US sharpens focus on Afghanistan

General is upbeat but others paint a bleaker picture

By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / June 25, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

ISAF HEADQUARTERS, KABUL - US Army General John Craddock, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, is leaving his post in an upbeat mood: Afghanistan is no longer playing second fiddle in Washington to Iraq. The troops he has long requested are finally arriving. Even the Europeans are sending temporary reinforcements to safeguard the presidential election in August.

“I am more encouraged here that I have been in two years,’’ Craddock said last week in an expansive 40-minute interview during his farewell trip to Kabul. “The good news . . . never gets reported adequately.’’

But even as Craddock reflected the optimistic line of the Obama administration, many others familiar with the situation on the ground in Afghanistan - from American researchers to Afghan leaders - painted a bleaker picture.

“The US has totally lost control of all the east,’’ said Gilles Dorronsoro, a specialist on Afghanistan at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment For International Peace who traveled to eastern Afghanistan in April.

Dorronsoro will release a report next week arguing that the 17,000 additional troops that President Obama is sending to Afghanistan should concentrate on halting the rapid Taliban advance in the north rather than fighting in the south and the east, where the Taliban already control the majority of the population and have set up a shadow government.

As General Stanley McChrystal, the new US general in charge of both NATO and US troops in Afghanistan, begins a 60-day assessment of the war, examining everything from troop levels to the success of a pilot “guardians’’ program that pays locals to help the national police, many in the military feel a sense of optimism, saying they now have the tools they need to reverse the downward spiral of insurgency here.

Craddock said the media - and some analysts - incorrectly focus on isolated anecdotes that give too negative a picture.

“When a district center is taken over and you see in a newsflash it was captured by the Taliban, it makes a great headline,’’ he said. “They are not really holding anything. It’s an anecdote. But when that’s all you see in the press, it looks like we are losing control of the countryside.’’

During a recent visit by journalists, NATO officials distributed a map showing the insurgency worsening in just four areas, while security in the vast majority of the rest of the country was improving. They also distributed a chart showing that the majority of attacks - some 85 percent - occurred in just 17 percent of the country.

But the International Council on Security and Development, a Kabul-based think tank, released a report in December that said the Taliban have a permanent presence in 72 percent of the country, and “are now the de facto governing power in a number of towns and villages, to Afghanistan’s western and north-western provinces, as well as provinces north of Kabul.’’

Craddock, however, said that significant progress had already been made in recent months, and that two elements were crucial to ultimate success: aggressively targeting drug traffickers, who help fund the insurgency, and improving cooperation between Pakistani and Afghan authorities to combat militants who move at will across the border.

Craddock, who recently won the right to use some NATO troops to go after drug traffickers, said NATO forces have conducted 43 attacks of drug facilitators, and found weapons and equipment linked to the insurgency in 80 percent of those cases.

“We have to document this to show this nexus exists,’’ Craddock said, adding that his troops had found weapons, manuals about how to build improved explosive devices, and explosives for suicide belts.

But Craddock faced a recent setback when Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s special envoy to the region, opted to put greater priority on pressuring Arab states that are funding the Taliban, rather than targeting narcotic traffickers.

Craddock made his most positive remarks about recent progress in getting Afghanistan and Pakistan to cooperate militarily - the goal of two high-profile meetings in Washington.

“I have been told that the coordination and cooperation on the border is better than it has ever been,’’ Craddock said. “Is it where we want it to be? No. But it is moving in the right direction.’’

He pointed to a new joint center to coordinate information-sharing that has been built at the Khyber pass, and with two more planned for the Afghan side of the border, and three planned for the Pakistani side.

He suggested that biometric capabilities - such as eye scans or finger prints scans - might one day be used to track people at official crossing points.

Another Western official working under Craddock presented a similarly upbeat view.

“A year ago, the Pakistani military was firing at us,’’ he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted in the press. “Today, they are picking up the phone and saying ‘we see insurgents coming towards you.’ ’’

But Afghan border commander Brigadier General Mohammad Zaman Mamozai, who oversees 2,700 guards trying to secure a roughly 300-mile border with Pakistan, said he has seen no improvement -“not even a single percentage.’’

“The Pakistanis provide weapons and protection for insurgents, and then they call us and say, ‘be ready,’ ’’ he said. “Why don’t they stop them? This is a joint fight.’’

Still, Mamozai presented his own view of progress. He said his force, which did not exist seven years ago, now has 73 police checkpoints that process 40,000 to 70,000 people a day, only 2 percent of whom carry passports.

In the past three months, his border guards have arrested 47 people, and confiscated more than 1,000 kilograms of explosive devices, pistols, and suicide vests - plus 50 poisoned bananas destined for an Afghan army base, he said.

In the past four months, four of his guards have died. But they killed three Taliban and captured one alive, he said.

“Every night, our checkpoints and bases are attacked from the Pakistani side,’’ he said, alleging that the Pakistanis at times evacuated their posts - about 50 meters from the Afghan posts.

But NATO, US, and even some Afghan officials say they are encouraged by Pakistan’s decision to take on militants in the notorious Swat Valley, and in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan, saying that it could mark a significant policy shift in Pakistan, where officials have largely turned a blind eye to militants.

Craddock, too, said he felt encouraged by an increasing recognition among countries in the NATO alliance of the need to do what it takes to win in Afghanistan.

“I’m leaving with a feeling that many of the pieces are in place that will provide the solutions,’’ Craddock said. “Over the last 2 1/2 years, we have worked fervently to pull together capabilities . . . There is a recognition internationally that we have to pile on.’’