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.
Last weekend's massive suicide bombing at a Marriott hotel in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, has shaken the government there. Analysts said it could signal a sea change in public opinion over what many Pakistanis have called America's war. The spectacular blast killed at least 53 people, including two Americans. Most of the casualties were Pakistanis.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who met with President Bush at the United Nations in New York this week, has vowed to launch an all-out war on terrorism, but U.S. doubts about Pakistan's commitment persist.
"The porous border is still a fundamental problem, and it must be solved," Blanchette said. "This is not a boxing ring, it is an area that the enemy can escape at any time. It can basically disappear, replenish, regroup, rearm, recruit and come back."
NATO and U.S. military officials have said recently that they need more troops to make faster headway against a "syndicate" of Taliban insurgents, foreign al-Qaeda fighters and other enemy forces. Milley's boss, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, said recently that maintaining the current level of 34,000 U.S. troops overall in Afghanistan would result in a "slow win" that could take years to achieve.
But Western officials here also said that the major obstacles to progress on the ground are not only military. In particular, they cited the lack of strong local governance, the poor performance of the Afghan national police, and the difficulty of protecting rural areas long enough to provide projects and services that will strengthen public loyalty to the authorities.
"We can never eliminate the last Taliban. It is a question of building Afghan capacity," Blanchette said. "Yes, we need more troops, but we also need better synchronicity of the other parts. Our job is to create a window of security, so that governance and reconstruction can start."
Despite the wide perception that the Taliban is rapidly gaining ground, with attacks occurring regularly near the capital, officials cited several cases in which it is being decisively pushed back. In Kapisa province, just northeast of the capital, they said, French and Afghan troops have routed Taliban forces, and soon the construction of a new Kabul bypass road will begin there.
Still, officials described the overall situation as mixed, with Western troops defeating the insurgents in every individual encounter but remaining unable to wipe them out. Moreover, officials acknowledged that some of their advances are coming at a high political cost, especially Afghan anger over civilian casualties and Pakistani opposition to cross-border raids.
"All counterinsurgency is local," Nielson-Green said. "We have to get in among the people. If we had more troops, we could clear more space and do more to meet people's needs. Otherwise, the enemy will keep coming back like cockroaches, hiding in the light and then scurrying back in the dark."