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Mini-surge to test out US strategy in Afghanistan

Some 3,000 US troops recently deployed to insurgent-heavy provinces near Kabul.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 18, 2009

Incoming: Some 3,000 US troops recently arrived in Logar and Wardak provinces, where insurgents have been gaining control. Here, a helicopter carries supplies in Logar.

Amber Robinson/ISAF/AP

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Maydan Shahr, Afghanistan

The 3,000 new American troops who arrived in recent weeks in Logar and Wardak provinces, both of which border Kabul, face a formidable challenge: establishing control in areas with little government presence and where insurgents operate freely.

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In Band-e-chak, for example, a district capital in Wardak, gun-toting Taliban fighters regularly come into town on their motorbikes to do some shopping. They buy their produce and go home, driving past government offices unmolested.

These provinces could be a key testing ground for the Obama administration's Afghan strategy, which may include a surge of thousands of US forces countrywide.

"Policymakers in Washington will be watching the progress there closely," says Habibullah Rafeh, political analyst with the Afghan Academy of Sciences. "If [the US] can turn things around there, they can create the momentum to turn around the whole war."

The strategy in Logar and Wardak will be to push the insurgents out of their strongholds and eliminate their contact with locals, and to emphasize development and reconstruction, says Col. David Haight, commander of the newly arrived troops.

Insurgents' expanding control

Unlike areas of the Afghan south, such as Kandahar, the provinces close to Kabul were free from a sizeable insurgent presence until the last couple of years. The deteriorating security here mirrors the trends of worsening violence nationwide over the past year, where record numbers of foreign soldiers and civilians were killed.

In Wardak Province, insurgents today control six out of nine districts, according to interviews with locals and government officials here. They also control four out of seven districts in Logar Province, locals say. Parallel governments exist in each of these districts, with the Afghan government nominally occupying the district capitals but allowing the Taliban to operate freely.

Residents of Band-e-chak, the capital of Chak district, say the local government made an agreement with the Taliban. "They leave each other alone, so there is no fighting between the two sides," says Fazel Minallah. "Sometimes when officials from Kabul visit, the Taliban leave and the [district government] puts a bunch of police in the streets and everyone pretends there is no problem."

One other Wardak district even lacks a Kabul-appointed governor, leaving only the Taliban administration.

Complex militant networks

In addition to dealing with corrupt and ineffective local governments, US forces will have to contend with a collection of insurgent forces with different tactics and ideologies.

In Logar Province, the Haqqani network is the dominant insurgent group, according to intelligence officials. This network has sympathies with Al Qaeda and is considered one of the most dangerous insurgent outfits. Authorities say it may have been behind the daring simultaneous attack on three government offices in Kabul last week, for example.

Here in Wardak, the rebel group Hizb-i-Islami controls two districts and the Taliban four. Hizb-i-Islami was a leading guerrilla force that fought against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s and maintains ties from that time.

The rebels' ranks here are drawn mostly from the local population, unlike some other provinces where the Taliban imports fighters. "This could make it harder for the US to separate the insurgents from the population and isolate them," says Waliullah Rahmani, an insurgency expert with the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.

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