- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 29, 2007

KHAKAR, Afghanistan

There isn’t a single foreign-aid worker helping this village of illiterate have-nots. Visits by U.S. troops to dole out medicine, cooking oil and teddy bears are rare events. And when they leave, the Taliban move in from the mountains to undo their work.

Khakar is what the Americans call a “swing village.” Given sustained security and assistance, it might well side with the government; but without that help, it goes the way of the insurgents.

“This is commonplace. They’re kind of sitting on the fence to see how things go,” said Lt. Col. Karl Slaughenhaupt, a senior U.S. adviser to the Afghan army. “They are willing to support the government, but at this point in time, we simply don’t have enough contact with the people to push the anti-government elements out.”

Col. Slaughenhaupt’s assessment addresses one of the core problems of the conflict. Five years after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban regime, the government and outside world have provided neither enough bread nor guns to undercut the resurgent militants.

Zabul, a backwater province in southeastern Afghanistan, offers a dramatic example.

“The economy is the key solution. If it is good, there will be no Taliban. But now, I cannot even support my brothers in Zabul with a piece of bread,” said provincial Gov. Dalbar Ayman, picking up a slice of local flat bread from his plate.

By U.N. standards, up to 80 percent of the province’s 300,000 people, mostly subsistence farmers and pastoralists, are short of food. There are only two midwives and no obstetricians. Most of the 11 districts have no medical facilities at all.

Women aren’t much better off in the deeply conservative region than when the Taliban was shuttering them in their homes. Fewer than 10 percent of girls go to school, and only about 5 percent are literate. In 2005 elections, 11 percent of Zabul women voted, compared with the national average of 40 percent.

Aid and reconstruction depend on security, officials say. Otherwise, the classic formula for a successful counterinsurgency — one part military muscle to four parts political, economic and propaganda operations — can’t be applied.

“The people are not confident that we can protect them,” Mr. Ayman said. He wants 30 percent to 40 percent more troops. “Hopefully, we won’t go backward if we don’t get them, but we certainly won’t move forward.”

Haji Fezal, a farmer and transport business owner, agrees.

“In our hearts, we don’t support the Taliban, but people have no choice because the government can’t provide them with security,” he said. The Taliban are “pouring across the border from Pakistan, and the government can’t control what is happening in the districts.”

Zabul has about 600 Afghan army troops and 1,000 from NATO, including a contingent from Romania. That’s one soldier for every 7 square miles of the Connecticut-size province.

Khaki Afghan district, where the insurgents recently overran local government headquarters, has no troops at all.

“Foreign troops came to Afghanistan to carry out a task, so why are they not made stronger to finish it?” asked Mr. Ayman.

U.S. officers make the same point.

“This is a huge area to care for with just three small platoons,” said Maj. Christopher Clay of St. Louis, who commands B Company, 1st Regiment, 4th Infantry Regiment — the main U.S. military unit in Zabul.

There is some evidence of development. The U.S. Agency for International Development has installed 4,300 electrical connections in Qalat, the provincial capital, and more roads are being hacked into the rugged interior. The United Arab Emirates has built a hospital in Qalat, although it still lacks nurses and supplies and some doctors have left after Taliban threats.

Maj. Clay said that less than a year ago, when the province began to look like a success story, resources were diverted elsewhere and the “fragile foundations started to crumble.”

U.S. troops and officers also say that the war in Iraq and Taliban strongholds like Helmand and Kandahar provinces are hogging resources.

“I haven’t even been able to get a spare part for my vehicle since I got here,” said 1st Lt. Keith Wei of San Francisco, Maj. Clay’s executive officer.

Getting help to the people can be difficult and delicate.

“If we build a school, the Taliban will come in, beat up the children and burn it down. If we show too much presence, it will attract too much attention from the Taliban. So we have to find the happy medium,” said Capt. Christopher Green, taking part in the humanitarian operation at Khakar.

Capt. Green of Palm Beach, Fla., said ample food can’t be provided to the village’s 150 inhabitants lest Khakar become “a grocery store for the Taliban.”

About 90 Afghan and U.S. troops recently put a barbed-wire enclosure at the base of mountains an hour’s drive from the provincial capital, Qalat. The villagers entered for medical treatment and handouts. A U.S. Army doctor with a pistol on her hip and stethoscope around her neck treated the mostly veiled, shy women in a tent.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Kevin P. McGlaughlin, a former B-52 pilot who until recently headed the military’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Zabul, said rebuilding requires an international commitment of 20 years or more.

“We’re a flash in the pan. This is not our bread and butter, rebuilding things,” he said of the military.

But no civilian foreign-aid worker dares work in the province for fear of the Taliban.

Seth G. Jones of the U.S.-based Rand Corp. traveled to Afghanistan this year and sounds a warning.

“NATO and the U.S. will win or lose in Afghanistan in the rural villages and districts of the country, not in the capital city of Kabul,” he said . “In Afghanistan, all politics is local.”

Noor Khan contributed to this report in Kandahar.

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