The Battle For Afghan Hearts And Minds

Across Afghanistan, U.S. and NATO troops are working to improve the lives of the Afghan people. Projects — including agricultural outreach, a new railroad and more — are classic elements of a counterinsurgency military strategy. The idea is that winning the hearts of the people will turn them against the enemy. Michele Norris talks to NPR's Rachel Martin, who says some Afghans are at best indifferent to the good works of the American troops.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And Im Michele Norris.

And now we're going to look at a critical part of America's war strategy in Afghanistan. U.S. and NATO troops are working to improve the lives of Afghan civilians, helping them with everything from schools to agriculture. Thats a cornerstone of the military's counter-insurgency strategy: winning the war depends on winning the support of the people.

NPR's Rachel Martin is in Afghanistan. She's been traveling throughout the country to see some of these projects. Whats harder to see is whether Afghans are being won over by the good works.

Rachel joins me now from the NATO base outside Mazar-i-Sharif, in the northern part of the country. Rachel, you're up north now, but earlier you were in the southern part of Afghanistan, where you saw some of these projects that the military is working on. Tell me a little bit about what you saw.

RACHEL MARTIN: Well, Michele, much of what we saw really was positive. We saw a lot of markets and bazaars full of fresh fruits and vegetables. We also saw a brand new courthouse that has been built in the provincial capital of Helmand Province. It has yet to open, but there is this fancy new building there that U.S. forces are hoping gives the impression of progress. And we also saw an experimental farm in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.

And it's worth pointing out though that I am traveling on a NATO press tour, so we are seeing what they want us to see. And they are trying very hard to paint a positive picture.

Just yesterday, I spoke with Major General Richard Mills. He's the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Helmand. Let's take a listen to what he had to say.

Major General RICHARD MILLS (Marine Commander, Afghanistan): We have reached a turning point, a tipping point in which the majority of the people of this province will actively support the government of Afghanistan.

NORRIS: So he's confident, but did you get the sense that there is that support among the people?

MARTIN: Well, when I was in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, I spoke with a farmer named Jinad Kul(ph) and he's been very pleased with the help that he's been able to get with his vegetables farm; learning new techniques from NATO forces and U.S. forces who are trying to empower local farmers, how to make the most of their crops.

But when I asked him about security, he told me that there is still a very significant Taliban presence. They still intimidate and attack the local population but he blamed it on U.S. coalition forces. He said that in his mind the only reason the Taliban are making trouble is because the Americans are fighting them. If the U.S. leaves, he says, the Taliban would stop their aggression.

And then another, younger farmer chimed in and said if U.S. forces stay or go doesnt affect the lives of the people. At this point it really doesnt matter.

Now thats a problem, because any kind of ambivalence like that is the death knell of a counter-insurgency campaign. U.S. and NATO forces need these people to care and to care enough to stand up to the Taliban, and support the very fragile Afghan government and the security forces.

And, Michele, this is a disconnect that I've seen in other parts of the country, as well. U.S. forces saying that the tide is beginning to turn, while many Afghans feeling very despondent as ever, after nine years of war.

NORRIS: Rachel, now that you're up north of the country near Mazar-i-Sharif, is there a different situation there, different landscape?

MARTIN: Well, this is usually the biggest area of stability in Afghanistan. For a long time this has been a very secure place. But there have been some setbacks recently, more Taliban activity. And that has been chronicled in a new U.N. report. It was released today, tracking the number civilian causalities and deaths. And that number overall for the whole country is up by 31 percent this year.

But, you know, it's important to note that this is not because of actions on behalf of the U.S. or NATO forces. The uptick in large part is blamed on an increase in Taliban activity. Especially here in the north, there has been an increase in Taliban assassinations and civilian attacks.

This has been something that U.S. and NATO forces have made a priority for the past year, obviously something that they continue to pay a great deal of attention to.

NORRIS: Rachel, thank you very much.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Rachel Martin, speaking to us from Afghanistan.

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