U.S. Strategy in Afghan Surge Plagued by Suspicion, Terrain

As violence in Afghanistan escalates, the U.S. is responding by scrambling to get in more troops. But it's far from clear how the strategy will work in a vast, rugged land where hiding places are many and suspicion of foreign forces is deep.

Both U.S. presidential candidates have proposed sending more troops to fight the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, where more foreign soldiers have died than in Iraq the past two months.

Democrat candidate Barack Obama, whose visit to Afghanistan over the weekend underscored its growing importance, wants to move about 7,000 U.S. soldiers here from Iraq. His Republican opponent, John McCain, has not specified how many extra troops he would send.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has suggested an acceleration in plans to shift U.S. forces to Afghanistan next year from Iraq. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says more troops would help cut into insurgents coming across the border from Pakistan.

Besides troops, the Pentagon wants to send some 800 more bomb-resistant vehicles here for protection against a spike in Iraq-style suicide attacks and roadside bombs. NATO is seeking more helicopters and combat units from America's often-reluctant European partners to fight in the country's volatile south.

These plans come on top of a surge in troops in Afghanistan that is already well under way. There are now 60,000 foreign soldiers, including 36,000 Americans, fighting an insurgency at its strongest since the Taliban regime was ousted 6 1/2 years ago. That's up from just 10,000 U.S. soldiers in 2003, when the war in Iraq began.

NATO spokesman Mark Laity said the Western military alliance can now send out more patrols and dot the mountain valleys near the border with Pakistan with small bases that let troops seek to develop relations with villagers in areas that have little contact with the Afghan government.

Laity said the alliance also is working closely with Pakistani border troops and making increasing use of "technical means" to monitor the frontier — an apparent reference to surveillance drones overhead and equipment like vibration sensors buried along mountain paths.

But local Afghan leaders along the frontier with Pakistan consider the reinforcement effort misguided, telling The Associated Press that more foreign troops will only make matters worse.

The officials said an increase in American troops could backfire because suspicion of NATO and the U.S. is strong in the region.

"They are launching search operations in villages, which is completely against the culture of the Pashtun people," said Tajeli Khan Sabir, a university professor who heads the Khost provincial council. "That makes the people very angry. This is causing a schism between the people and the government."

Maulvi Abdul Aziz, a member of the council of clerics in Nangarhar province, said the Taliban and other insurgents are winning support from the local people because of resentment over the foreign presence.

"The people are against the coalition and American forces in our area," he said. "Increasing foreign forces is not the solution. Strengthening the Afghan forces is."

Aziz said the best way to combat the insurgency would be to recruit and arm local tribesmen to defend their own neighborhoods, supported by strengthened Afghan security forces.

"If you have at least 50 local people together with police forces, they can maintain security in their own district, instead of sending foreigners with the police," he said.

Thousands of American soldiers are, in fact, helping train the new Afghan National Army, which now numbers 75,000, not far short of the target of 86,000. But the Afghan army still plays largely a secondary role to foreign forces, which provide air support in battles with insurgents.

The key is to eventually get people on the side of the national government and have the Afghan army and local police provide security, said Andrew Krepinevich, a former U.S. officer who served in Vietnam and is now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

But that is not likely to happen for years. So international troops are crucial for propping up the democratically elected but increasingly unpopular government of President Hamid Karzai.

Insurgents aren't the only enemy. Foreign troops in Afghanistan also face a formidable foe in the terrain itself — a vast sprawl of forbidding mountains that are difficult to police.

Nadir Khan Katawazi, a lawmaker from Paktika province, said U.S. troops are overstretched, able to block only one of eight points on the border where insurgents infiltrate from Pakistan.

"It is clear that when Americans are at one door, they (militants) use others," he said.

Analysts also stress that even with better security in Afghanistan, the insurgency cannot be quelled unless Pakistan cracks down on militant havens on its side of the ill-mapped border, which snakes for 1,500 miles through rugged peaks and across deserts.

The U.S. faces a conundrum in fighting an insurgency in Pakistan, where it has no ground forces and public sentiment is strong against ever allowing troops in. It can do little more in direct military action than launch periodic missile strikes on suspected al-Qaida hideouts.

"My impression is that there is very little that foreign troops can do about the situation on the frontier," said Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University. "The problem is: What happens on the Pakistan side of the border, and who is responsible for it?"

William Wood, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said Pakistan's government is not doing all it can.

"I think that they are doing substantially more than their worst critics say," Wood said. "That does not mean that Pakistan is doing all it can be doing."

Pakistan denies Afghan accusations that its main intelligence agency is backing the Taliban. An army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said that without the tens of thousands of Pakistani soldiers along the border, militant infiltration into Afghanistan "could have been 20 times more."

But he also acknowledged Pakistan's army is no longer on the offensive against militants and security has deteriorated in some areas on the frontier. He said the generals are waiting for the government to decide if the current strategy of seeking peace deals in militant-infested areas can work to quell extremist activities.

A retired Pakistani general, Talat Masood, said the best strategy is to coax Pakistan's new civilian government — a fragile coalition of the leading secular political parties — into making a strong effort to mobilize public opinion against Islamic militancy and extremism.

The U.S., he added, should fund economic development of the impoverished border region, share more intelligence with Pakistan and work to end mistrust between the U.S. and Pakistan militaries.

Washington has already given more than $10 billion in mostly military aid to Pakistan since it joined the war against terrorism. Proposed legislation being pushed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would triple humanitarian spending in Pakistan — $7.5 billion over the next five years — but threaten to cut military aid unless Islamabad did more to fight extremists.

Masood warned that intensified U.S. military action inside Pakistan trying to stop movement over the border will not work.

"Punitive action will only make things worse," he said. "If they start striking inside Pakistan it will only inflame passions, fuel deeper resentment of America and destabilize the government."