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Rebooting the Afghan mission

US forces in the Shemgal Valley, Afghanistan
The new strategy will embed more troops with the population

By Gordon Corera
BBC security correspondent, Kabul

A convoy of American armoured Humvees ventures out of the heavily fortified Camp Phoenix on the edge of Kabul.

Along battered roads, it makes its way through dusty villages with high mud walls on its mission of mentoring local police.

The convoy carries an assortment of printers and stationery to help build relations.

As he passes, the navigator of one vehicle throws out pens to children in the villages through the small window. Most offer a thumbs up.

Deh Shabz police station is high up on a hillside overlooking the plains.

Its compound is littered with rusting green Russian tanks and vehicles abandoned from the 1980s.

Village elders

In his office warmed by a black stove in the middle of the room, the police chief shows Lt Bryan Addington of the US team the location of a recent rocket attack. As he does so, a village elder walks in.

Gen David McKiernan
At the end of the day, this campaign will be determined by the population… not by military actions
Gen David McKiernan

Lt Addington takes the opportunity to remind him to report if he sees any suspicious foreigners entering the village.

There are concerns that as spring comes and the snow melts, the Taleban will come over the mountains looking to recruit suicide bombers. "It is up to the village elders if they see someone come in," Lt Addington explains.

Currently, a team visits the local police chiefs just outside Kabul every two weeks. That will soon dip to fewer visits under a new rota before - they hope - reinforcements arrive.

There is a sense of expectation among soldiers here and an awareness that change may be coming soon as part of the new US policy review expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

And in this small attempt to win hearts and minds and build local Afghan capacity, the importance of a new, more sustained counter-insurgency strategy is all too clear.

"At the end of the day, this campaign will be determined by the population… not by military actions," Gen David McKiernan, the commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, told me in his office in Kabul.

"The Taleban has nothing to offer and people know that. But at the same time there is a large percentage of people in this country that feel very insecure and that are dissatisfied with the progress of governance [and] dissatisfied with corruption."

Election

The speed and manner of the US victory against the Taleban in 2001 - a victory accomplished with only 400 or so US special forces troops and intelligence officers on the ground - made it all too easy for the US to shift its gaze away to Iraq, diverting key military and intelligence assets.

The US strategy on Afghanistan suffered inertia - focusing narrowly on al-Qaeda and leaving large parts of the countryside empty of either troops or government.

Afghan soldier, Kandahar
Progress has been made with improving the Afghan army

"The international community dealt with Afghanistan on the cheap. It was not the priority," former finance minister and presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani explains.

Into the vacuum, the Taleban emerged. Now with the endgame in play in Iraq, the US is turning back to Afghanistan.

But it is faced with rebooting its Afghan mission in a much harder climate than 2001 - one in which the Taleban is resurgent, allies weary and neighbouring Pakistan in turmoil.

The task is also complicated by the other main topic of conversation among Kabul's political elite - the manoeuvring ahead of the country's presidential election this year.

Western diplomats say that without an improvement in governance, the introduction of more troops and other policy changes will have only a marginal impact when it comes to the key objective of winning over the Afghan population.

Some Afghan politicians express fears that the new policy will involve a downsizing of ambition, a move away from the expressed goals of building a more modern democratic state, instead emphasising stability and security above all else.

They warn that following a narrower military strategy will not work in itself without building a capable state.

Troops fire mortar in Afghanistan
Any belief that military action alone will be enough is receding

There have been some signs of progress in recent years. While the Afghan police are acknowledged to need considerably more work, the Afghan National Army is moving ahead much quicker.

At the vast Kabul Military Training Centre that stretches out across the hills we watched new recruits - some of the 25,000 expected to graduate this year - being trained on their new M16 rifles.

US mentors expressed satisfaction that more local troops would still be operating and with greater effectiveness.

A new policy is likely to see a greater focus on utilising new counter-insurgency doctrine pioneered in Iraq with a focus on embedding troops more closely with the local population and working harder to engage them.

Officials emphasise that it is much more than an issue of simply putting in more troops but thinking more clearly what they do.

Whatever the details of the review, it will be crucial to change the perception in some quarters that the Taleban strategy - of waiting out the US and Nato - has the upper hand.



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