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Afghans Losing Patience

Afghanistan Patience

DEB RIECHMANN   11/21/10 12:21 PM ET   AP

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. and NATO forces will stay in Afghanistan for at least another four years, yet there are growing signs that the West has worn out its welcome.

With the war in its 10th year, foreigner fatigue is becoming more apparent among Afghans as the U.S. and its international partners try to shore up support among their own populations for continuing the fight. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders approved plans during a weekend summit in Lisbon, Portugal, for Afghans to move into the lead role in fighting the Taliban and its allies by the end of 2014.

The reasons for Afghan patience running out are numerous. Progress against insurgents is only mixed at best. Tactics like night raids on homes to capture militants fuel resentment in a society with a centuries-long tradition of resistance to foreign domination. In a sign of the ill-will, Afghans often blame coalition troops for killing civilians even though the Taliban and militants kill more.

Moreover, the Western footprint has grown. The buildup of 30,000 U.S. reinforcements this year made the foreign presence even more overt, but underscored Afghan feeling that all the troops and billions in aid haven't substantially improved their daily lives.

"I don't think NATO has done much good," said Siyal Khan Farahi, a 39-year-old contractor in Kandahar in the south, where the Taliban insurgency was born. "They are spending millions of dollars over here but I don't see many signs of prosperity or anything that can change the people's standard of life."

"America calls itself a superpower, but they can't control these insurgents so they should leave this place."

The concern among international representatives is that the sentiment will undermine NATO's attempts to win public loyalty away from the Taliban. Reflecting the mood, President Hamid Karzai has grown more vocal in criticizing the roughly 147,000 international troops on his country's soil.

Karzai's comments in turn make it difficult for Obama and other Western leaders to sell their war policies at home, if there's a perception even Afghans don't want troops there.

For Afghans, the current war comes on top of decades of conflict, including the fight against occupying Soviet forces in the 1980s and bloody factional war that followed until the mid-1990s. But broader exhaustion with war seems to be moving into a sense that Afghans are tiring of outsiders' involvement.

Bitterness has even bubbled up among factions that fought side-by-side with the West to topple the Taliban in 2001.

One recent day, a group of former fighters loyal to Ahmad Shah Massoud – the famed anti-Taliban commander killed by suicide bombers just two days before the Sept. 11 attacks – railed against U.S. involvement, saying they caused civilian deaths and had at times disrepected Afghan culture and the Muslim faith.

Standing at Massoud's marble tomb in the Panjshir Valley, they watched as American soldiers took off their combat boots and walked around taking snapshots of the tomb.

"They are the problem – the foreigners," one of the former fighters, Mohammad Mahfuz whispered as he pointed their way. "They came here for their own security and are making life difficult for the nation."

Anti-foreigner sentiment is easily inflamed.

In July, an angry crowd rioted in Kabul, shouting "Death to America!" after U.S. contract employees were involved in a traffic accident that killed four Afghans. The crowd hurled stones and set fire to two vehicles before Afghan police moved the contractors to safety.

Last week, Karzai said Afghans are skeptical because they are getting mixed messages about why international forces are here. He bluntly declared NATO must cut back the "intrusiveness" of its forces.

That runs counter to the U.S. war strategy of interacting with the public in areas cleared of insurgents, bolstering governance and rushing in development aid. The counterinsurgency strategy of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, instructs his troops to: "Earn people's trust. Talk to them. ... Listen. Consult and drink lots of tea."

American officials recognized the possibility of a popular backlash given the large cultural differences and Afghans' history of rejection of foreign domination. Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said recently in Islamabad that there were lengthy discussions about whether the U.S. surge in forces would create further animosity.

Mistrust between Afghans, their government and the international community grew significantly in the past year and a half, a July report from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs found.

The report pinned this on growing fatigue with an international presence that "has yielded insufficient results for the vast majority of the Afghan populace in comparison to the cost in lives and resources."

Suspicion of Western motives is deep in some areas. An informal October survey of 1,000 people in Kandahar and Helmand provinces – two battle areas where winning over the population is key – found that 40 percent believe international forces aim to destroy Islam or occupy Afghanistan.

Also, 92 percent were unaware of the Sept. 11 attacks and that they triggered the international move against the Taliban, according to the poll by the London-based International Council on Security and Development.

There is also resentment against Western aid workers, who live in heavily guarded upscale homes, shop in expensive Western-style supermarkets and drive large vehicles with tinted windows.

"Some are good and some are bad," said Abdul Saleem, who sells telephone cards on Kabul's streets. "They shouldn't try to bring their culture here. If they are drinking, they are not respecting Afghan law."

The most friction has come over civilian deaths and the NATO tactic of night searches.

The number of Afghan civilians killed or injured soared 31 percent in the first six months of the year, but they were largely caused by Taliban attacks, according to the United Nations.

Casualties from NATO and Afghan government forces dropped 30 percent compared with the first half of 2009, mainly because of curbs on the use of airpower and heavy weapons, the U.N. said.

Still, there is widespread perception among Afghans that NATO operations kill innocents. Afghan villagers routinely protest when civilians die. The coalition, meanwhile, has started sending out news releases about civilians killed by insurgents.

Night raids, which Karzai has pressed to stop, have been on the rise and now average more than 200 a month.

NATO has revised its rules of conduct on night raids. Afghan security forces use bullhorns to ask targeted individuals to give themselves up peacefully. The coalition says no shots are fired in more than 80 percent of the raids and civilian casualties occur in just over 1 percent of all special operations missions.

But in Kabul, Ahmad Wase Ahmadzai, who runs a grocery, said the raids are very disruptive since troops close off large areas while they're being conducted.

Ahmadzai has put blast film on the windows of his shop because he fears the frequently passing NATO vehicles will attract an insurgent attack.

"Whatever they do," he says of the foreign forces, "the Afghan people will never accept them being here forever."

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Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon and Ahmad Massieh Neshat in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.

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Filed by Adam J. Rose  |