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Obama's Afghanistan strategy may be too little, too late

The US president's decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops is unlikely to reverse the increasingly disillusioned population gravitating towards the Taliban.

KABUL // Reading through the speech the US president, Barack Obama, gave to announce his new Afghanistan strategy, one line immediately sticks out above all else: "I see first hand the terrible wages of war." From here in Kabul that statement appears disingenuous at best. From the perspective of people in the south and east of this country, it sounds insulting and absurd. For more than eight years now Afghans on the front line have found themselves caught up in a bloody conflict. House raids, air strikes and checkpoint shootings have killed and displaced thousands. Some talk of whole villages being destroyed and others compare US soldiers unfavourably with the Soviets who came before them. The response has been a natural gravitation towards the Taliban and what many Pashtuns regard as legitimate armed resistance.

How Mr Obama's new strategy affects these people will ultimately determine whether it is a success or failure. They, more than anyone else, are the ones who need to be convinced that corrupt members of their government will be "held accountable" and that the United States "has no interest in occupying" their land or targeting Islam. The deployment of 30,000 extra troops makes this less likely than ever. It could, in fact, make the situation much worse.

When all the reinforcements arrive, the United States alone will have a military presence of about 100,000 in Afghanistan. Added to that are tens of thousands of soldiers from Nato allies and unknown numbers of private, often heavily armed, contractors who act with virtual impunity. Troop numbers have been rising for a while now and with each surge security has deteriorated. The war has simply spread to different areas and found more victims. Since Mr Obama came to office the trend has continued at an even faster pace. There were, as he mentioned in his speech, "just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan" when he started.

In the ensuing months, civilian casualties have hit record levels and the Taliban have opened up new fronts in northern Afghansitan, where disillusionment among the Tajik population has prevailed since the controversial presidential election last summer. Cities including Kabul and Kandahar have been hit by sophisticated and deadly insurgent attacks. Fighting against an enemy that has mastered the art of guerrilla warfare, US and Nato troops have suffered. From the barren landscape of Helmand to the mountains of Nuristan, they have been picked off by snipers, roadside bombs and ambushes.

Insurgents already control large swathes of the countryside and the latest plan seems willing to concede that ground in favour of trying to protect major population centres and arming local militias. This country's heart and soul, however, is rural and tribal. The rebels know that and in the south and east they are running the show. The battle is being fought on their terms. To accompany the military effort, Mr Obama said a "more effective civilian strategy" would be pursued. That is what Afghans need most, but they have heard promises before and it may be too late to win their trust.

Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, is in an almost impossible situation. His political future depends on making deals with the international community, warlords and, potentially, the Taliban. He is now a scapegoat in waiting. Having been built up by the West, he is destined to be left hanging out on a limb. Mr Obama dismissed comparisons with Vietnam. Yet on the ground the similarities are real, albeit on a smaller scale. The expansion of the conflict into neighbouring Pakistan adds to that sense of impending disaster.

This year, US drone attacks across the border have increased and Pakistani Taliban insurgents have responded, taking the fight to Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore. Despite this, the United States continues to dodge the two greatest hurdles hanging over the frontier - Kashmir and the artificial border that divides Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan; both disputes need to be addressed if there is to be any chance of peace.

Under Mr Obama's strategy, a drawdown of US forces is due to begin in July 2011. But by that stage thousands more will have been killed. Ethnic violence could then be inevitable. These are the "terrible wages" of this particular war. csands@thenational.ae

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