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A road cuts to heart of NATO's troubled Afghan campaign

International Herald Tribune
January 12, 2007
By Carlotta Gall
The road that cuts through the heart of this district tells all that is going wrong with NATO's war in Afghanistan.
To fight their way into this area and clear it of Taliban insurgents, NATO troops bulldozed through orchards, smashed down compound walls and even houses, and churned vineyards and melon fields to dust.
Reconstruction projects were planned, but never materialized. Even after NATO forces plowed through the area, the Taliban were able to wage a guerrilla campaign with roadside bombs and suicide attacks, keeping aid workers at bay.
Now, without any other reconstruction aid, NATO forces are championing the $5 million thoroughfare as their primary gift to local people. But displaced and buffeted by both the Taliban and NATO forces since May, they are homeless, fearful, and far from being won over. They say the road was forced on them, at the cost of their land and livelihoods.
"We are compelled to be happy about the road," said Hajji Baran, 48, a farmer from a village in the district, Panjwai. "They are building the road and they are not going to stop, but in fact we are not happy about it."
"We have been displaced for nine months and no one has asked us how are we managing," he said. "This is a kind of cruelty. In fact we are selling our wives' jewelry to support our families."
The conflict over the road is just the most obvious of many reasons Afghans, diplomats and aid workers cite to describe NATO's increasingly troubled war in southern Afghanistan. Others include what local people see as the indiscriminate killing of civilians by NATO forces and corruption and incompetence among local officials.
Panjwai and an adjoining district, Zhare, lie just west of the city of Kandahar, the provincial capital, and are considered of vital importance since the Taliban presence directly threatens the city and, therefore, the whole of southern Afghanistan.
Yet so far not much has gone according to plan in this area. There has been little coordination between the military operations and reconstruction projects, a fact that has frustrated international aid workers and diplomats almost as much as local people.
After NATO forces and U.S. special forces mounted their operation to clear the area of insurgents in September, the assistance programs were not ready. Then the Taliban filtered back within days.
"We are all scratching our heads as to why the aid has not rolled out faster," said a Western diplomat familiar with Panjwai. "It's not for a lack of resources."
"We are meeting basic needs, but when it comes to sustainable livelihoods and jobs, it's not happening," the diplomat said.
NATO's struggle to secure the area inevitably hampered reconstruction and deterred the thousands of displaced villagers from returning home. Aid workers who started to venture into the area to start assistance programs complained of continued insecurity and even of coming under fire from NATO forces. The result was that very little assistance arrived.
"There was a lull, and for three weeks they did nothing," said Andrew Douglas, operations manager of an agricultural development group in Afghanistan. "They were going round talking and handing out candy," he said.
Once the Taliban returned, it took a second military operation at the end of the year to expel them again. Already on everyone's minds - in the government, military, police, and among villagers - is how to stop the Taliban from infiltrating back into the region for a new offensive in the spring, which in the southern region is just a month away.
Without the support of the local people, that task will be virtually impossible, NATO and government officials and local elders said.
Now villagers are trickling home. Yet their mood is at best resigned.
"They did not come to bring peace for us, they came to destroy us," said Hajji Abdul Ghafar, 60, an elder on the Sperwan village council, who was waiting for permission to pass through a checkpoint to reach his house. "There are 3,000 families hoping to go back to their houses. If they lose hope, this would be very bad for the government."
"We are angry with both sides, the foreigners and the Taliban," he said. "It is impossible to talk to the Taliban," he said, shaking his head. "And the foreigners don't listen to anyone."
The district center of Panjwai is a quiet country one-street town, lined with small shops, two schools and a police station. For the NATO forces here, which are supported by Canadian, American and German governments, the town, at least, is a success story. By December it was peaceful, commerce had returned, the school was repaired, and children were back in class.
Yet the place looks like a fortified camp, with soldiers and barriers blocking the main street, an armored vehicle parked outside the school, and guard posts on all the hills looking down into everyone's yard.
The local police acknowledge that the guard posts are not popular since they violate one of the most important codes of behavior for the Pashtun people, privacy and respect for their women.
Major Stephen Murray, the acting military commander of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, the NATO unit tasked with reconstruction work, defended his team's efforts, saying they had spent $100,000 in just a few weeks providing jobs for people in the clean- up process.
He also said that they were in the process of assessing the battle damage and compensation claims with government teams, and holding consultations with village councils. Rushing things would leave people out and only aggravate local tensions, he said. "There are lots of challenges, we have to go step by step," he said.
As for the road, he said that the military needed a straight road that was more easily secured. Over the last few months, Canadian troops were repeatedly ambushed on the old road, which twisted and turned through the hamlets and walled farmsteads. He was in intensive discussions with the local people to work out a fair deal for people whose land it crosses, he said.
Pashmul, the village most affected by the road, remains one of the most unsettled areas of the two districts, partly because the population remains divided over whether to support the Taliban or the foreigners.
The Afghan people will withhold their support until they could see some real material assistance, the development manager, Douglas said. "The Afghans don't trust anyone. They have seen military coming in all colors before."
NATO has not been helped by members of the government who push forward their representatives to negotiate the distribution of aid, excluding others who do not support the government, which only increases the resentment, said a Western diplomat in Kabul who did not want his name to appear with such criticism of the government.
As suicide bombings have taken their toll on the NATO forces, who took over command of southern Afghanistan from American forces in 2006, they have frequently resorted to lethal force, calling in air strikes and firing on approaching cars, often killing and wounding civilians and further worsening the public mood.
"They said we came to bring peace to this country," said Abdur Rahim, 35, as he lay in a hospital bed. He was shot in the back by British soldiers after their convoy was hit by a suicide bomber. The soldiers shot at least eight civilians as they drove through the town. "Why are they shooting the people?" he said. "Is this peace?"
After suffering 13 suicide bombs in 14 days in Kandahar, some Canadian soldiers had to be repatriated because they were reacting badly under the stress, according to one diplomat in Kabul.
"The people are saying: 'If the British are scared, why did they come to our country?'" said Mullah Naquibullah, leader of one of Kandahar's largest tribes. "They should not view the people as the same as the Taliban," he said.
Copyright (c) 2007 The International Herald Tribune |
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