Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Nato, more afghan resentment

NATO troops earn resentment of frustrated Afghans

WASHINGTON, March 27 (Reuters) -
Foreign troops deployed in Afghanistan are beginning to draw the resentment of Afghans fed up with growing civilian casualties and the lack of material progress in their lives, experts say.

Resentment has posed special problems in the south, where villagers who have suffered from Western military firepower have responded to the Taliban's call to arms against foreign troops and the government of President Hamid Karzai, the experts said.

"There is growing resentment because of the kinds of military operations that have been carried out, not because of the international troop presence," Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for International Crisis Group think tank, said this week in an interview.

Ahmed, who is based in Pakistan and travels frequently to Afghanistan, cited bombing raids based on faulty intelligence that have killed innocent villagers and shootings of innocent civilians by panicky troops as especially damaging to Afghan support for Western forces.

"What has also led to greater resentment is the fact that Kabul is not delivering," she added, referring to the Afghan government's difficulty in providing services to the people.

The United States provides about 27,000 of the 45,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, some in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the rest under a separate U.S.-led coalition.

Pentagon and NATO officials cited opinion polls, however, that show a large majority of Afghans favoring foreign troops and only a small fraction of support for the Taliban.

"There is no doubt that the population supports the presence of international troops," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.

Added Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Vician: "Support for the Taliban has not increased. I think the majority see the Taliban for what they are or what they bring to Afghanistan, which is brutality."


But polling data has also shown Afghan support for international troops slipping in 2006 as the populace has grown less optimistic about the country's direction.

Violence in Afghanistan last year was the worst since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001. About one-quarter of the 4,000 people killed in 2006 were civilians.

NATO, U.S. commanders and Afghan leaders have said the Taliban insurgency cannot be defeated unless reconstruction brings the new jobs and economic progress that were widely anticipated after the former Taliban rulers were ousted.

But David Edwards, a U.S. anthropologist regarded as an expert on the origins of the Taliban, said reconstruction has been overshadowed by rampant corruption, meager international donations and poverty in a country where the unemployment rate is about 40 percent.

"It's important to understand that Americans have come to be seen as an occupying power," Edwards, an author who has traveled widely in Afghanistan, said at a Monday forum sponsored by the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.

"It's a way in which the Taliban has come to gain supporters," added Edwards, who said there is evidence that the Taliban pays its members better than Afghanistan's national army pays its soldiers.

The warnings about eroding support came as NATO commanders conducted a spring offensive code-named Operation Achilles against Taliban strongholds in a bid to pre-empt an expected warmer weather seasonal campaign by Islamist militants.

With fighting expected to be heavy again in 2007, Afghans have complained more loudly about the effects of combat as NATO has poured more troops into the effort to thwart the Taliban.

Scores of civilians have died during NATO operations this year. About 60 people, including women and children, were killed by NATO planes during fighting in the southern province of Kandahar in January during an important Muslim holiday.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington, Mark John in Brussels and Terry Friel in Kabul)