US hunts bin Laden; locals seek security
The US military in Afghanistan Saturday announced Mountain Storm, an operation coordinated with Pakistan to trap Al Qaeda.
PAKTIKA PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN — First came the hammer, and now US military officials say it's time for the anvil.
After nearly a month of Pakistani forces on their own side of the border pressing pro-Taliban tribes, the US military announced this weekend the beginning of Operation Mountain Storm in Afghanistan. The new name marks the unprecedented coordination between Pakistani and US coalition forces to close the net around Taliban and Al Qaeda border hideouts.
"This operation is aimed like the rest at ... reconstruction and providing enduring security in Afghanistan so it is certainly about more than one person," said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, US military spokesman in Kabul. The statement is a nod to concerns that US troops have been too focused on nabbing big targets like Osama bin Laden at the expense of wider policing.
Afghans living here in the border province of Paktika are among those who appreciate the US presence, but are upset with the lack of security throughout the region, not just the border.
Of course, sealing the border from insurgents crossing in from Pakistan is an important part of Afghanistan's overall security. And the increased patrols here have already netted one success. On March 5, US forces and soldiers from the fledgling Afghan National Army beat back an attack by anticoalition fighters in the Paktika village of Sesandeh, near the border. Nine anticoalition fighters were killed, and seven were captured.
"We were in our base when it was attacked," says Javed Ahmad, an ANA soldier from Khost, who took part in the battle. "There were foreigners and Afghans both, and the foreigners were Pakistanis. They had Kalashnikovs, heavy machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, and mortars. We were surprised they were able to bring such heavy weapons to attack our base. We thought they must have had local support, so we searched the area."
But for every success like this one, there are several other cases of antigovernment attacks that go unchallenged.
Local officials here say that a rocket landed near the Paktika governor's house in Shahran on March 7, injuring one Afghan soldier, who was airlifted to Bagram Air Base near Kabul. Fourteen other rockets were discovered at the launch site, their timing devices apparently having malfunctioned.
Two days later, a local judge named Naeem was kidnapped near the village of Waza Khwa, near the Pakistani border. He was released a few days later after the intervention of local tribal elders.
Here in Urgun, a dusty market town just 40 miles west of the Pakistani border, local Afghans say they welcome US military forces. But like most people caught in a war zone, the men and women of Paktika find themselves between two bitter enemies, and trusted by neither side.
"People in Pakistan call us Americans because we keep Americans here; and in Kabul, our own government calls us Al Qaeda," says Baseer Ahmad, a senior student at an Islamic seminary near Urgun. "We are like a volleyball being tossed from one side of the net to the other side."
With a population of just a half million, scattered over some of the least developed and most forbidding terrain in Afghanistan, Paktika is certainly not an easy place to love.
Out of 22 districts, 14 are no longer reliably under government control, according to a recent UN internal report. One of these, Barmal district fell to Taliban forces nearly a year ago. While US forces have moved into the district, it remains unsafe for pro-Karzai officials or for aid groups. In the 13 remaining districts, local government provides few benefits and little effective control.
To walk the streets of Urgun, or the capital Shahran, it's difficult to see how Paktika Province received such a bad reputation. Local residents crowd around visitors like long-lost relatives, and give their wish-lists of what the province needs. First: security. But they are quick to add that the problem is highway robbers and local thugs, rather than Taliban or Al Qaeda.
In Urgun, the local district police chief says he barely has the manpower and equipment to protect the town of Urgun itself, let alone the roads.
"I cannot operate checkpoints, because I don't have enough soldiers," says Mohammad Ghaus. "We need cars so that we can patrol, but even I don't have one. We need radios to communicate. We don't have guns, except our personal weapons. If I sent soldiers out to a checkpoint they would be killed by thieves, and that would have been my decision to send them to their deaths."
"I spoke to the Americans about my problems, but they said, 'Our job is to catch Al Qaeda; your job is security,' " Mr. Ghaus adds. He laughs grimly. Later that night, Ghaus patrolled Urgun on foot, prodding his sleepy soldiers awake, armed with just a Kalashnikov.
Local residents here say their government was the initial cause of Paktika's security problems. Former Gov. Muhammad Ali Jalali, a former Taliban commander who was appointed by President Hamid Karzai, was criticized for promoting his own tribe's interests over that of the province, and maintaining contacts with the Taliban just in case the Karzai government fell. Mr. Jalali was replaced just a week ago, however, and Paktika residents are giving good marks to his replacement, Gov. Gulab Mangal.
But the region's reputation for insecurity has prompted most aid groups, from the United Nations to smaller private charities, to pull out of Paktika and neighboring southeastern provinces. This leaves the bulk of the development work here in the hands of the US military itself, including digging deep wells to provide clean drinking water, delivering medicines to medical clinics and hospitals, and in some instances helping Afghans build new schools.
In the village of Shikha, just outside of Urgun, brick masons are busy building a schoolhouse, paid for by the US military. In 50 days, the project will provide a total of eight school rooms, four for boys, four for girls, to replace a two-room schoolhouse that once served 200 students.
Third grader Rahmatullah (like many Afghans, he uses only one name) says he is grateful to the American soldiers who will be providing him with a larger school to learn in. "In the Taliban times, we lived in Pakistan, near Wana, but we moved here last year," says the son of a doctor. Asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he looks at his headmaster, Zarbadshah, and says, "I want to be a teacher."
Haji Khair Mohammad, a landowner outside Urgun, says his friends and neighbors are "tired of the fighting, tired of the Taliban. If a mullah gets into a taxi, people tell the driver to turn on music. Even if they don't want to listen to music themselves, they ask to play music just to annoy the mullah."
Meanwhile, at the Darul Uloom Haji Kalanderia, an Islamic seminary near Urgun, Qari Mohammad Ibrahim is busy making sure that Afghanistan does not run out of mullahs. His class for memorization of the Holy Koran is packed, with students as young as 3 and as old as 20 chanting verses 10 times in a row to memorize them.
"We are Taliban here, because we study the Koran," he says, noting that the word "talib" means student in Persian. "But we are not THE Taliban." In fact, like most people interviewed for this article, Mr. Ibrahim says he is glad that the US forces are here, and he wishes they would be able to provide for his madrassah's many needs, including a well for drinking water, notebooks and pencils for the students, and textbooks for the most popular course: English language.
"Pakistan destroyed Afghanistan, so if something happened to America forces here, it would be because of Pakistan," he says, noting that he himself attended Pakistani seminaries.
But while he appreciates the American presence here, Ibrahim worries that upcoming summer elections will become a threat to conservative Pashtun traditions. He is especially opposed to the registration of women, who he says should remain in their homes. It's the same conservative Pashtun tradition that the Taliban enforced on Pashtun and non-Pashtun alike for five brutal years.
"No one would let their women go out to vote," he says. "I never let my wife go out to the market, so I certainly won't let her go outside to vote. This is not Islamic tradition and this is not Afghan tradition. If today, my wife goes out to bazaar, tomorrow she will go to the cinema."
But the mullah is a flexible man. "If you want women to vote, then the election officials should come to our homes," he says. Looking around the room, he adds, "This is my personal opinion, it is not the opinion of all the mullahs. Maybe they have other ideas."