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In Afghanistan, a struggle against a stronger Taliban

King is a Times staff writer

President-elect Barack Obama will inherit a war in Afghanistan that is certain to play a central role in his presidency, a conflict whose cost in blood and money is escalating even as many Afghans speak of a growing sense of peril in their daily lives.

Seven years on, Western military commanders are saying aloud what most were unwilling to acknowledge publicly even a few months ago: that they are struggling as never before to find a winning strategy against an insurgency that has amply proved its determination and durability.

Coalition troops, who now include more than 30,000 Americans, with more slated to arrive in coming months, are dying in greater numbers in 2008 than in any year since the start of the war in 2001. So are Afghan civilians, who are almost always the principal victims of suicide bombings and other attacks aimed at Western troops and Afghan government installations.

Security is fast deteriorating in many parts of the country, particularly in Kabul, the capital, where brazen killings and abductions are on the rise. Insurgents regularly manage to foil heavy security and carry out attacks, such as last week’s suicide bombing at the Ministry of Information and Culture in the center of the city.

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The Taliban and allied militant groups, left scattered and broken by the American-led invasion seven years ago that drove them from power, have roared back to life over the last two years, sowing violence on a scale not seen since the austerely fundamentalist Islamic movement shocked the world with the medieval cruelty of its rule over Afghanistan.

“When you hear about things like innocent people being beheaded for no reason, you just shiver. Your mind takes you back to Taliban times,” said Mahmood Parwani, a shopkeeper. “I don’t believe those times will come again, but for certain, we are not where we had hoped to be by now, as a country.”

Afghans followed the American presidential race with a great deal of interest. In a country with one of the world’s highest illiteracy rates, relatively few people interviewed could identify both candidates by name, usually referring to “the young one” and “the old one” -- or to Barack Obama, who is much better known here, and “that other one.” But many Afghans knew that both John McCain and Obama had called for an increased number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- a notion that is generally applauded, despite anger over the record number of accidental civilian deaths so far this year at the hands of coalition forces.

“The foreign troops need to be much more careful to make sure they don’t hurt and kill anyone who happens to be where there is fighting,” said Ahmat Asibullah, a 16-year-old butcher’s apprentice. “But for sure they need to be here; our own army and police are not ready yet to secure the country.”

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Even critics of the war acknowledge that Afghanistan has made life-changing social strides since the fall of the Taliban, particularly in the sphere of education. During their five-year rule, the militants forbade girls to go to school and women to work; now many do both.

“I’m very happy I could get an education, and very happy that I can have a job,” said Ferouzan Shalah, a 20-year-old secretary who lives in Kabul. “But overall, things are feeling so much more dangerous these days, and unfortunately that cancels out some of the good things that have happened.”

Progress in reconstruction and development across Afghanistan has been badly hampered by the increased hazards faced by humanitarian organizations, a grim pattern reinforced by Monday’s street abduction of a French aid worker and the gunning down last month of a woman who worked for a British charity.

“Without security, we will only go backward,” said 64-year-old Haji Abdul Karim, drinking tea on a sunny sidewalk and speaking over the clucking of chickens in nearby cages. “So if America cannot provide us with that, the rest is for nothing, all for no- thing.”

Western officials are only too aware that the presence of tens of thousands of coalition troops is not enough to make most Afghans feel safe -- nor does it serve to reassure them that their elected leaders are genuinely in charge. In large areas of the country, Taliban militants have set up what amounts to a shadow government, intimidating local tribal leaders into acquiescence and creating no-go areas for Afghan police and troops.

“The security situation is not where we would like to see it,” said Patrick Moon, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs, speaking to reporters in Kabul last month. But he insisted that the Taliban movement “does not pose a strategic threat to the government of Afghanistan. They do not offer a vision or a future for the people of Afghanistan.”

Most analysts expect that the next U.S. president will shift resources away from the Iraq war and toward the one in Afghanistan. In a sign of that changing emphasis, the new chief of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees both conflicts, made a visit to this battlefield his first order of business. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander, arrived in Afghanistan on Tuesday after a stop in Pakistan, where many Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders find sanctuary in wild tribal borderlands.

Field commanders, particularly those with experience in both theaters, caution that the arc of one conflict cannot serve as a guide to the other, and military strategists say greater troop strength alone cannot turn the tide in Afghanistan.

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“Solutions that worked in Iraq aren’t necessarily appropriate in Afghanistan,” said Army Col. Gregory Julian, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition. “There’s no comparison to Iraq in any way you can measure -- economic, social, or in terms of the tribal structure. And these people have already endured 30 years of war.”

Even while forging a U.S. strategy for the Afghan war, America’s new leader will preside over delicate dealings with North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners, some of whom are becoming restive over the prospect of a longer stay and a greater troop commitment.

Afghans are looking to their own presidential election to be held sometime in 2009; President Hamid Karzai will face an uphill battle to win another endorsement from his people.

“We are unhappy about a lot of things in the government, especially corruption,” said Ahmed Reza, a 26-year-old bakery worker. “So what the American president does is important, but what our own president does matters very much too.”

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laura.king@latimes.com


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