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Afghans caught between Taliban and US promises

"We're caught in the middle," Abdul Rahim tells US Marines as they try to induce his fellow Afghan villagers to turn on the Taliban fighters in their midst.

world Updated: Oct 30, 2009 11:11 IST

"We're caught in the middle," Abdul Rahim tells US Marines as they try to induce his fellow Afghan villagers to turn on the Taliban fighters in their midst.

As Rahim mulls the Marines' offers, he sums up the no-win situation that rural populations find themselves in, trapped in a vicious Taliban insurgency but with US troops stretched too thin to provide lasting protection.

"The Taliban will come down (from the mountains) and say 'you are spies working with the Americans, give us stuff and we won't kill you'."

After conducting a sweep through this village in Farah province, the men from 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines Regiment and their allies in the Afghan army offered the tribal leaders medical treatment and development projects if they made a "fresh start" and kicked militants out of their communities.

"We've got a lot invested in these villages," said Sergeant Colby Johnson, whose men were recently stuck for five days in the nearby Bhuji Bhast Pass, an area littered with homemade bombs and a key supply route for foreign troops.

"We are like a bridge. We can help you cross to the other side," said Mohammed Anwar Sakra, a lieutenant colonel in the Afghan army, as he tried to win over hearts and minds of elders seated around a carpet.

The Marines left Somali Segosa with two detainees and some bags of bomb-making materials.

But with the soldiers having neither the manpower nor time in their six-month deployment for a continued presence in sparsely populated villages, experts say that local allegiances are unlikely to change in the long term.

"It's very difficult to build up local structures that can withstand a Taliban campaign of force and intimidation if the military presence is fleeting," said Andrew Exum, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

"We simply don't have enough troops to hold terrain."

General Stanley McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is lobbying President Barack Obama for about 40,000 more troops, in part so that his forces can hold on to remote but strategically important areas.

But according to a report in The New York Times, Obama's advisers are coalescing around a strategy aimed at protecting about 10 top population centres rather than the country as a whole.

The report mentioned four brigades, of about 4,500 troops each, that might form part of the new strategy. Cities meriting protection would include Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat and Jalalabad, the Times said.

Earlier this week, Democrat John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voiced his support for an approach that mediated between McChrystal's plan and the opposing view of Vice President Joe Biden who wants to see the war scaled back.

"We don't have to control every hamlet and village," said the Vietnam War veteran, arguing that combating terrorism did not require the coalition to "defeat the Taliban in every corner of the country".

Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he was sceptical that operations such as the Marines' mission in Somali Segosa could succeed in the long term.

"People are going to these meetings hoping to find some money somewhere so they can say whatever they want. How do you know who's Taliban and who's not? It's civil war, so everyone's lying all the time," he said.

Dorronsoro said sending more men to conduct "endless patrols" through hostile villages would be simply a "waste of life and men".

"When it's lost, it's lost. You are not going to take back places like that. We have to focus on places where we are strong."