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US looks for progress in Afghanistan

US Marines search a compound in the Garmsir district of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 12 July 2009
By the end of this summer more than 90,000 US and Nato troops will be deployed in Afghanistan

By Adam Brookes
BBC News, Washington

The news from eastern Afghanistan is, on examination, mixed.

In Gardez and Jalalabad, at least six Afghan security personnel were killed in a series of coordinated attacks by suicide bombers and gunmen on Tuesday.

The bombers strapped explosives to their chests and then tried to run into government offices. One blew himself up, killing three members of the Afghan security forces. Two others were shot by police.

One tried to get into the office of the provincial governor, but was shot. Another attacked a police station. He was shot, too.

The attacks suggest a high degree of organisation and co-ordination, and a degree of fanaticism. But the police response suggests the authorities are far from helpless when under attack.

Stripped mountains

News of these incidents in Gardez caught my eye.

I remember reporting on heavy fighting between Afghan and US forces near Gardez. I remember the US gunships swooping low over the plains and rocketing the mountainsides. American bombing stripped the trees in mountain villages of all their leaves.

I was reminded of those spectral images of denuded forests from World War I. The bodies of young Taliban fighters lay amid the rubble, stiffening in the dry, crisp air.

That was seven years ago.

Yet here we are in 2009, and the same war is being fought in the same place by the same people.

We know what we need to do. I think we know how to do it. It's now a matter of resourcing it and executing it
Adm Mike Mullen
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

In the course of those seven years, nothing conclusive has happened in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration is now trying to act conclusively - or at least in a fashion which will tip this conflict towards a conclusion.

By the end of this summer more than 90,000 US and Nato troops will be deployed. That is not as many as are in Iraq, but it is starting to be a military effort of comparable dimensions.

The president's strategy review - which he announced in March - reworked some of the war's basic assumptions.

We are now in the middle of another review - this time conducted by the new commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.

Resigned

We expect General McChrystal will find that, without an even greater expansion in the number of Afghan security forces, the success of the overall military effort will remain in the balance.

The current plan is to expand Afghan troop numbers from 85,000 to 134,000 in the next two years or so. General McChrystal may well seek more than that - with the funding to match.

And that will prompt a further round of political soul-searching in Washington.

The increase in coalition troop numbers have a clearly stated purpose: to provide security for the Afghan people and to open up a space in which development and governance can start to take root.

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Afghanistan last week. He said his troops were "the finest counter-insurgency force in the world".

Graph showing all US casualties in Afghanistan for 2009 only

"We know what we need to do," he said. "I think we know how to do it. It's now a matter of resourcing it and executing it."

Some officials, though, remain concerned that Afghan capacity in development and governance will never rise to American expectations - even reduced expectations.

Even if US and Nato troops succeed in bringing a measure of security, "where is this Afghan official who will step in?", asked one.

American and British officials seem resigned to the idea that Hamid Karzai will retain the presidency in next month's elections, and they will have to put up with what they often describe as his corrupt and ineffectual administration.

One source close to Afghan policy-making says the hope is no longer for a "single writ of government country-wide". Rather, he says, "local arrangements are the key".

In practice, that may mean shoring up local power structures based on tribes or mayors or governors, rather than hoping for a central government whose power flows through the entire country; a patchwork of politics, rather than a pattern.

This intensification of the war by the Obama administration in part explains why coalition casualties are rising.

July has seen more US, British and Nato troops die than in any other month since the invasion; 56 fatalities. Two-thirds of them were from roadside bombs.

The number of attacks on coalition forces has risen precipitately. In the first five months of this year the number of attacks by "improvised explosive devices" - mainly roadside bombs - were up 64% over the previous year.

Attacks using "direct fire" - that means mainly automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades - were up 61%.

These are frightening numbers for a war-weary American public - though popular support for the Afghan war seems to remain relatively solid. In a recent Gallup poll, 54% of respondents said things were going well in Afghanistan.

So is the Obama plan for Afghanistan working? It is too early to say.

"Check back in a year. Or two," said one military officer.

Graph showing all US casualties in Afghanistan 2001-2009



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