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Afghans Want New U.S. Troops To Deliver Security, Services To Hotspots

British and Romanian soldiers from the NATO-led force distribute school bags to Afghan children on the outskirts of Kabul.
British and Romanian soldiers from the NATO-led force distribute school bags to Afghan children on the outskirts of Kabul.
Afghanistan's southeastern Khost Province has a long tradition as a regional crossroads.

For centuries, traders and militaries alike used the nearby Tochi Pass as a bridge linking the lands that lie beyond the present-day Afghan-Pakistani border.

The region's recent history, however, is largely written in blood.

The oak- and pine-covered mountains of Khost Province witnessed some of the fiercest fighting seen during the Soviet-Afghan War, with Red Army troops and their Afghan allies battling the mujahedin who operated from across the nearby border. In the 1980s the provincial capital, Khost, was under siege for years until it in 1991 became the first major town to fall to the mujahedin.

Well-aware of the tragedies that have befallen their homeland, the Pashtun tribes to which the majority of Khost's nearly half a million inhabitants belong have taken steps to ensure a better future.

When a new Afghan government was formed in 2001 following the fall of the Taliban, residents demanded that a sprawling university be built in Khost. Today, residents remain keen to educate future generations, as the thousands of students attending that university today can attest.

Remittances from tens of thousands of Khostis freed up to work in the Middle East provide a much-needed boost to efforts to improve the local economy.

But while there have been some improvements in some areas, security has remained elusive despite nearly 3,000 Western troops stationed in the province.

And with a new U.S. military strategy increasingly focused on positioning Western forces to deal with militants ensconced in nearby Pakistan, the province is slated to become the destination for about 5,000 of the 37,000 new U.S. and NATO troops being deployed in Afghanistan.

Addressing Local Concerns

Ghazi Nawaz Tanai, a key regional tribal leader in Khost who heads the Tribal Solidarity Council, tells RFE/RL that if those troops hope to truly provide peace and security, they had best concentrate on the needs and wants of provincial residents.

Afghans want their own better army and police to provide better security.
"They should go to the outlying border regions and work toward protecting people and their honor. They should help us in reconstituting and strengthening our [political] system," Tanai says.

"I think this will attract the Afghan nation and all its tribes to cooperate with them so we can have security and justice."

Tanai's message echoes those of residents throughout the country's southeastern and southwestern provinces, where security has worsened since 2006 due to the rising Taliban insurgency.

It is in those areas, such as Khost in the southeast, and in restive Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the southwest, where locals are quick to give advice on what should be done to improve their lot.

They say that, rather than taking the fight to the Taliban, the 30,000 new U.S. troops should focus on fighting crime and ensuring security in the areas they control. They want the fresh troops to take an active role in reviving local agriculture and trade.

Most crucially, Afghans want foreigners to facilitate the establishment of transparent government institutions that can deliver security and development for the long term.

Afghans who have suffered through three decades of fighting while living in traditional hotspots want incoming troops to have a better understanding of the local dynamics at play, and to refrain from attempting to eliminate every gun-toting insurgent.

Improving Life In Helmand

Media reports suggest that most of the 37,000 U.S. and NATO reinforcements are likely to be sent to Helmand Province, where they are expected to protect large population centers such as the capital Lashkar Gah and the key town of Greshk.

These troops would be expected to secure key roads in the region with an eye on improving stability 130 kilometers to the east in Kandahar -- Afghanistan's second-largest city and a traditional seat of power.

Media reports suggest that a 10,000-strong Marine expeditionary brigade will add to the 9,000 Marines already securing key districts in Helmand.

Together with 10,000 British forces, Helmand would have the largest concentration of international troops in Afghanistan. Another U.S. Army brigade is expected to boost the Canadian and U.S. presence in Kandahar.

In Helmand, the new troops will protect large population centers such as the capital, Lashkar Gah.
Taliban insurgents use Helmand Province, an area as large as Switzerland that borders Pakistan to its south, as a key staging ground for infiltrating into southern, western, and northern Afghanistan. The region's poppy fields are believed to play a huge role in funding the insurgent war chest.

A Pashtun tribal leader in southern Helmand, who requested anonymity out of fear of Taliban retaliation and of infuriating local Afghan officials, estimates that the Taliban is active in nearly 80 percent of the province.

The Helmandi elder, too, tells RFE/RL that he wants incoming forces to concentrate on development and improved governance, rather than fighting insurgents. "Our people are now living in seclusion and they hope for good schools, education, and good administration," he says.

"We do not have institutions that can mobilize people and get them to work. We lack a sound administration, because corruption is at its peak."

The elder says that Helmandis were surprised by the positive achievements of U.S. Marines in the province's central town of Nawa, which the Taliban controlled until this summer. He wants the fresh troops to concentrate on repeating that feat in Marja and Baramacha -- dusty desert towns along the Pakistani border where Taliban fighters and drug traffickers still call the shots.

'Guns Are Not The Answer'

Afghan analyst Mohammad Yunos Fakur now lives in Kabul, but has a nuanced understanding of the complex dynamics of his southern hometown, Kandahar. He says that the U.S. surge will not work unless complemented by a robust Afghan political strategy implemented by Afghan officials.

"It is a known fact that all wars are fought for political ends," Fakur says. He suggests that while conducting military operations in Helmand, Kandahar, and other regions, the incoming international troops "should build an efficient Afghan administration, and strengthen it by helping it to win over the people."

"That administration should be able to clearly spell out its priorities, which should be to resolve local problems such as providing work."

Fakur says that building such an administration would require the establishment of a level playing field for Afghanistan's various political factions, most of whom now want to operate peacefully but are hindered by the former mujahedin networks that have dominated the administration of President Hamid Karzai.

Tanai, the tribal elder in Khost, however, want to see a more robust effort to negotiate with the insurgents.

He considers the example of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a key Taliban commander whose forces are responsible for some of the deadliest recent attacks in Kabul, as a lost opportunity.

Tanai says that one of Haqqani's brothers stayed behind in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, opening the prospect of using the family's influence to bring about peace.

Instead, Tanai says, after sensing that they had no place in the new political order the family joined ranks with the insurgency.

"This problem cannot be resolved by fighting and guns," he says, adding that he has repeatedly told the insurgents that "they cannot rule a place after militarily conquering it."

He wants the Afghan government and the international forces to understand that they too cannot stabilize Afghanistan through fighting. "Both [warring] sides will suffer casualties and our people will suffer too. So the best way forward is to hold negotiations," he says.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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