Amid Real Progress, an Afghan Failure to Take Responsibility

Ann Marlowe is an independent journalist who was embedded in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army in November and December.

KABUL, Afghanistan–Air Force Lt. Col. Gordon Phillips of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is usually a very patient man. As the commander of Nangarhar Province’s Provincial Reconstruction Team or PRT, he has to be.

Like other Provincial Reconstruction Team commanders in Afghanistan, he spends most of his time in an endless series of meetings with provincial officials and elders, trying to gain the cooperation of the Afghan people in providing security, the rule of law, and economic development.

Largely, Phillips’ patience and that of his colleagues in the Nangarhar maneuver command is paying off. More IEDs are being called in by Afghan civilians to the Afghan National Police or Coalition forces. Ordinary Afghans are beginning to look to the law rather than tribal custom to address grievances.

But after a recent attack in his area of command, he had enough.

A suicide bomber detonated his vest while four American soldiers were traveling to meet with elders in Nangarhar Province, to discuss security.

The soldiers escaped the Humvee with only minor injuries before the ammunition inside cooked and blew it apart. A 15-year old Afghan boy, recently married, was not so lucky; he was fatally wounded.

Phillips called a meeting, or shura to talk about the Charparhar attack, and staged it right in front of the destroyed Humvee so that the Afghan elders attending had to look at burned out hulk.

“They expected to say “sorry” and depart. I kept them for an hour to discuss their responsibility as leaders in the community in deterring these attack and getting the population involved,” he said.

Phillips is involved in building a road in Charparhar but that day he threatened to suspect the project until the elders get a grip on their community.

“We didn’t make any friends that day, but at least they know we were serious!”

One of the most challenging tasks of American PRT commanders is encouraging Afghan civilians take responsibility for the security of their own neighborhoods.

Every attack lowers the willingness of Afghan government and Non Government Organizations to work in the area, while village elders and provincial council members complain to the PRT commander that aid is slow to arrive.

And too often, U.S. commanders say, the hard work of American soldiers is stymied because civilians look the other way when an IED is planted or an attack planned.

But in the last year, as citizens have more positive interactions with their government, the more they separate from the insurgents.

Coalition forces in Khost are trying to strengthen the Afghan National Police and encourage civilians to cooperate with them.

Efforts such as the Small Rewards Program has been a big success in Khost and Ghazni. Under this arrangement, Afghans who bring weapons or unexploded ordinance to their district center or police receive cash payments.

And the Afghan National Army, or ANA, being trained by coalition forces, is beginning to stand up.

Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of American ISAF forces for RC-East working to train the ANA said he’s seen advancement in the rapidly-improving force.

“The ANA has not lost a contact with the Taliban since the beginning of April”, says Schweitzer.

Just as important are the more than 14,000 reconstruction works in Afghanistan.

In 2002 there were only seven paved roads in the six eastern provinces under Schweitzer’s command. Now there are more than 4,000.

The standard of living for most Afghans has improved, even out in the hinterlands. In RC-East, a 2006 survey showed that 88% of Afghans now have radios, 50% mobile phones, 21% televisions. Afghanistan has enjoyed an average 9.75% growth rate in GDP for the last four years and is expected to hit 13% next year, according the World Bank.

All this has begun to win over the locals. When Schweitzer assumed command of ISAF forces in RC-East in early 2007, only 20 of the 85 districts within these six provinces were “green” – the military term for districts that have a low level of insurgent violence and good cooperation with the provincial government.

Now, 58 districts are classified as green, with a several more districts expected to go the same way in the next few months.

But on a recent trip to Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed concern over increasing levels of violence in the country.

The past year has been the deadliest for Afghan civilians, who are increasingly the victims of IED attacks aimed at Afghan or Coalition troops. Sometimes, too, IEDs claim the innocent people.

In Ghazni Province, about 200 miles from Nangarhar, an IED killed Tom Stefani, the USAID Department of Agriculture representative, on October 4.

And two weeks ago, a school principal in Khost Province was shot to death, in an attack that happened, reports said, because “schools and teachers” are frequent Taliban targets.”

Major Tim Kohn, head of Civil Affairs for Khost said that many attacks that are reported in the media as “Taliban” violence are simple criminality reflective of Afghanistan’s weak police force and justice system.

“The other half of the story that is not reported is that he (the principal) was killed for his motorcycle,” said Kohn. “I doubt that the assailants even knew that he was a school principal.”

There is a long way to go before Afghanistan’s police and military will be able provide the stability the country needs. But the Afghan people are also key the country’s success. And after hundreds of years of despotic government, it may take a generation for Afghans to learn the consequences of not becoming more active citizens.

Meanwhile, Americans will continue to risk, and sometimes lose their lives, to help them on their way.

As LTC Jeffrey Milhorn, the manoever commander who works with Phillips put it, “A young man was robbed of his life because the local people had failed to dissuade insurgents from behaving this way.”

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