Dec 17, 2008

World - Frustrations of America's 'long war'

Martin Patience
BBC News, Khost, Afghanistan

With their bazooka-like biceps, a group of US soldiers raised the American flag on a small hilltop just a mile or so from the Pakistani border.

The rugged, rolling landscape - and the fluttering Stars and Stripes - brought to mind another US campaign more than 60 years ago.

Seizing their cameras, the troops recreated the iconic scene from Iwo Jima, where six soldiers had raised the American flag.

While nobody is comparing this fight with the island-hopping campaign towards Japan during World War II, President-elect Barack Obama is making the lawless Afghan-Pakistani border one of his main foreign policy objectives.

He has described the area as the central front on the war on terror - and in the next year thousands of additional US forces will be deployed to Afghanistan.

If commanders on the ground in Khost have their way, some of these new soldiers will make their way to the border, although it is not clear if this will happen.


It is an insurgent's paradise here - the mountains seem to pile up endlessly behind each other - creating plenty of places to hide in and positions to attack from.

Just across in Pakistan there are hundreds - perhaps thousands - of Islamic militants eager to fire a bullet into the heart of the US-led project to build a stable, democratic Afghan state.

The job of the Americans strung out along the border provinces is threefold; stem the flow of these insurgents into the country win over the local population and beef-up and train the Afghan security forces.

As one American officer put it to me: "It's no longer just about killing the enemy and breaking their stuff - it's also about the people."

In Khost province, the US military insists it has hit upon a counter-insurgency model that is working. It has fanned out across the province, creating what it calls district centres, in effect, small military bases.

The idea is that you create a mesh - making it difficult for the insurgents to travel from area to area.

Rolling patrols are meant to reassure the local population that there is security and a permanent US presence.

Small reconstruction teams build projects that aid rural communities such as schools and health clinics. New roads are also being built.

These efforts are intended to pull the locals away from the insurgency and into the embrace of the Afghan government with a helping hand from Uncle Sam.

While it sounds entirely workable on paper, on ground, the difficulties of the process are laid bare.

Frequently patrols stop at local markets where an American officer wanders the streets speaking to shopkeepers who look decidedly uncomfortable with all the attention.

The officers' roll call of questions often has a just-out-of-Westpoint feel to it.

How are you? How's business? Have there being any attacks? Followed by the request: if you have any information please report it to the district centre. But not many Afghans ever do.

Many of them are fearful of insurgent reprisals if they are seen to be openly associating or passing on information to the US forces.

False name

On one occasion an elderly shopkeeper told an officer about a recent Taleban attack on his neighbour's shop.

But as soon as a crowd gathered round to hang on his every word, the man became reticent.

When asked his name - he replied Karem, which elicited a burst of giggles from a gaggle of children standing beside him.

"Did you hear that?" an officer asked me. "He gave us a false name."

But winning the trust of the locals is not the Americans' only problem.

They put great store in joint patrols and mentoring the Afghan security forces - considering these men to be the ticket out of here.

The Afghan national army, however, does not inspire confidence.

For a four-day operation its troops turned up at a base an hour and a half late with no food or fuel.

And then while on the operation one of the Afghans wandered up to an American officer like a sheepish schoolboy asking whether it would be okay if he fired off his rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

With incidents like these, it is often impossible to measure the progress, leading to frustration for the troops on the ground.

One American soldier - a year into his deployment - told me that he felt he had not achieved anything.

"You kill the insurgents but they keep coming back," he said.

Compared with Iraq - the conflict in Afghanistan has long been seen as the "good war" in Washington and European capitals.

But with seven years of fighting and no end in sight, this is going to be a conflict that requires a great deal of patience. It may be better described as "the long war".

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