In eastern Afghan province, preview of upcoming surge strategy

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 19, 2010 

WORLD NEWS AFGHAN-SURGE 2 MA

Spc. Ralpheale Adams, of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, watches over the Pakistani border in Dand Wa Patan, Afghanistan.

THOMAS L. DAY — Thomas L. Day/Macon Telegraph/MCT

CAMP GOODE, Afghanistan — Although President Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 or more additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan has captured headlines, the buildup that's beginning in this Taliban stronghold near the Pakistani border isn't just a combat operation.

In about a week, officials from the Agency for International Development, the State Department, the Department of Agriculture and a military-led Provisional Reconstruction Team will move into the military's Camp Goode. Their arrival is a preview of the Obama administration's evolving strategy in Paktia province and throughout Afghanistan.

The surge in Paktia, the scene of the last major battle between al Qaida and Taliban forces and American and allied troops in March 2002, involves an unprecedented degree of cooperation among multiple departments of the U.S. government in a war zone. Operations often will put foreign service officers and other civilian officials alongside infantry units, often in hostile territory.

"The lines of effort . . . they will all be concurrent," said Lt. Col. Matthew Smith, the commander of Task Force Dahlonega, a Georgia Army National Guard team named for a small town in north Georgia.

In November, Smith's unit, which had been spread across four provinces, was told to consolidate in Paktia. The effect was a "surge" of sorts: About 700 American soldiers had been conducting combat operations in Paktia, and now there were more than 1,000, nearly all of them operating outside their bases.

Then came the civilian buildup.

Two months ago, only one State Department official was assigned to Paktia. By the end of next month, four more will be working in the province, along with six from the Agency for International Development.

"The fact that I can even go on the streets here is how the military supports me," said Genevieve Libonati, a foreign service officer assigned to Paktia province.

"Most of these things cannot happen without some degree of security," Smith said.

Indeed, Smith and his troops are the foundation of the strategy, and the security challenges they face are daunting.

U.S. operations are planned in areas that have never, or scarcely, seen American troops since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan more than eight years ago. One mission is planned in the Shah-i-Kot valley, which hasn't seen American troops since Operation Anaconda in 2002.

The U.S. surge also comes during an unusually violent winter in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan, one in which more Taliban and other insurgent groups have continued fighting rather than retreating into Pakistan to regroup, as they did during the first seven winters of the war.

American military commanders see an opportunity to pinch the Taliban fighters in the east. They say that a Pakistani offensive in South Waziristan across the border has sent Pakistani Taliban fighters and their Islamist allies across the mountainous border to join Afghan Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

The additional troops in Paktia already have paid dividends, Smith said, using a U.S. list of high-value targets as a barometer of success.

"In this province, in the eight months prior to our arrival, I don't think they caught anyone on that list," Smith said. "Two months here, we've killed one and captured five others."

Paktia province has about 23 miles of border with Pakistan, and Smith recently deployed about 50 of his soldiers to watch it, the first permanent American presence along that section of the border.

The surge, both military and civilian, is likely to encounter stiff Taliban resistance, and even with the recent buildup, there are fewer than half as many U.S. and Afghan troops in Paktia than the American military's counterinsurgency doctrine requires.

U.S. commanders have marked Jani Khel, a town in a wooded valley in Paktia, as "black," meaning that it's remained under Taliban control. Operations that are planned to take the town will have "a cost associated," Smith acknowledged. ". . . You put more troops in an area, you're going to get more contact."

The civilians' task is equally daunting. American officials consider the governor of Paktia, Khan Hamdard, corrupt, and the Taliban routinely exploit the enmities among Shiite and Sunni Muslim tribes and sub-tribes to create unrest.

"It's to their benefit to have instability," Smith said.

Establishing a credible provincial government is "a very long-term project," State Department officer Libonati said. "Building governance capacity in a country that has been at war for 30 years, it's not something that is going to take a year."

(Day reports for The Telegraph in Macon, Ga.)

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