The first of a five-part series
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Pakistani refugees wait for food and supplies from the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kunar province, Afghanistan.
Pakistani refugees wait for food and supplies from the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kunar province, Afghanistan. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
The 1,600 mile frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan has always been a wild and often violent region, but never more so than today. There is warfare on both sides of the border. In the West, U.S., NATO and Afghan government forces are battling the Taliban and other insurgents allied with al-Qaida. And in the East, the Pakistani army is engaged in a sustained campaign against those same insurgents in one of the tribal territories along the frontier. This five-part series focuses on these conflicts which have major implications for whoever succeeds George W. Bush in the White House.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Afghan farmer Noor Aziz, left, stands next to a Pakistani refugee in Daridam village on the Afghan side of the border. Behind the mountains in the distance lies Pakistan.
Afghan farmer Noor Aziz, left, stands next to a Pakistani refugee in Daridam village on the Afghan side of the border. Behind the mountains in the distance lies Pakistan. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
It has been a record-breaking year in Afghanistan, and few of those records are good — there are more bombings, more battles and more deaths than at any time since 2001.
The Taliban and other insurgents are active in a growing number of Afghan provinces and are making it unsafe to travel just about anywhere by road. They have also launched spectacular attacks in and around the capital to show just how far they can reach.
The surge in violence is especially visible in the country's border provinces with Pakistan. The heavy military protection surrounding Gov. Fazlullah Waheedi's speech unveiling new road projects in Kunar province highlights the tense security situation in Afghanistan.
A U.S. Army helicopter flies overhead, drowning out the governor in his heavily fortified compound. Nearby, soldiers stand watch over the assembled guests, their guns at the ready. This border region is the scene of frequent battles in both Afghan and Pakistani territory.
A Message Of Development And Governance
One of the attendees is U.S. Army Maj. John Barfels, the executive officer of the American provincial reconstruction team that does most of the local development.
"Well, I guess it does remind you that there is still a war or a counterinsurgency fight going on," Barfels says. "We haven't gotten the message out to everybody yet."
The message he refers to is development and governance. Western and Afghan officials say those two factors are what ultimately will bring stability — not only to Kunar, but to all of Afghanistan.
Yet most say development and governance is something most Afghans still don't get enough of. A prime example is Kunar, a volatile border province where most civilian aid groups refuse to work. It has been up to the U.S. military team to bring development, and Barfels proudly points to $82 million in projects that are or will soon be under way.
He says the 100 projects will bring jobs to Kunar and give its unemployed young men an alternative to joining insurgent groups.
Violence, Not Opportunity
A half-hour drive south of Barfels' office, local council leader Mohammad Miran reveals a different side of Kunar.
Miran, a tribal elder with a thick white beard, says it is not opportunity, but violence that is growing here.
He says the Taliban hold sway over remote districts in Kunar like Sarkani, where militants bombed a mosque and a girls' school in recent weeks.
Miran says last Tuesday, Taliban fighters who came from Pakistan launched another attack with rocket launchers and guns, this time on his home. He says he made repeated phone calls to Afghan authorities for help, but for hours, no one came.
His 35-year-old son, who just returned from the hospital, pulls up his tunic to reveal a large bloody bandage on his back, the result of insurgent bombardment.
A Lack Of Trust
"People are under so much pressure from the Taliban that they are forced to aid the enemy," says Capt. Khalid Jan, commander of the Afghan Army brigade in the district. "They don't trust that the Americans or Afghan government will protect them and take care of them."
Such lack of trust is all too common. Across Afghanistan, many people no longer believe that their government and its Western partners can make the country safe.
They are demoralized by widespread corruption, the lack of law and order and mounting civilian casualties at the hands of U.S. and NATO forces. Adding to their fears are increasingly brazen attacks by militants.
A growing number of foreign officials and aid workers are also fed up, and aid groups curtailed their travel after the Taliban killed three female aid workers traveling by road just outside Kabul.
"It is clear the perception of deteriorating security has gained hold in most people's understanding of the country," says Christopher Dell, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. "I think part of that reflects tiredness. I mean, it is seven years of war now. Even if it were better, they'd be tired of this going on. It's a very draining experience."
Dell says the increased violence is in large part due to Western forces escalating their campaigns against insurgent strongholds. He points out that the number of bombings in the capital is actually down this year, despite several well-publicized attacks.
"I think when people look back — I can throw this hypothesis out there because it will be years until you can call me on it — but I think when you look back, people will recognize that the summer of 2008 represented the turning point," Dell says.
'Disillusionment And Resentment'
But few in Afghanistan believe that things in the region only seem worse.
"You cannot ignore the internal factors — that there is a disillusionment and a resentment among the population that drives many to join with the Taliban," says Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. "Even though they mightn't agree with them ideologically, it's become a fairly diffuse protest movement, and that's how it's managed to spread geographically — by making short term linkages and alliances with all sorts of disgruntled communities and groups."
"The disillusionment is something that needs to be tackled — and quickly," says U.N. Special Envoy Kai Eide. He says adding Western troops here is not enough. Instead, Eide believes the international community should spend the next six months turning public opinion around by stepping up efforts to build a competent police force, strengthen government and eliminate graft.
He also says foreign aid must be increased to so-called "swing" provinces around Kabul that are vulnerable to insurgent influence.
"That's why instead of talking about a military surge, I've been talking about a political surge," Eide says. "That is what's going to change the situation on the ground. That what is going to change the confidence of the people on what we are doing and in the Afghan government."
Afghan officials insist that regional players like Pakistan must be part of any solution.
"Everything that happens in Afghanistan in terms of security incidents is in one way or another linked to Pakistan — either masterminded there, the culprits train there or the attack was financed there, or the attackers go back to there for recuperation," says Amanrullah Saleh, the head of the National Security Directorate, Afghanistan's intelligence agency.
American and NATO officials share those concerns, although Pakistan says such assertions are exaggerated. Nevertheless, its new government has stepped up the pursuit of militants in its tribal regions.
Asif Durrani, the charge d'affaires at Pakistan's Embassy in Kabul says his government has killed more than 3,000 militants this year; more than 1,300 Pakistani troops also died.
Durrani says Afghanistan and its Western partners should look at their own conduct.
"There is a need for a real assessment of the situation after seven years, and we should be seriously thinking and going back to the drawing board," Durrani says.
Others say it is time for Afghanistan to think about negotiating an end to the conflict with the insurgent groups — a proposal that appears to be gaining acceptance both here and abroad.