Afghanista­n front feels lit­tle Obama ef­fect

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY IASON ATHANASIAD­IS

KANDAHAR, Afghanista­n | Sur­rounded by gravel-filled but­tresses and manned 24 hours a day by alert Amer­i­can and Afghan gun­ners, Com­bat Out­post Kowall ap­pears like an out­post un­der siege. It is one of the front­line posts in Gen. Stan­ley A. McChrys­tal’s ex­panded cam­paign to flush out a resur­gent Tal­iban mili­tia ahead of the ma­jor of­fen­sive on Kandahar ex­pected in the com­ing months.

Pres­i­dent Obama’s sur­prise trip to Afghanista­n was an op­por­tu­nity to ex­press U.S. dis­plea­sure with the ram­pant cor­rup­tion in the gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai. But for the sol­diers of Al­pha Com­pany of the 82nd Air­borne Divi­sion, Kabul’s con­fer­ence halls and money-guz­zling min­istries seem like dis­tant places.

“The visit’s im­por­tant for the big pic­ture, I’m sure, but here on the ground, it doesn’t af­fect us at all,” said Pfc. Justin Ta­tum, one of about 30 sol­diers based at a crum­bling school build­ing along­side a com­pany of Afghan troops.

The troops have re­in­forced the base and are sup­ported by con­stant drone-and he­li­copter-sur­veil­lance flights. A re­cent en­emy ma­chine-gun at­tack car­ried out from two di­rec­tions was re­pelled with more than 1,000 rounds, lay­ing down “an awe­some ex­am­ple of fire­power that will dis­cour­age the Tal­iban from tar­get­ing our out­post again,” said 1st Lt. Matthew Fer­nan­dez, com­man­der of the base.

Mr. Obama, dur­ing his visit March 28, lec­tured Mr. Karzai on re­duc­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s high cor­rup­tion lev­els, the main rea­son for the lack of cred­i­bil­ity fac­ing the gov­ern­ment. Aside from mil­lions of dol­lars in hu­man­i­tar­ian aid squan­dered since the NATO-led de­feat of the Tal­iban in 2001, a strong Ta­jik eth­nic in­flu­ence has sapped the gov­ern­ment’s cred­i­bil­ity among Afghans in the pre­dom­i­nantly Pash­tun south­ern ar­eas.

Lo­cals in Kochnay Ma­narah, the vil­lage ad­join­ing the base, ap­pear of two minds about their new neigh­bors. In the ab­sence of a school or med­i­cal doc­tor, il­lit­er­acy is crush­ing. The only source of ed­u­ca­tion comes from the mul­lah who runs a small kut­tab, an in­for­mal Is­lamic sem­i­nary for teach­ing the Ko­ran to ev­ery new gen­er­a­tion.

Lack­ing cars, run­ning wa­ter or elec­tric­ity, the lo­cals sub­sist on their fields and an­i­mals. Re­jec­tion rates of the Amer­i­can pres­ence run high. Lo­cals main­tain a stand­off­ish at­ti­tude to­ward pa­trolling U.S. troops and their Afghan coun­ter­parts.

“They hate us,” said one U.S. sol­dier who re­quested that his name not be used.

But some signs are promis­ing. One lo­cal of­fered to visit the base and di­vulge in­for­ma­tion, and troops have re­ceived an up­swing in tips re­gard­ing im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices, the deadly bombs that have pro­duced the most ca­su­al­ties in the con­flict.

As part of Gen. McChrys­tal’s new coun­terin­sur­gency strat­egy, sol­diers are ex­pos­ing them­selves more by pa­trolling on foot to en­gage lo­cal res­i­dents and of­fer pens, note­books and candy to the chil­dren.

The Amer­i­can troops are trailed by dozens of chil­dren, but the adults spare them lit­tle more than an oc­ca­sional smile.

Most of the Afghan army sol­diers in Kochnay Ma­nar are not Pash­tun, the pre­vail­ing eth­nic group in south­ern Afghanista­n and the main sup­port base for the Tal­iban. Posted to the area in up to six-year de­ploy­ments, the Afghans hold neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes to­ward the re­gion where they find them­selves.

“We tried to ap­ply to this place the kind of laws we en­coun­tered while we lived in Iran, but th­ese peo­ple are end­lessly be­nighted,” said Rooz Mo­ham­mad, an Afghan sol­dier who lived as a refugee in Iran be­fore re­turn­ing af­ter the fall of the Tal­iban. “They need an­other 30 years to get to Iran’s level,” he said of the Pash­tun lo­cals.

Even on a lo­cal level, there are clear ex­am­ples that cor­rup­tion is tear­ing apart the coun­try and dam­ag­ing the peo­ple’s abil­ity to have faith in the gov­ern­ment and move away from sup­port of the Tal­iban. Vil­lage leaders abuse seed hand­outs by dis­tribut­ing only a small per­cent­age to their vil­lagers and sell­ing the rest on the black mar­ket in Kandahar.

“Obama’s come here to speak empty talk and go away again, but stom­achs do not fill with empty talk,” Mr. Mo­ham­mad said.

The next few months will prove whether the NATO coali­tion can win this bat­tle.

“He needs to put real pres­sure to end the cor­rup­tion,” said Nur Yal­lae Ra­sooli. “What we need is in­fra­struc­ture. What have the Amer­i­cans done aside from paving a few roads that fall apart af­ter a few years and build­ing some wooden houses?”

A se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cial in Wash­ing­ton on March 29 con­firmed that NATO forces are set to launch a ma­jor of­fen­sive against Kandahar beginning in June. The goal of the op­er­a­tion will be to rid the city of Tal­iban forces prior to the Mus­lim hol­i­day of Ra­madan that be­gins in Au­gust.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Obama re­views the honor guard with Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai, left, at the pres­i­den­tial palace in Kabul, Afghanista­n on March 28.

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