KABUL, Afghanistan – In a significant switch in strategy, U.S. troops plan to set up bases to provide reconstruction aid in provinces plagued by Taliban (search) attacks, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan (search) said Saturday in his first interview since taking charge.
Lt. Gen. David Barno (search) told The Associated Press that the move will make the troubled south and east safer for aid workers and open the way for landmark Afghan elections next summer. He also predicted a sharp reaction from insurgents.
They're "going to realize that's the death knell to terrorist organizations in that part of the country," said Barno. "We'll be prepared for that."
A wave of violence this year has belied U.S. claims to have brought security to Afghanistan, two years after an American-led assault drove the Taliban from power for harboring Al Qaeda (search) chief Usama bin Laden (search).
Attacks have forced the United Nations and other aid groups to withdraw from some regions, undermining aid delivery and confidence in the reconstruction efforts of the U.S.-backed government ahead of elections slated for June.
The United Nations has even accused the U.S. military of playing into the hands of Taliban agitators in its hunt for terror suspects, with two botched raids that killed 15 Afghan children earlier this month.
In a bid to deliver more aid to impoverished civilians, the United States and allies including Britain and New Zealand have set up nine joint civilian-military units charged with creating islands of stability across the country.
So far, most of the so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (search) are in relatively secure regions. Now, the U.S. military is deploying teams across a broad swath of the country dominated by Pashtuns (search), Afghanistan's largest ethnic group from which the hardline Islamic Taliban draw their main support.
Barno, who took command of the 11,000-strong U.S. force here on Nov. 27, said there will be at least 12 such reconstruction teams by March and more later, including dangerous missions in the capitals of Zabul and Uruzgan provinces that were shunned by aid groups because Taliban militants reportedly roam freely.
"We are looking at a significant alteration of our strategy in the south and east," Barno said at his office in the fortified U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul.
The military teams will help distribute reconstruction aid bolstered by an extra $1.2 billion recently released by the U.S. Congress.
That aid, combined with the opening of the south and east by a string of new military operations, will cause "a dramatic change in the amount of involvement of the people in that area in support of the central government and the future of Afghanistan," Barno said.
Aid groups worry that their attempts to remain independent in the eyes of Afghans, including Taliban sympathizers, has been compromised by U.S. involvement in delivering assistance.
But Barno suggested it was time for relief groups to accept that they could not be neutral after a stream of deliberate attacks on de-miners and well-diggers, and said he hoped aid workers would return to Pashtun areas.
"They probably have to, and they are, realizing that they are now operating in a different world," he said.
"We don't have the capacity in the coalition to (provide protection) to every town and every village across the country, but we can provide a great deal of assistance and intelligence sharing," Barno said.
At least 11 aid workers have been killed in attacks this year, including a French U.N. refugee worker who was gunned down at short range by suspected Taliban in the eastern city of Ghazni in November.
The top U.N. official in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi (search), warned last week that the world body may have to abandon its two-year effort to help reconstruct the war-battered country unless security improves.
Barno said insurgents were reduced to "very small and very focused" attacks. "As this future continues to unfold, the terrorist organizations are challenged to show that they exist at all."