Afghan patience wanes as conflict escalates
Afghanistan received billions of dollars for reconstruction, but teachers here had no salary in five months, and we have no healthcare - it's like we are living in a coma," a Pashtun elder complained to US military officers to murmurs of agreement from his fellow villagers.Updated: Jun 09, 2009, 15:04 IST
Afghanistan received billions of dollars for reconstruction, but teachers here had no salary in five months, and we have no healthcare - it's like we are living in a coma," a Pashtun elder complained to US military officers to murmurs of agreement from his fellow villagers.
Almost eight years after the radical Taliban militia was ousted from power by US-led forces, dissatisfaction is swelling in remote but strategically crucial parts of Afghanistan that feel bypassed by development since 2001.
"Your computers ran out of ink while you wrote down all our problems, but nothing was done about them," another speaker said at the recent meeting of village and tribal elders in the mountainous Jaji district of Paktia province, a hotbed of Taliban activity on the border with Pakistan.
The threat posed by insurgent sanctuaries in the neighbouring country's tribal areas is now widely acknowledged, and places like Paktia are the first stop on those militants' cross-border raids to engage the Afghan government and international forces.
To help halt the incursions and clear nests of resistance, 21,000 more US troops were scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan this year, bringing the number of foreign forces to a record level of more than 90,000.
But the influx alone cannot tame the wild expanses that are as suited to guerrilla warfare today as they were against the Soviets in the 1980s or the British in the 19th century.
"I could drop bombs on the enemy all day long and not accomplish anything," the commander of US forces in Paktia, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Campbell of the 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment, said during a recent road tour of the area. "But if you focus on the people, you create an environment where the Taliban are not welcome."
The countrywide surge is intended to help create breathing spaces for simultaneous development, and the extra effort is not before time. While the international media tend to dub every year "the crucial year" in Afghanistan, 2009 is indeed distinctive in several ways.
Afghan presidential elections due in August are likely to return incumbent leader Hamid Karzai to power. Yet without a real commitment by national authorities to improve the situation in Afghanistan, the polls might merely punctuate a crash of public confidence in the corruption-tainted government.
Then there is the broad activisation of Taliban forces in Pakistan, which as well as threatening the US-backed government there, can also boost the Afghan insurgency with manpower and resources.
At the same time, the new US government under President Barack Obama is under pressure from the war-weary US public to produce results from the engagement in Afghanistan. For the first time next year, the annual cost of the war there to the American taxpayer is projected to exceed the cost of fighting in Iraq.
To match war efforts with reconstruction, the Obama administration in March announced a surge in numbers of civilians to be hired to assist development of education, roads, water and medical care in Afghanistan.
The test is whether these steps could translate fast enough into tangible results for the population in places like Paktia.
In Jaji district, where previous US units failed to deliver promised amenities, the elders might grumble but are still receptive to pledges to improve on a variety of fronts. These include primary security concerns like house searches, where doors were once broken down, and the danger of civilian casualties during combat operations.
Although located on the other side of the country, people in Jaji are fearful of repeats in their area of the US bombings in May in the western province of Farah, which according to an investigation team appointed by Karzai killed more than 140 innocent people.
"My men will not enter your homes, drop bombs on your houses, will consult with you before entering your villages," Campbell told another gathering of elders.
But even with better communications, more specialists and funding for projects, there is no fast fix for places like Jaji, where it's more a question of basic construction of essentials than postwar reconstruction. Often improvement requires a level of corresponding local initiative that is still largely absent in this war-stricken society.
"We're asking (the local) people to figure it all out very quickly," said Captain Phil Soliz, head of US military reconstruction efforts in the area. "We're not going to see the equivalent of the technical boom in terms of governance and development. It's going to take patience on both sides."