Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Suspicion, terrain foes for U.S. in Afghan surge

KABUL, Afghanistan - As violence in Afghanistan escalates, the U.S. is responding by scrambling to get in more troops. But it's far from clear how the strategy will work in a vast, rugged land where hiding places are many and suspicion of foreign forces is deep.

Both U.S. presidential candidates have proposed sending more troops to fight the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, where more foreign soldiers have died in the past two months than in Iraq.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama, whose visit to Afghanistan over the weekend underscored its growing importance, wants to move about 7,000 U.S. soldiers here from Iraq. His Republican opponent, John McCain, has not specified how many extra troops he would send.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has suggested an acceleration in plans to shift U.S. forces to Afghanistan next year from Iraq. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says more troops would help cut into insurgents coming across the border from Pakistan.

In addition to troops, the Pentagon wants to send some 800 more bomb-resistant vehicles here for protection against a spike in Iraq-style suicide attacks and roadside bombs. NATO is seeking more helicopters and combat units from America's often-reluctant European partners to fight in the country's volatile south.

These plans come on top of a surge in troops in Afghanistan that is already well under way. There are now 60,000 foreign soldiers, including 36,000 Americans, fighting an insurgency at its strongest since the Taliban regime was ousted 6 1/2 years ago. That's up from just 10,000 U.S. soldiers in 2003, when the war in Iraq began.

'Technical means'
NATO spokesman Mark Laity said the Western military alliance can now send out more patrols and dot the mountain valleys near the border with Pakistan with small bases that let troops seek to develop relations with villagers in areas that have little contact with the Afghan government.

Laity said the alliance also is working closely with Pakistani border troops and making increasing use of "technical means" to monitor the frontier — an apparent reference to surveillance drones overhead and equipment like vibration sensors buried along mountain paths.

But local Afghan leaders along the frontier with Pakistan consider the reinforcement effort misguided, telling The Associated Press that more foreign troops will only make matters worse.

The officials said an increase in American troops could backfire because suspicion of NATO and the U.S. is strong in the region.

"They are launching search operations in villages, which is completely against the culture of the Pashtun people," said Tajeli Khan Sabir, a university professor who heads the Khost provincial council. "That makes the people very angry. This is causing a schism between the people and the government."

Maulvi Abdul Aziz, a member of the council of clerics in Nangarhar province, said the Taliban and other insurgents are winning support from the local people because of resentment over the foreign presence.

"The people are against the coalition and American forces in our area," he said. "Increasing foreign forces is not the solution. Strengthening the Afghan forces is."

Aziz said the best way to combat the insurgency would be to recruit and arm local tribesmen to defend their own neighborhoods, supported by strengthened Afghan security forces.

"If you have at least 50 local people together with police forces, they can maintain security in their own district, instead of sending foreigners with the police," he said.

Training ongoing
Thousands of American soldiers are, in fact, helping train the new Afghan National Army, which now numbers 75,000, not far short of the target of 86,000. But the Afghan army still plays largely a secondary role to foreign forces, which provide air support in battles with insurgents.