U.S. Military Uses Local Projects To Win Over Afghans

Success in the Afghan war will depend on winning the support of the Afghan people. That is a central principle of the military's counterinsurgency strategy, and is one reason the U.S. and NATO are working on construction and agricultural projects throughout the country

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's a follow up to the old saying that war is politics by other means. In Afghanistan, Americans are testing the notion that foreign aid is war by other means. They're hoping that U.S. and NATO help will translate to a more stable country. The question is whether ordinary Afghans really feel the effects of all that Western money. NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN: Measuring progress in the war in Afghanistan is hard. There are some metrics how many insurgent leaders have been killed? How many provinces have functional local governments? Are the roads safe to travel on? In Helmand province, US military officials like to point to projects. A brand new mauve-colored courthouse in the capital city, a new riverside park with painted benches.

(Soundbite of shovels hitting dirt)

And an experimental garden, where locals learn modern farming techniques.

Gunnery Sergeant JASON SNEAD (U.S. military): Basically, everything from the road when we pulled in, all the way back to about 100 meters past the end of this dirt road here, is the demo farm.�

MARTIN: Gunnery Sergeant Jason Snead helps manage this project. With his rifle at his side, Snead watches while a handful of farmers till the hard soil under the hot sun. All of this is supposed to help get farmers to start growing legal crops like the okra, cauliflower, and tomatoes planted here and to stop growing poppy.�Controlling that crop is another metric for success.

Major General RICHARD MILLS (Commander, U.S. and NATO forces, Helmand): I think were making steady progress.

MARTIN: Major General Richard Mills commands U.S. and NATO forces in Helmand province.

Maj. Gen. MILLS: We have done a good job of stopping the poppy insurgent nexus and not allowing them to get their hands on the poppy and move it to where they could sell it and keep the market going.�

MARTIN: Helmand is Afghanistans bread basket the province with the greatest agricultural potential. But for decades, its been used to grow poppy. The poppy trade has fueled the Taliban insurgency here, but Mills says Helmand is at a turning point.�

Maj. Gen. MILLS: You can see more freedom of movement, see businesses start to flourish, see the education program come online. And probably, most importantly, were beginning to see a stand up of the Afghan people on their own two feet, supporting local police and local security efforts and rejecting the Taliban.

MARTIN: But rejecting the Taliban doesnt necessarily mean Afghans are supporting US forces or the fragile Afghan government.

(Soundbite of shovel hitting dirt)

Janad Kuhl is a farmer in Lashkar Gah the provincial capital of Helmand in fact one of the farmers learning from U.S. agriculture experts. I met him at the demonstration farm and asked him how he feels about the security situation in Helmand.�

Mr. JANAD KUHL (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: The Taliban are still here, he tells me. They still intimidate and attack people. But its the fault of the U.S. forces, he says. The Taliban makes trouble because Americans are fighting them. If the U.S. leaves, the Taliban will stop.�

Another young farmer jumps into the conversation.�

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: He says if the U.S. forces stay or go it doesnt matter. Either way it doesnt affect the lives of the people.�

That kind of ambivalence is the death knell of a counterinsurgency campaign. U.S. and NATO forces know it, which is why they talk all the time about partnering with Afghans, trying to convince them that the war is winnable, that they are better off today than they were almost a decade ago and that that progress is worth fighting to preserve.

U.S. commanders say, over the past year, theyve made major security gains. But Afghans point to nine years of war and thousands of civilian deaths.

The U.N. this week, released a new report that says civilian deaths and casualties as a result of the war in Afghanistan are up 31 percent this year. The report says insurgent groups are to blame for most of those incidents. But in a counterinsurgency, blame may be almost beside the point. While U.S. and NATO officials say perception how Afghans feel about the war and its impact on their lives is everything.�

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Balkh Province, Afghanistan.

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