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Frustrations of America's 'long war', BBC News
« on: December 17, 2008, 21:48:11 »
Frustrations of America's 'long war'

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.

Mesh

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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