MALEK DIN, Afghanistan—The soldiers of Bravo Company knew that their quarry was here, somewhere. They could hear the Taliban fighters radio one another as they tracked every step the Americans took through the rutted tracks, the mud-walled compounds and the parched orchards of this sun-seared patch of Afghan outback.
Yet in three tense, sweat-soaked days of blasting open doors, scouring flyblown haylofts, digging up ammunition caches and quizzing tight-lipped villagers, the 10th Mountain Division troops never found a single Taliban fighter.
"They just hide their weapons and become farmers," muttered one U.S. officer, nodding at a group of turbaned men glowering from the shady lee of a nearby wall.
Afghanistan has become Iraq on a slow burn. Five years after they were ousted, the Taliban are back in force, their ranks renewed by a new generation of diehards. Violence, opium trafficking, ethnic tensions, official corruption and political anarchy are all worse than they've been at any time since the U.S.-led intervention in 2001.
By failing to stop Taliban leaders and Osama bin Laden from escaping into Pakistan, then diverting troops and resources to Iraq before finishing the job in Afghanistan, the Bush administration left the door open to a Taliban comeback. Compounding the problem, reconstruction efforts have been slow and limited, and the U.S. and NATO didn't anticipate the extent and ferocity of the Taliban resurgence or the alliances the insurgents have formed with other Islamic extremists and with the world's leading opium traffickers.
There are only 42,000 U.S. and NATO-led troops to secure a country that's half again the size of Iraq, where 150,000 U.S.-led coalition troops are deployed. Suicide bombings have soared from two in all of 2002 to about one every five days. Civilian casualties are mounting. President Hamid Karzai and his U.S. backers have become hugely unpopular.
"The Americans made promises that they haven't carried out, like bringing security, rebuilding the country and eradicating poverty," said Nasir Ahmad, 32, as he hawked secondhand clothes in the clamor of bus engines, horns and barking merchants in Kabul's main bazaar. "Karzai is an irresponsible person. He is just a figurehead."
James Dobbins, who was President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, said that the administration dismissed European offers of a major peacekeeping force after the U.S. intervention and almost immediately began shifting military assets to invade Iraq.
The White House "resisted the whole concept of peacekeeping," said Dobbins. "They wanted to demonstrate a different approach, one that would be much lower cost. So the decision to skimp on manpower and deploy one-fiftieth the troops as were deployed in Bosnia was accompanied by a decision to underplay economic assistance.
"We invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. We conquered the country in December, and Congress was not asked to provide any (reconstruction) money until the following October," he continued. "Much of the money didn't show up for years. And not only were the actual sums relatively small, but with the failure to establish even a modicum of security in the countryside, there was no way to spend it."
President Bush on Tuesday told Karzai, who was visiting the White House, that America "has got the will to do the hard work necessary" in Afghanistan.
"In recent months, the Taliban and other extremists have tried to regain control, mostly in the south of Afghanistan, and so we've adjusted tactics and run the offense to meet the threat and defeat the threat," he said. "The fighting in Afghanistan is part of a global struggle."
U.S. and NATO officials and commanders have admitted that they were caught by surprise by the intensity of the Taliban resurgence, but contend that their forces are handling the insurgency.
"The challenge we face is not of a military nature," Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said on Sept. 21. "The critical task at this stage is strengthening the government of Afghanistan, developing the economy and building Afghan civil society."
The majority of Afghanistan's 31 million people oppose the Taliban, which banned women from working and girls from attending school, enforced a puritanical form of Islamic government that included public floggings and executions, and fought a bloody civil war in the mid-1990s with the country's Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek minorities.
But most Afghans also have grown disgusted with Karzai, who rarely leaves his heavily fortified palace in central Kabul, and his U.S. patrons, and many yearn for a return of the security that the Taliban provided when they ruled.
So while the Taliban uprising has been focused in the southern homeland of the ethnic Pashtuns, their reach and that of allied Islamic groups and criminal gangs now extend to more than half the country.
"The insurgency is developing all over," warned Zia Mojaddedi, a senior member of Karzai's national security council. "It is still not lost. They are not strong. But we are weak. We are corrupt."
In the southeast, U.S. troops face daily ambushes and attacks from mines and improvised explosive devices. Their frequent search operations, such as a recent sweep through Dilla, a remote hamlet in Paktika province, create sympathy for the Taliban among conservative Pashtun tribesmen.
"Four or five times the Americans have searched my house," Mohammad Akram, a wizened cleric, complained to U.S. commanders and Afghan officials in Dilla. "They killed my dog and broke the glass in my windows. They shoot at us. If the Americans have proof that I am with the bad guys, show me the proof. The Americans dishonor our homes."
U.S. troops say the fighting often has been even tougher than it is in Iraq. U.S. aircraft, including B-1 bombers, originally designed to drop nuclear weapons on the former Soviet Union, have been lobbing more satellite-guided high explosives on Afghanistan than on Iraq, according to Air Force reports.
