U.S. troops push Afghan elders to resist rebels
After Operation Khyber, focus shifts to local governance.
Forward Operating Base Wilderness, Afghanistan
In a rock-strewn valley so remote that US and Afghan forces here call their base "Wilderness," tribal elders met under a dusty tent with Afghan politicians and American officers in a bid to turn recent military gains against insurgents into progress in local governance.Skip to next paragraph
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Ringed with layers of military security, the jirga, or tribal meeting, Monday marked the close of Operation Khyber, a joint US-Afghan operation of nearly three weeks that is applying a refined counterinsurgency strategy to three tough districts in southeast Afghanistan's Paktia Province.
But while US and Afghan commanders say they have forced out insurgents – "creating effects," in their jargon, that they hope will last at least 60 days – getting government to the people is far from assured.
"Today it is your task to sustain the good situation in your area," Arsala Jamal, the provincial governor of Khost, cajoled scores of turbaned elders. Praising the "achievements" of the operation, he said it was now the duty of the tribes to turn against an "enemy [that] burns your school and your clinic." He told the crowd that the result would be "rewards" of reconstruction from the government and the US, a "golden opportunity" that may never come again.
"We want to live free; we don't want to live in slavery," said Mr. Jamal, who survived a fourth assassination attempt that killed three bodyguards the day Operation Khyber started, on Aug. 22. "And that can only happen when you say 'no' to the enemy and fight the enemy."
US military cash earmarked for development in these poverty-stricken districts adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars and a US-funded project to pave the important Khost-Gardez Pass road adds at least $60 million. They are meant to be the fruits of better security.
"This is the big plan of the government," Maj. Gen. Abdul Khaliq, the top Afghan regional commander, told the elders. "We should provide a situation where the people and the government should connect together."
"I believe the government did not have an opportunity to see each village individually," said General Khaliq. "Right now we have the opportunity to meet with all the elders, all the district commissioners, and all the members of parliament … because we have good security right now."
"Do not let terrorism come and reside in your place," the general warned. "Do not allow your children to grow up as terrorists. We will help. We will build roads. All this is for your benefit."
But nearly six years after the fall of the Taliban, these elders from the sizable Zadran tribe, living in an area of significant insurgent and criminal influence not far from the border with Pakistan, have heard such promises before.
Convincing them to side with the government – despite its often negligible presence in their lives – may be harder to achieve than militarily clearing the insurgents. But it is meant to be the long-term result of the US counter-insurgency strategy.
"The challenge with all these operations is the nonkinetic phase," says Thomas Gregg of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), who has worked three years in the southeast. He says it remains unclear if the government – the police and district officials – can fill the "power vacuum" created after militants are forced out by Operation Khyber.
"So the question mark remains over whether or not the government is in a position to properly harness the potential to expand its influence," says Mr. Gregg.
The problem presents a Catch-22 for US and Afghan forces, here and elsewhere, as they shift focus to the needs of the population.