Asia-Pacific, Headlines

AFGHANISTAN-US: More Troops, Humvees, and Dollars

WARDAK, Afghanistan, May 13 2009 (IPS) - Life in the quaint, muddied town of Maydan Shahr appears to be going on as it has for years. Wrinkled, wizened men manage under-stocked shops in the sleepy central bazaar, while jobless youths idle nearby.

Beat-up Corollas trundle over craggy, unpaved roads, and there are very few police to be seen anywhere.

Maydan Shahr in Afghanistan’s Wardak province has seen one change though: more of the U.S. There are now more troops, more U.S. humvees, and more American aid dollars directed towards this underserved province.

It is an example of the Obama administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan – more of everything. But critics allege that such a strategy is unclear and incapable of ending the war, despite the high hopes in Washington.

“The Americans are promising more of this and that,” says a taxi driver from Maydan Shahr, “but really they are giving us more of the same.”

The new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan was unveiled in late March. A central focus of the strategy will be the injection of 17,000 new troops in the country, with an additional 4,000 slated to train the Afghan security forces. The plan also calls for the increased capability of the Afghans in restoring and maintaining security.

Officials are also promising to increase the amount of aid delivered to Afghans. After decrying the rampant graft and inefficiency of the Afghan government, some officials suggest that they will bypass Kabul and administer aid directly to the provinces.

The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that more troops are necessary to stem to growing tide of violence.

In the last few years, insurgents have made tremendous gains throughout the country. Almost all of the south and east, and parts of the north and west, have a heavy insurgent presence. In many areas, the insurgents enjoy outright control, manning checkpoints and administrating justice in parallel courts.

The Bush administration recognised this problem and increased the number of troops by nearly 50 percent from 2006 to 2008. But according to data from the Ministry of Interior, the amount of insurgent-induced violence also increased in that period – by 50 percent.

Critics say that Obama’s military plans offer very little that is different from Bush. “First, it is not fully clear what is this new strategy about; secondly without changing the military strategy we can not bring an end to the Afghanistan crisis,” says Fahim Dashti, editor-in-chief of the Kabul Weekly.

In Wardak province, for example, the U.S. has sent 1,400 new troops in February. But insurgent-initiated violence in the central province has increased three-fold (through Apr. 5), according to statistics obtained from the private firm Tundra Security, which tracks such trends.

Similarly, Logar has seen the introduction of 1,500 new troops, and a concomitant 250 percent rise in insurgent attacks. In some cases, U.S. forces have been able to bring security to one district (such as Jalrez), only to see an immediate rise in insecurity in a neighbouring district, as the insurgents leave one locality for the next.

But more than just being unable to bring security, many Afghans say that they are most concerned about civilian casualties and house raids.

In Logar, for example, locals have staged numerous demonstrations after incidents where foreign soldiers entered houses and killed the occupants. “They search houses and arrest people without consulting the governor or the Afghan security forces,” says Muhammad Tahir Sidiqi, chairman of the Culture and Information department of Logar.

“They are harassing people by not letting the civilian vehicles pass them on the road,” says Sana Ul-Haq, a local from Nangrahar province. “If there is a sick woman or kid he or she will die.”

The U.S. military says that it does not intentionally kill civilians, and that house searches are necessary to find insurgents. Moreover, they say that their behaviour on the roads is necessary in order to protect against the threat of IEDs.

Although the U.S. has acknowledged that they must work to lessen civilian casualties, analysts say that there is very little in the new military strategy that will do so.

“Sending more troops will increase both the civilian and military casualties there,” says British analyst John Rice in an interview with al-Mohit. (International Security Assistance Force has tightened its rules of engagement in an attempt to minimise such casualties, but U.S. forces have not).

Analysts say that the major flaw of the new strategy is that it privileges military considerations over political ones, despite the fact that Obama has claimed that there is no military solution to the Afghanistan problem.

“As before, the new strategy is insisting on a military approach,” says Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based expert on political affairs. “The increase of troops means an expansion of the war.”

The new strategy also calls for the continued build-up of the Afghan security forces – a move many Afghans welcome. But the U.S. has struggled to build up these forces to the required strength and competency – especially in the case of the Afghan police-and observers worry that the new strategy does not specify a way to change this trend.

Moreover, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has asked Washington to help bring its forces to a strength of 400,000 in five years, according to MOD chairman of the Public Affairs Office Muhammad Ishaq Payman.

But analyst Muzhda asks, “If the U.S. couldn’t increase the number of security forces to more than 150,000 in seven years, then how is it possible to reach 400,000 in the next five years?”

(*Killid is an independent Afghan media group which has been an IPS partner since 2004. This is the first of a two-part investigative report published by Killid Weekly.)

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