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Tactical Success, Strategic Defeat

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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 2, 2009

FORWARD OPERATING BASE ALTIMUR, Afghanistan -- The U.S. soldiers entered the sleeping village in Logar province in the dead of night on Feb. 20, sure of their target and heavily armed. They surrounded a mud-walled compound, shouting commands, and then kicked down the gate as cries of protest erupted within.

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Exactly what happened next is disputed, but shots were fired and a man inside fell dead. Four other men were grabbed and arrested. Then the soldiers departed, leaving the women to calm the frightened children and the rumors to spread in the dark.

By midmorning, hundreds of angry people were blocking the nearby highway, burning tires and shouting "Death to America!" By mid-evening, millions of Afghan TV news viewers were convinced that foreign troops had killed an unarmed man trying to answer his door.

"We are afraid of the Taliban, but we are more afraid of the Americans now," said Abdul Ghaffar, a truck driver in the raided village. "The foreign forces are killing innocent people. We don't want them in Afghanistan. If they stay, one day we will stand against them, just like we stood against the Russians."

Tactically, the U.S.-led night raid in the village of Bagh-i-Soltan was a success. U.S. military officials said the dead man and an accomplice now in custody were bombmakers linked to recent insurgent attacks. They said that they had tracked the men for days and that one was holding an assault rifle when they shot him.

Strategically, however, the incident was a disaster. Its most incriminating version -- colored by villagers' grief and anger, possibly twisted by Taliban propaganda and magnified by the growing influence of independent Afghan TV -- spread far faster than U.S. authorities could even attempt to counter.

Worse, it happened in an area where the Obama administration has just launched an expensive military push, focusing on regions near Kabul, the capital, where Islamist insurgents are trying to gain influence. Several U.S. bases have been set up in Logar and adjacent Wardak province, and 3,000 troops have arrived since January. Their mandate is to strengthen security, facilitate aid projects and good government, and swing local opinion against the insurgents.

A Wide Gulf

Logar sits in a historically peaceful valley an hour's drive south of Kabul, surrounded by craggy mountains. Brown and bleak in winter, it is green and bucolic in summer, with wheat fields, orchards and honey that beekeepers sell beside the road. It is also a gateway from southeastern Afghanistan to the capital, straddling one of the few paved highways in the region.

In the past 18 months, Taliban forces have established strongholds in several nearby provinces and a low-key but intimidating presence in Logar. Officials say most Logaris, though frustrated by poor government services, have not yet decided where their loyalties lie. Politically, Logar is still up for grabs.

"This is a fertile area for us to plant the seeds of opportunity, but there are a lot of fence-sitters, and everyone is vying for the populace," said Lt. Col. Daniel Goldthorpe, who commands the U.S. Army base at Altimur in Logar, about 30 miles south of Bagh-i-Soltan.

The newly built base is a cluster of heated tents and wood cabins on a rocky plain, surrounded by dirt-filled barricades and a distant cordon of snowcapped mountains. It houses about 600 troops from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, whose duties include search raids, security patrols and goodwill missions in nearby villages.

Goldthorpe acknowledged that the fallout from the raid in Bagh-i-Soltan was a surprising setback for the U.S. forces' image here. But he attributed the public unrest to superior Taliban propaganda efforts and strongly denied that any misconduct occurred during the raid.


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