NATO Hopes to Undercut Taliban With 'Surge' of Projects

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 27, 2008

KABUL -- NATO alliance troops facing ever more aggressive Taliban insurgents are planning a winter "development surge" of civil works projects in eastern Afghanistan designed to win over tribes in regions near the Pakistan border and to prevent their sons from joining the Taliban's ranks, according to military officials here.

At the same time, troops will keep up armed pressure with a winter offensive that seeks to get a head start on blunting the Taliban's traditional spring fighting season.

In a series of recent interviews, U.S. military and NATO officials said that reversing recent gains by Taliban forces will require more troops, time, confidence-building among the Afghan populace, and cooperation from Pakistan in denying the guerrillas sanctuary inside its borders.

"There is no doubt the enemy has bounced back," said Brig. Gen. Mark A. Milley, deputy commander for U.S. operations under NATO in eastern Afghanistan. "They are not unified, and they only have support of 10 percent of the people. But they have achieved a perception of insecurity. Our challenge is to create a perception of security."

"Our fighting season is 365 days a year," said Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, spokeswoman for U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, describing plans for cold-weather attacks. "We are not going to let them rest and reconstitute themselves." The simultaneous development surge, in the meantime, should help "separate the people from the enemy by presenting alternatives and undermining their recruiting pool."

One development project will be in Khost province, where suicide bombers attacked a U.S. base last month and followers of Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani are active. The U.S. command plans to build a road from Khost city to a major highway, a project that officials hope will solidify local support for the government and weaken Haqqani's grip.

In the past several months, attacks and armed encounters with insurgents have increased by about a third compared with the same period last year, reaching more than 1,000 incidents. As Western forces have responded with more aggressive actions, including airstrikes, the insurgents have won propaganda points by quickly denouncing and sometimes exaggerating the civilian deaths that result.

In the interviews, NATO and U.S. officials said they have taken strong new measures to avoid civilian casualties, not only for humanitarian reasons but because reports of civilian bombing deaths are a way for insurgents to undermine Western air power that they cannot challenge militarily.

"If we inadvertently kill civilians, we pay a price because we go against what we are trying to achieve overall," said Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, chief spokesman for the 53,000-strong NATO forces here. "We need to weigh the effects and the proportionality of every action. If there is the likelihood of even one civilian casualty, we will not strike, not even if we think Osama bin Laden is down there."

A more serious problem for U.S. and NATO forces is the persistence of safe havens for Afghan insurgents across the border in Pakistan. Pakistani security forces have only recently begun to make meaningful headway in combating local groups, at a time of strong opposition among the Pakistani public to cross-border airstrikes and ground raids by U.S. forces.

Milley said Islamist fighters on both sides of the border are "inextricably linked," even though Pakistani and Afghan officials have repeatedly blamed each other's territory as the source of violence. "The insurgency in Afghanistan cannot be solved until the situation in Pakistan is solved, and vice versa," he said in an interview last week.

The general said that even though Pakistani forces cooperate closely with U.S. forces along the border and have lost more than 1,500 men, their troops are not trained in counterinsurgency and their leaders have had difficulty "coming to grips" with the nature of the enemy they face.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company