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An Afghan Province Points the Way

Plowing land to grow vegetables on the outskirts of Jalalabad.
Plowing land to grow vegetables on the outskirts of Jalalabad. (By Rahmat Gul -- Associated Press)

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By David Ignatius
Sunday, January 27, 2008

JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- Air Force Lt. Col. Gordon Phillips has logged 5,000 hours in AWACS surveillance planes, one of the high-tech weapons systems that made America such a dominant power against conventional adversaries. But these days, Phillips is very much down on the ground, heading a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) here that's working with villagers to build dams, roads and schools.

Phillips's unlikely role illustrates the dilemma facing the U.S. military: The conventional wars it's good at fighting aren't the ones it's encountering in Iraq, Afghanistan and other unstable areas. The ideal modern warrior has to be something between a Peace Corps volunteer and a Special Forces commando.

The United States seems to be doing most things right here in Nangahar province, on Afghanistan's eastern border, and gaining some leverage in its fight against terrorism. This used to be Taliban country. Pakistan is just east, across the Khyber Pass. To the south are the rugged, snow-capped peaks of the Tora Bora mountains, into which Osama bin Laden fled in late 2001. These days, there are occasional roadside bombings and suicide attacks in the province, but some people have to stop and think a moment to remember the last one.

Success here results from an interesting mix of political and military factors. There's a strong local leader in the provincial governor, Gul Agha Shirzai. This gentleman is not a paragon of democracy; to be frank, he's a warlord. He rules the province with a firm hand, and with a personal fortune that U.S. officials estimate at about $300 million, he has the money to make political deals work.

The American contribution to stability in Jalalabad is twofold. First, there's the PRT effort. With its focus on economic development, the team is reaching out to the very people whose support the Taliban insurgents need to survive. I talked with a local cleric named Mullawi Abdul-Aziz, a small, dark man whose face is creased by the sun. He was once friendly with the Taliban, but he now serves as deputy chief of the provincial council and meets twice a week with Shawn Waddoups, a State Department officer on the PRT. The mullah says he ignores Afghans who criticize him for being too friendly with the Americans.

A second component of U.S. success here is the low-visibility but high-impact mix of combat and intelligence operations. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Milhorn leads a team that seeks, as he puts it, to "tighten down the gate" at the Pakistani border. He's aided by some very high-tech biometric equipment that's being used to check the movement of known insurgents.

When you visit places like Jalalabad and see things working the way they're supposed to, there's always a disconnect with what you've been reading and hearing about the larger war. I've been trying to put those pieces together in my mind after visiting here Wednesday with the chief of Central Command, Adm. William Fallon.

The reality is that the larger war in Afghanistan isn't going as well as it seems to be in this province. Roadside bombs and suicide attacks were up last year. The Taliban is regaining strength in some parts of the country. The Afghan national government is weak and disorganized. And NATO's operations are a ragged quilt -- with no other nation matching the U.S. effort, either in combat firepower or people-friendly PRTs.

The commanders back in Kabul try to put the best face on the situation. Gen. Dan McNeil, who heads NATO's forces in Afghanistan, says that the increase in Taliban terrorist attacks is actually a sign of the insurgents' weakness and the coalition's success. He says the United States is sending 3,000 more Marines to Afghanistan on the principle that "you reinforce where you're having success."

That kind of upbeat talk in the face of downbeat numbers is eerily reminiscent of Iraq. And it's a reminder that counterinsurgency wars are, in the end, about creating a state of mind. Security is a habit, born of weeks and months of ordinary life. Insecurity, too, is a habit, born of fear that a suicide bomber may attack your village or your Kabul hotel, regardless of how infrequent those attacks may really be.

A reality check for me was to talk in Kabul with Mohammad Hanif Atmar, the country's bright young minister of education. He said that Taliban terrorist attacks killed 147 students and teachers over the past 10 months and seriously injured 200 others. This campaign of intimidation closed 590 schools last year, up from 350 the year before. In areas where students are too scared to go to school, stability and security are still distant goals. You can see in Jalalabad what success would look like; the challenge is to make that picture real across Afghanistan.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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