The Pentagon had planned to withdraw some U.S. forces from Afghanistan this year, but their commander, Eikenberry, said on Sept. 21 that there would be no cuts before early next year.
It could take years and many more casualties for the United States and its allies to extinguish the insurgency. Since January, 158 American soldiers and troops of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have died, compared with 130 in 2005. An estimated 1,500 Afghans have been killed this year.
Without the foreign troops, the Taliban would sweep back to Kabul, re-igniting a civil war with other ethnic groups and perhaps offering sanctuary to bin Laden again.
"If American forces and ISAF forces left Afghanistan, the Taliban would come back in a week," warned Police Gen. Gullam Jan, a senior official in the Interior Ministry, which runs Afghanistan's national police forces.
The worsening war is further straining the overburdened U.S. military. The stakes also are high for America's relations with its allies. NATO, embroiled in its first conflict since it was created in 1949, could unravel if public anger over mounting casualties—already growing in Canada after the deaths of 20 ISAF soldiers this summer—compels members to withdraw before the Taliban threat is extinguished.
Senior U.S., European and Afghan officials, diplomats and military commanders said it's not too late to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist base camp again. But containing the crisis will require more troops, attention and energy from the United States and its allies, including pressure on Pakistan to crack down on the infiltration of Taliban fighters from its territory.
The crisis led U.S. and ISAF commanders to revise their counter-insurgency strategy this summer. The previous approach relied too much on military force—contradicting the Pentagon's long-established counter-insurgency doctrine, which emphasizes winning the support of the population.
"There's a downside" to heavy use of bombs and artillery, said Col. John W. Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. "All that does is buy you time and space with the population, but if you don't fill that space, you are not winning."
The revised approach aims to recapture popular support for Karzai by having foreign troops do more to help re-establish local governments and police, deliver health care, build roads and restore irrigation systems in far-flung regions where the Taliban command support or terrorize people into feeding and sheltering their fighters.
Reconstruction has gone forward in the north, center and west of Afghanistan, where the Taliban strike but aren't entrenched. Some 6 million children attend school, more than 1,800 miles of road have been built, and electricity, irrigation, bridges and health clinics are going in. Afghanistan has a democratic constitution, and elections have been held for president, parliament and provincial councils.
But the effort is in trouble.
In the Pashtuns' southern heartland, ISAF has been unable to kick-start reconstruction because of the intense fighting that erupted this summer as the NATO-led force took over the region from U.S. troops.
"Many of the people of Afghanistan are on the fence right now, and they will be for whichever side wins," Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, NATO's top military commander, said on Sept. 20. "If military action is not followed by visible, tangible, sizable and correctly focused reconstruction and development efforts, then we will be in Afghanistan for a much longer period of time than we need to be."
For that approach to succeed, there has to be security. Yet there are too few U.S. and NATO troops to secure the vast tracts of desert and mountains in eastern and southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban find their greatest support.
There are 22,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But there are only 5,000 U.S. combat soldiers in eastern Afghanistan bordering Taliban refuges in Pakistan, a 27,000-square-mile area of vast deserts and mountains nearly the size of South Carolina.
ISAF, with 20,000 troops from 36 nations, has only 8,000 troops for 77,000 square miles—slightly smaller than Minnesota—in the south.
The insurgents and their leaders operate from Pakistan, aided by Pakistani officials, radical Islamic parties and al-Qaida. They're flush with recruits from Islamist seminaries on both sides of the border that offer religious instruction and combat training.
Taliban extremists also have been to Iraq for training in combat and bomb-making, and Iraqi insurgents have traveled to Pakistan to forge closer ties with Afghan and Pakistani extremists, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
The insurgents fight, then blend back into the population. They've forged alliances with powerful drug lords, sharing in the profits of opium production, which has increased by 59 percent this year to record levels, fueling immense official corruption.
The United States has paid for poppy eradication, but farmers have gotten virtually no help to plant alternative crops. The Taliban have stepped in, providing seeds and fertilizers for new poppy crops in return for support and recruits.
Taliban clerics ban music, TV and radio in areas under their sway. The guerrillas have burned or closed more than 300 schools, depriving some 200,000 children of an education.
They've assassinated officials and pro-government Muslim religious leaders, undermining the efforts to extend Kabul's authority. Anyone suspected of being an informant or not sharing the Taliban's radical vision of Islam is at peril. Large sections of the nation's main highway have become unsafe in the past year for foreigners and Afghans who work for them. Taliban stop cars at roadblocks, drag people out and kill them.
Those who resist or oppose the Taliban's ideology are threatened with death in "night letters" posted on the doors of homes and mosques around the southeast region.
Guerrillas appear openly in Kandahar, the Pashtun spiritual and cultural capital and the country's second-largest city. Taliban suicide-bomber cells have infiltrated Kabul, and according to Jan, the Interior Ministry official, the guerrillas have begun stashing arms caches in rented homes.
