Afghanistan: toughest battle

The Taliban and al-Qaida are on the run, but bullets still fly, and warlords rule much of a nation where millions need food.

January 05, 2003|By David Zucchino | David Zucchino,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KABUL, Afghanistan - More than 14 months ago, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan produced swift and stunning results.

Small teams of Special Forces soldiers and CIA paramilitary officers targeted the enemy for U.S. warplanes while giving millions of dollars in cash and weapons to proxy forces headed by commanders of the Northern Alliance resistance. In a matter of weeks, the Taliban and al-Qaida were routed and a pro-American government was installed. It was an improvised strategy that hitched U.S. combat technology to Afghan boots on the ground.

Today, the postwar phase of Operation Enduring Freedom is still being improvised, but with less-dramatic results and with long-term success far from certain.

As U.S. policy-makers lay plans for a possible invasion of Iraq, the Afghan experience is a reminder that the toughest war is often waged long after the fiercest combat ends. Even with the enemy defeated on the battlefield, the fight to stabilize and rebuild a fractured nation can be as draining as any battle fought with infantry and warplanes.

U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are being asked to direct an ambitious effort at nation building - the ambiguous and taxing Clinton-era policy ridiculed by candidate George W. Bush. The United States is doubling the number of civil affairs officers assigned to help build schools and clinics, dig wells and provide humanitarian aid in a country where most people are illiterate and live in mud huts.

American combat units, meanwhile, are harassed almost daily by haphazard rocket fire and hit-and-run attacks. Taliban and al-Qaida fighters enjoy freedom of movement in the lawless tribal highlands of Pakistan, aided by sympathizers in Afghanistan's rugged eastern border regions. Though several top al-Qaida leaders have been killed or captured, Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are at large.

Like U.S. troops in Vietnam, American soldiers here find it difficult to distinguish ordinary villagers from enemy operatives. Lt. Col. Martin Schweitzer, a battalion commander in eastern Afghanistan, said the enemy hides among civilians and spies on American troop movements and methods from villages across the border in Pakistan.

They use cell phones, walkie-talkies, whistles and even mirrors to warn confederates of U.S. combat patrols, he said.

Throughout the country, security is tenuous. Two Afghan government ministers have been assassinated; their killers remain free. President Hamid Karzai, who has survived an assassination attempt, is guarded by an American security detail. His government has yet to extend its authority beyond the capital.

The U.S. military commitment is open-ended. Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commander of coalition forces here, said it will probably be another 18 months to two years before U.S. troop levels, now at about 8,000, can be reduced. He said he expected American forces to remain in Afghanistan, at gradually diminishing levels, for years to come.

From reporting across Afghanistan for a year, a portrait emerges of an American effort that has produced profound changes in the lives of ordinary Afghans but also has left a residue of bitterness and mistrust.

A military campaign that began with a flourish has evolved into a sometimes intrusive police action in a nation with a tradition of fierce resistance to outsiders and a virtually endless supply of weaponry. U.S. forces are seizing and destroying weapons caches - 1.5 million pounds so far - but warlords' militias continue to rule by the gun in the absence of government authority.

In part because of airstrikes last fall that killed, by various estimates, several hundred to a few thousand civilians, there is lingering resentment of Americans - especially in Pashtun areas in the east and south. While Afghans express gratitude to the United States for ridding the country of the Taliban and al-Qaida, some say they fear U.S. troops will become a long-term occupying army like the Soviet forces that invaded more than 20 years ago and remained for a decade.

Those misgivings have been compounded by American military support for warlords, most of them Tajiks from the Northern Alliance who helped defeat the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. The Karzai government is dominated by Tajiks from the Panjsher Valley, stirring further skepticism among Pashtuns about its commitment to the stated U.S. goal of a democratic, multiethnic government.

For now, the warlords enjoy robust American support. U.S. Special Forces teams conduct operations accompanied by warlords' militiamen and live in compounds guarded by them. Because many warlords serve as provincial governors, U.S. military civil affairs teams must work with them to set up reconstruction and humanitarian projects - burnishing their images among the local population.

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