By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 16, 2009
KABUL -- The planned U.S. military and counterinsurgency drive in Afghanistan is meeting public and official resistance that could delay and possibly undermine a costly, belated effort that American officials here acknowledge has a limited window of time to succeed.
The officials say they are optimistic that the planned addition of up to 30,000 troops, combined with a new strategy to support local governance and development aimed at weaning villagers away from Taliban influence, will show significant results within the year. They say improved cooperation from the army in neighboring Pakistan and better performance by the Afghan national army are bolstering this optimism.
Yet they also acknowledge that they face an array of obstacles, including: widespread public hostility to international forces over bombing raids and civilian abuses; the growing influence of Taliban insurgents in areas where central authority and services are scarce; and controversy over plans to establish village defense groups.
Officials are also worried about other issues: the upcoming Afghan presidential election and the revived hostility between Pakistan and India caused by a deadly terrorist rampage in Mumbai in November, could inject unpredictable tensions and competing priorities into the region just as a new administration in Washington tries to focus afresh on the anti-terrorist struggle here.
Unlike the troop "surge" in Iraq, the doubling of the U.S. military presence on the ground in Afghanistan is not temporary, military officials said. Rather, troops will maintain a protracted presence focused on securing and holding villages currently dominated by the Taliban.
One conundrum, U.S. military officials say, is that the expanded forces will have to come in with heavy firepower and aggressive military tactics -- likely to create more civilian casualties and public animosity -- in order to secure rural districts so they can bring in services, aid and governance aimed at winning over the local populace.
"We don't want to give people false expectations. This is going to be a very tough year," said a U.S. military official here, speaking on the condition of anonymity. As American troops deploy throughout the south, where Taliban forces are strongest, he said, "you will see a very big spike" in armed clashes. Once areas are under control, "then we can bring in governance and development. But there will be some tough months of violence first."
Many Afghans are furious over some actions taken by foreign troops, especially airstrikes that kill unarmed civilians and night raids where unidentified foreigners burst into homes, terrifying families. While the Taliban has swiftly capitalized on such incidents, U.S. and NATO officials tend to initially deny or minimize them, and then fail to publicize investigations or findings.
President Hamid Karzai, the coalition troops' official host, has recently stoked this anger with a series of critical comments about foreign forces, saying they should deploy along the border with Pakistan instead of in Afghan villages. Critics say Karzai is pandering to popular emotion in hopes of winning reelection this year. In private, U.S. officials speak of their longtime ally with angry sarcasm. In public, they have begun to specifically contradict Karzai's claims of fresh civilian casualties, identifying slain Taliban insurgents by name and face.
But other observers here say the president has a point. While global attention has focused on two airstrikes last year that killed numerous civilians, a report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission found a "common pattern" in which "Afghan families experienced their family members killed or injured, their houses or other property destroyed, or their homes invaded at night without any perceived justification or legal authorization." Often, victims were afraid to report the incidents or were rebuffed by officials if they tried.
The report concluded that the Afghan public's welcoming attitude toward coalition forces as guests and protectors has significantly shifted to resentment and fear. These findings were borne out in interviews this month with Kabul residents and with leaders from restive provinces, including Logar, Wardak and Kandahar, who said many Afghans are now as afraid of foreign and national government forces as they are of the Taliban.
"When the foreign troops first came, every Afghan child said thumbs up, but now, nobody likes them. People have lost their trust," said Fazlullah Mojadeddi, 52, a legislator and former governor of Logar. "They don't want the Taliban back, but they are silent because nobody can guarantee their security. If one or two Taliban fighters come, the people don't inform the authorities for fear the foreigners will start killing innocent people."
A second dilemma facing U.S. planners is whether to shore up a weak and corrupt central government or seek help in the volatile and murky arena of local and tribal politics. The regime in Kabul wields little authority in many rural areas, so U.S. military officials hope to reach out directly to traditional and tribal leaders. They plan to propose the creation of local defense committees similar to the "Awakening" groups used in Iraq.
But the idea of raising local defense forces has aroused concern among foreign experts and Afghan citizens, who warn it could stir up old ethnic and tribal hostilities; re-arm a factionalized populace the United Nations just spent millions to disarm; and raise the specter of previous experiments by the pro-Soviet government of the 1980s and other regimes that led to fratricidal violence.
"Creating local militias would be a disaster," said Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament from Kabul. "Who can guarantee they won't go to war? It would undermine central authority, civilian life would be under threat and nobody would be able to control them."
U.S. military officials here assert that the project is Afghan-led, but various Afghan agencies have issued conflicting statements about it, and their plans to announce or even name the program have been delayed for weeks. Efforts this month to interview senior Afghan officials involved in the initiative were not successful, while spokesmen for Karzai said he was unavailable.
Some officials in Taliban-plagued zones said they had been persuaded that, under the right leadership, local fighters could be a great asset because of their intimate knowledge of the country's rugged terrain and labyrinthine tribal relations. But others were harsh in their criticism of the U.S. and Afghan security plans.
One skeptic is Roshanak Wardak, a medical doctor and legislator from Wardak province, less than an hour's drive south of Kabul. Overrun by Taliban fighters in the past year, the province has been targeted for an early deployment of the incoming U.S. troops and for a pilot project in the so-called community guard program. Wardak said many of her constituents oppose both plans.
"In my province, people are definitely suffering from the Taliban, but they are also very upset about the American troops coming in or trying to start militias," she said. "The Russians made those self-defense groups and set brother against brother. Now, everyone has a cousin or a nephew who has joined the Taliban. The elders are ready to let their sons protect their schools or markets, but they will never give them to fight the Taliban."
The indigenous ties of the insurgents present perhaps the most difficult challenge to the new U.S. strategy. Where Westerners tend to view the Taliban as a source of cruelty and terror, for many Afghans they are simply another option in a fluid power struggle. Even former Afghan soldiers and police officers have joined the insurgents, who pay cash wages, share their religion and traditions and are often from the same tribe.
In parts of Logar, Mojadeddi, the legislator, said people had turned to both Taliban and tribal leaders for justice and to resolve disputes, as government offices are good for little except "providing passports and ID cards." He said he opposes the Taliban but believes its leaders would negotiate under the right conditions. "As a fellow Logari, I can talk to the Taliban. But I can't tell them to stop destroying schools and clinics and join the government, because I can't guarantee their safety," he said.
American military officials here said they are keenly aware that they have a serious image problem and limited time to prove that bringing in more troops and weapons will not destroy the Afghan countryside to save it. They said killing enemy fighters alone will solve nothing. As soon as key areas are secured, they said they will bring in a variety of civilian experts -- from veterinarians to judges -- to address local needs.
"We have made errors in the past, but now we are getting it right," a U.S. military official said. "We have been under-resourced, but now we have a good campaign plan and the resources to execute it. This will be the first time we will have the capacity to hold key areas, protect the population and start bringing in projects. That's what will make all the difference."