Some parts of the country appear much the way Afghanistan did during the Soviet occupation of 1979-89: Afghan forces and their foreign allies, now U.S. and ISAF troops, control key population centers and areas around their bases; the Taliban move freely across swaths of countryside, terrorizing villagers into sheltering and feeding them or finding welcome from illiterate Pashtuns who cling to their ancient culture, conservative Islamic faith and distrust of foreigners.
"The Taliban and al-Qaida are probably here right now," said Akram, the tribal elder, waving at some 200 villagers sitting in the sweltering heat during the meeting in Dilla. "These people will support them because the government has done nothing for them."
About a week earlier, the Taliban attacked the small 10th Mountain Division unit sent to secure the site for a new district administration office and police station.
"We were ambushed with rocket-propelled grenades. They basically trapped us. I had nine guys and it was a two-hour firefight," recalled Lt. David Patton of San Antonio, Texas, a tall 34-year-old former Marine who tried college but joined the Army after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. "Ninety percent of the U.S. convoys out here get hit by IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
"The biggest problem that we have is that the (Afghan army and national police) always bail out on us. They tell us if we don't stay, they won't."
As in Iraq, the U.S. exit strategy for Afghanistan hinges on building the army and police.
The Afghan army has about 30,000 troops who participate in operations with U.S. and ISAF forces. But they lack basic equipment—helmets, radios and armored vehicles—and rely on U.S. and other foreign funds for their salaries.
Police problems are far worse.
Desertions, Taliban infiltration, massive equipment theft, nepotism, low pay, incompetence, recruiting woes and corruption have forced reform of the Afghan National Police to grind to a halt, said Jan, Mojaddedi and three U.S officials involved in the program.
"We're running 100 miles per hour and not going anywhere," said one of the U.S. officials, all of whom requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
"If a Talib comes across the border and encounters the police, he says, `Here are 5,000 Afghanis (about $100). We are going to fight the infidels. We have weapons and rockets. Take this 5,000 Afghanis and get lost,' " Mojaddedi said.
On a six-day recruitment drive in two provinces hit by the Taliban, Ghazni and Paktika, two senior Interior Ministry officials and U.S. troops found only several dozen local men willing to sign up. The vast majority were either too terrified or sympathized with the Taliban.
The only other registrants were fighters from Ghazni Gov. Sher Alam's private militia. They knew little about their surroundings or the population because they came from other parts of Afghanistan. Some were suspected of cooperating with the Taliban.
In Dilla, the delegation confronted a mutiny by nearly 100 police officers who'd been dispatched from Kabul until a local force could be recruited.
Their superiors told them that they were being sent to a province near Kabul for two days. Instead, they were shipped for five weeks to a desert littered with improvised explosive devices, with insufficient food, water and clothing—they may have sold supplies they were given by American forces—and no way to contact their families.
With only a roofless mud-brick ruin for shelter, they brandished AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades as they shouted down Paktika Gov. Akram Khpalwak, who failed to persuade them to return to work by appealing to their patriotism, insulting their manhood and promising food and water.
"I am a general," retorted an enraged officer who refused to give his name. "I haven't taken a shower. I don't know where I am."
The Taliban quietly re-established themselves because the Pentagon largely ignored southern Afghanistan, according to current and former U.S., European and Afghan officials and commanders.
Until ISAF troops began arriving, no more than 3,000 U.S. troops were deployed there, even though it was the Taliban heartland.
Instead, the Pentagon focused most of its manpower on hunting al-Qaida along the border with Pakistan. Karzai, meanwhile, lacked the security forces to extend his authority beyond the region's provincial capitals.
"The south has been to a large degree a vacuum," said a senior ISAF official, who requested anonymity because of the criticism of U.S. policy. "When the Taliban was pushed out (in 2001), they were neither replaced by effective government, nor were they replaced by alternative security forces. NATO is now dealing with the consequences of previous failures in policy."
Taliban leaders quietly re-established bases and training camps in Pakistan's border areas, where they were welcomed by Pashtun tribes, and rebuilt their ranks with religious students recruited from among the 2.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
They also received money and weapons from al-Qaida and from sympathetic current and former officers of Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), according to current and former U.S., European and Afghan officials, commanders and experts.
U.S. intelligence has significant evidence of ISI complicity, said Seth Jones, an expert at the RAND Corp., a think tank that advises the U.S. government. Middle- and junior-level ISI officers are providing the Taliban with intelligence and have foiled several U.S. operations by tipping the insurgents off in advance, he said.
Pakistan insists that it's doing everything possible to crack down on the Taliban, whose sweep into Kabul in 1996 it supported as part of a traditional policy of favoring a pro-Pakistan Pashtun regime in Kabul. But Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf hasn't arrested any Taliban leaders.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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