Monday -- conducted by ABC News, the BBC and the German public TV station ARD -- showed Afghans to be increasingly critical of the performance of U.S. forces and their ability to provide security. About 42 percent of Afghans polled rated U.S. efforts in their country positively, down from 68 percent in 2005.
The survey of 1,377 Afghans in the country's 34 provinces found that 42 percent believe the Taliban has gained strength in the past year, compared with 24 percent who say the group is weaker.
Nevertheless, about 70 percent of Afghans polled hold favorable views of the U.S. military overall, want it to remain in Afghanistan and are glad the Taliban was overthrown in 2001.
Senior defense officials said that there are currently no plans to send additional U.S. troops to southern Afghanistan but that the Pentagon is urging other NATO countries to increase their commitments. There are about 25,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 22,000 non-U.S. NATO and other troops.