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    South Asia
     Feb 1, 2008
Mission creep in Afghanistan
By Philip Smucker

KAPISA, Afghanistan - In the past two years, foreign fighters - Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens and Central Asians - have infiltrated in the direction of Kabul from insurgent redoubts in Pakistan to take up positions in the southern mountains of the country. They trek for days through harsh terrain, dodging road blocks and air strikes.

Their goal: to rally the province's Pashtun minority to fight against the predominantly Tajik north and their Western allies. Even as the Afghan winter reaches its frigid zenith, elite French mountain commandos have been deployed alongside Afghan forces with US back up in an effort to quell the mounting insurgency.

"Southern Kapisa is important for the Taliban and their allies for

its proximity to Kabul," said the region's task force commander, US Army Colonel Jonathan Ives. "They have fought pretty hard to keep us from getting back up in there. We see that when a major insurgent financier arrives in an area, the level of insurgent activity spikes," he adds

Taking the fight to the enemy, however, is less about firing off bombs and bullets, says Ives, than about winning over the provinces leaders and its growing young generation.

To undercut the insurgents - whose forces are an unusual mix of al-Qaeda operatives and fighters loyal to American nemesis Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - Kapisa is fast becoming a litmus test for the US military's new and improved counter-insurgency campaign.

That means added urgency and stress on the work of a 75-man US-North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led Provincial Reconstruction Team - or "PRT". But while senior US officers see these teams - 12 of them run by the US military - as the "new wave" in non-combat counter-insurgency, in practice their soldiers look a lot like old-school peacekeepers and "nation-builders", the kind you find across the developing world under the oft-slandered banner of the United Nations.

Ten years ago, the fast-track US colonels and majors who now lead the Afghan mission would have referred to what goes on here in the name of counter-insurgency as "mission creep"; work well beyond the scope of serious American soldiering.

Now, the US soldiers who do the best peacekeeping aren't afraid to boast about their deeds over the grumbles of colleagues who sport T-shirts that read: "The Taliban Hunt Club."

"We have not been attacked while traveling alone, only when we are out with other teams or combat units," says air force Captain Eric Saks, whose job description includes diplomacy, aid work and peacemaking. "Even the bad guys know we are not really looking for a fight."

That is because Saks and his comrades are the folks to talk to for millions of US dollars in economic development funds.

Kapisa residents, leaders and youth groups approach Saks for investments in projects that address the standard list of developing world problems: women's rights, youth employment, free speech and health care. The captain, a 30-something Long Islander, draws on a dollar budget of millions to lend support to the best and most "sustainable" project ideas.

For several years after the US invaded the country in 2001, economic development played second fiddle to the hunt for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Villagers looked on as US soldiers shot and literally "bagged" their foe, then turned a cold shoulder to the populace.

That zero-sum strategy was making more enemies than friends, US officers admit now.

"Instead of killing them and seeing the insurgency just replace its own, we need development as a means of isolating the enemy," says Ives, an engineer from Washington State, who heads up the larger Task Force Cincinnatus under which Saks serves.

Romancing the young generation
Queried about their sports club, a clique of proud young Afghan men peel out their color photographs and slide them across the table towards the US military officers.

"Tell me this isn't a perfect picture of what people back home would want to help Afghanistan out with," comments one US military captain to another.

Indeed, with wealthy al-Qaeda and Taliban financiers waiting in the wings to lure these same young men to battle with pay and promises of martyrdom, the ability of the US military and NATO to engage Afghanistan's youth in activities and employment is seen by many in the US military as key to quelling the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Western intelligence officials and American military officers believe that small terror cells operate in the broader population to rally unwitting young Afghans to their cause. "Few of the kids we are fighting even understand the insurgency's political or ideological goals," said Ives. They do it for money and perceived honor.

The new US tactics are crucial in Afghanistan, where 50% of the entire population is still under 15 years of age.

Osama bin Laden remains the stuff of folklore and fame in these parts. Bin Laden and his deputies are ensconced in Pakistan's tribal areas over 200 kilometers to the east and south as the crow flies. Their recruiting and propaganda machine functions at full throttle across Afghanistan.

Newsweek reported this week that bin Laden has in recent months scribbled a series of notes on white paper to loyal Taliban allies on both sides of the Pakistan and Afghan border with a mind to bolster morale and encourage recruiting. The Saudi kingpin's letter-writing campaign would suggest that he is comfortable in his own skin and isn't under any intensifying military threats from the Pakistani or US militaries.

While bin Laden rallies his forces, however, there are signs that some astute commanders in the US military do finally "get it": that their often strangely-prosecuted "war on terror" is really less about hunting bad guys with a vengeance and much more about winning "hearts and minds" across the Islamic world.

"All over the world, you are seeing the kind of insurgency we face here because of demographics and a sense that some people don't feel they have access to what they should have," said Ives. "Some of these insurgencies will be ideologically driven, others not."

The window of opportunity for peace in Afghanistan is still open, but could soon close.

In Afghanistan, few in the young generation recall the assistance that the US provided in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Most young Afghans, nevertheless, pine for a chance to bury ethnic and religious rivalry.

"We don't want the young people to go back to fighting as their fathers did," says Hashmat Ashaq Zada, chief of the Youth Generation Association, which began working last week with the US military and possible outside donors to build soccer leagues across the troubled Kapisa province.

Along with several other youth leaders, Zada is petitioning the US military and NATO for more sports and employment projects for young Afghans. He needs, among other things, uniforms and grass seed.

A day earlier, Saks and Toni Tones, a female US Air Force captain, whose last deployment was in Africa working with AIDS orphans, perused a blue print for a new women's education center.

"It is crucial that we try to move ahead with this project now, because if we don't build it, the government will take back the land from us and use it for something else," pleaded Zaheda Kohistany, a lawyer for a women's group.

Other women in the same room proposed that the US military save a flooded girls' school. "I have been here for 10 months and I am just now learning that there is a girls' school here," Saks said.

With vast swathes of the Afghan countryside slipping under the sway of the Taliban and other insurgent groups in the past two years, there is a new urgency to the US military's own concerns that their PRTs work more efficiently.

Ives believes that his own teams are in dire need of larger staffs in order to tackle corruption, assist with good governance and promote egalitarian development. If he had his druthers, Ives would add 25 civilian experts - including a large number of internationals - to each 75 person PRT.

"We need persons with degrees in government and law," he said in a wide-ranging discussion of the morphing US mission in Afghanistan. "I don't care if they are from the US or not; Finnish or Swedish experts would be fine."

One of the problems faced by US forces as they try to step up their humanitarian assistance programs is "continuity"; being on the ground long enough to pinpoint development needs without duplicating or investing in the wrong kind of projects. A new US-built post office in Kapisa's capital stands unused.

Ives, who can recite from memory the UN's millennium goals for economic development and disease alleviation, insists that his soldiers have to assess human needs as well as human nature.

Identifying honest leaders is at least as important as killing "high-value targets", he adds. "First we try to get a sense of what drives government officials: what is their background, what is the size of their clan and how corrupt are they?"

For now, Afghanistan's economy is growing at an unexpected pace, nearly 10% per year. The figure is deceptive, however, since the country started from less than zero in 2001. To conquer a growing insurgency, growth must be sustainable and balanced across the nation.

For soldiers that often prefer shooting guns, blowing things up or chasing down the "bad guys", the task of assisting that process presents itself as their own "millennium" challenge.

Philip Smucker is a commentator and journalist based in South Asia and the Middle East. He is the author of Al-Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail (2004).

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