Growing Public Hostility to Foreign Troops May Hurt U.S. Surge Plans in Afghanistan

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 22, 2009

KABUL, Feb. 21 -- The additional 17,000 troops the Obama administration is preparing to send to Afghanistan will face both an aggressive, well-armed Taliban insurgency and an unarmed but equally daunting foe: public opinion.

In more than a dozen interviews across the capital this week, Afghans said that instead of helping to defeat the insurgents and quell the violence that has engulfed their country, more foreign troops will exacerbate the problem.

The comments echoed a recent survey by the BBC and ABC News that found that although 90 percent of Afghans oppose the Taliban, less than half view the United States favorably, a sharp drop from a year ago, and a quarter say attacks on U.S. troops can be justified.

In the interviews, most people said they did not like the Taliban and were terrified of the suicide attacks that often occur in public places. Yet they also spoke with anger and suspicion about the U.S.-led coalition forces -- questioning their motives and bitterly complaining about civilian casualties, home invasions and other alleged abuses they suffer at the hands of the once-welcomed American and NATO troops.

"Bringing in another foreign army is not going to help. They always come here for their own interests, and they always lose. Better to let everyone sit down with the elders and find a way for peace," said Ibrahim Khan, 40, a cargo truck driver from Paktia province. "People are feeling hopeless and afraid, but nobody knows who the enemy is anymore."

The comments came as American military officials here, in an effort to soften public criticism, acknowledged Saturday that U.S. airstrikes in the western province of Herat on Tuesday had killed 13 civilians and three insurgents. A U.S. general traveled to the site to investigate the incident, and the announcement of the results was highly unusual. The United States had initially reported that 15 insurgents were killed, but Afghan officials had disputed the assertion.

The growing negative perception of foreign forces is especially worrisome because U.S. military planners say they are counting on intensified interaction and cooperation with Afghan civilians as a vital complement to their expanded use of ground troops and firepower against the Islamist fighters.

Critics in diplomatic and human rights circles have warned of a conundrum facing the expanded military effort: How can officials protect ground troops from a sophisticated indigenous insurgency without employing more aggressive tactics that will further alienate and antagonize the local populace?

The public disillusionment has several causes, observers said. One is that people see the security situation worsening as the number of foreign troops increases and figure that there must be a connection. Another is that Afghan political leaders, especially President Hamid Karzai, have vehemently denounced coalition bombings that have killed civilians but have been far less outspoken in criticizing Taliban attacks; Karzai often refers to the Taliban as brothers.

"People are getting conflicting messages," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "They see video clips of Taliban abuses, but the government only talks about coalition bombings. They hear more U.S. troops are coming, but NATO doesn't want to send any. It is a time of great confusion and uncertainty."

After a telephone conversation with President Obama this week, Karzai backed off from his harsh rhetoric about coalition bombings, and the two governments agreed to work more closely on military coordination. A delegation of Afghan officials is traveling to Washington shortly to participate in the new administration's strategic review of its policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In addition to the widely publicized issue of civilian casualties in coalition air raids, Afghans complain about abuses that are less deadly but closer to home. Many this week recounted experiencing, or hearing from relatives, incidents in which foreign troops stormed at night into houses where women and children were present, arrested innocent farmers as suspected insurgents and forced trucks off highways.

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