U.S. timetable in Afghanistan ex­tends with Kabul project

Santa Fe New Mexican - - WORLD - By Rod Nord­land

KABUL, Afghanistan — Soon, U.S. Em­bassy em­ploy­ees in Kabul will no longer need to take a Chi­nook he­li­copter ride to cross the street to a mil­i­tary base less than 100 yards out­side the present Green Zone se­cu­rity district.

In­stead, the bound­aries of the Green Zone will be re­drawn to in­clude that base, known as the Kabul City Com­pound, for­merly the head­quar­ters for U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces in the cap­i­tal. The zone is sep­a­rated from the rest of the city by a net­work of po­lice, mil­i­tary and pri­vate se­cu­rity check­points.

The ex­pan­sion is part of a huge pub­lic works project that over the next two years will re­shape the cen­ter of this city of 5 mil­lion to bring nearly all West­ern em­bassies, ma­jor gov­ern­ment min­istries, and NATO and U.S. mil­i­tary head­quar­ters within the pro­tected area.

After 16 years of Amer­i­can pres­ence in Kabul, it is a stark ac­knowl­edg­ment that even the city’s central dis­tricts have be­come too dif­fi­cult to de­fend from Tal­iban bomb­ings.

But the cap­i­tal project is also clearly tak­ing place to pro­tect an­other long-term U.S. in­vest­ment: Along with an in­crease in troops to a re­ported 15,000, from around 11,000 at the mo­ment, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s new strat­egy for Afghanistan is likely to keep the mil­i­tary in place well into the 2020s.

No one wants to say when any fi­nal pull­out will take place be­cause the em­pha­sis now is on a con­di­tions-based with­drawal — pre­sum­ably mean­ing after the Afghan gov­ern­ment can han­dle the war alone. But Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has kept se­cret the de­tails of those con­di­tions, and how they are de­fined.

“Un­til he says what the con­di­tions are, all that means is we’ll be there as long as we want, for what­ever rea­son we want,” said Bar­nett Ru­bin, a long­time Afghanistan ex­pert who ad­vised the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. “And they don’t have to lie to do that be­cause the con­di­tions will never be good enough to say we’re ab­so­lutely not needed.”

In prac­ti­cal terms, it means that the U.S. mil­i­tary mis­sion will con­tinue for many more years, de­spite its un­pop­u­lar­ity with the Amer­i­can pub­lic.

At the NATO sum­mit meet­ing in War­saw last year, the al­lies, in­clud­ing the United States, agreed to fund the devel­op­ment of the Afghan se­cu­rity forces un­til the end of what was termed “the tran­si­tion decade,” mean­ing from 2014, when Afghan forces be­gan to take charge of their own se­cu­rity, un­til 2024.

The mil­i­tary re­cently ap­pointed an Amer­i­can bri­gadier gen­eral to take charge of greatly ex­pand­ing and for­ti­fy­ing the Green Zone. In the first stage of the project, ex­pected to take from six months to a year, an ex­panded Green Zone will be cre­ated — cov­er­ing about 1.86 square miles, up from 0.71 square miles — clos­ing off streets within it to all but of­fi­cial traf­fic.

Be­cause that will also cut two ma­jor ar­ter­ies through the city, in an area where traf­fic con­ges­tion is al­ready rage-in­duc­ing for Afghan driv­ers, the plans call for build­ing a ring road on the north­ern side of the Wazir Ak­bar Khan hill to carry traf­fic around the new Green Zone.

In a fi­nal stage, a still big­ger Blue Zone will be es­tab­lished, en­com­pass­ing most of the city cen­ter, where se­vere re­stric­tions on move­ment — es­pe­cially by trucks — will be put in place. Al­ready, height re­stric­tion bar­ri­ers have been built over roads through­out Kabul to block trucks. Even­tu­ally, all trucks seek­ing to en­ter Kabul will be routed through a sin­gle por­tal, where they will be X-rayed and searched.

The process of turn­ing Kabul into a fortress started be­fore Trump took of­fice, of course — se­cu­rity mea­sures were tight­ened and an ob­tru­sive net­work of blast walls was es­tab­lished in some places years be­fore Pres­i­dent Barack Obama left of­fice.

A $6.5 bil­lion pro­gram to build a se­ri­ous Afghan air force is sched­uled to take un­til 2023. Last Oc­to­ber, the United States and other donor na­tions agreed to con­tinue $15 bil­lion in devel­op­ment fund­ing for the coun­try.

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