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A year later, battle-weary Afghans seeking end to war on terror

Saturday, October 5, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Akhter Mohammed slipped his holstered pistol on his shoulder and recalled a brutal battle against the Taliban, fighting side by side with U.S. Special Forces.

They were brave, heroic, he said. But now he wants America to leave the battlefield behind and begin rebuilding his homeland.

"We don't need them to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida anymore. We can do that," Mohammed said, expressing a sentiment voiced by many Afghans. "We need them to help build our country."

One year after the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom, the war that toppled the Taliban, American troops soldier on in Afghanistan, hunting down holdouts in a campaign that these days produces scant results.

The new government remains vulnerable and the economy stagnant, awaiting the jump-start of reconstruction aid. And the Kabul leadership worries Washington's shift of focus to Iraq could leave it adrift.

Time for new direction

In conservative and tribal Uruzgan province, where Hamid Karzai ignited the anti-Taliban revolt that quickly took him to the Afghan presidency, Akhter Mohammed feels it's time for new directions.

Mohammed is a military man himself, head of security at the provincial governor's residence. In an interview in Uruzgan, he remembered a particularly vicious battle at Shah Wali Kot, where Afghans and Americans fought and died together.

Guns roared. Men fought hand-to-hand. Overhead, American AC-130 aircraft blasted the ground with their heavy guns, and B-52s streaked through the skies. There was dust everywhere. The front line blurred.

A bomb from a B-52 slammed into Mohammed's position, and 25 of his men were killed, along with three American soldiers. Mohammed was slightly hurt by shrapnel, but he doesn't blame his American comrades.

"They helped us finish the Taliban," he said.

Uncounted thousands of Taliban and civilians, and a remarkably low number -- 16 -- of Americans died in the war that began last Oct. 7 and wound down after Taliban resistance collapsed in December.

The U.S. command, however, doesn't believe that the Taliban, and their al-Qaida terrorist allies, were truly finished, and has kept up the hunt, month by month, in the Afghan highlands, with 7,000 to 8,000 American soldiers who remain even after some allied forces, notably the British and Canadians, have pulled out.

The Americans will be here for a "long, long time," theater commander Gen. Tommy Franks said in August. But, one year on, their soldier's work -- and its misdirected bombings, mistaken detentions, everyday intrusions -- is a growing irritant for ordinary Afghans.

When they entered Afghanistan, the Americans stepped into a world ruled by tribal customs, feuds and cultural taboos. They were confounded.

"They don't understand our traditions," said Hassan, deputy head of intelligence in Asadabad, the capital of the eastern province of Kunar.

"We know that if they leave there will be war, but we are afraid if they continue to stay -- because people are so angry and so afraid of what they are doing, searching people's homes, searching women," said Hassan, who like many Afghans uses only one name.

Many Afghans, like Mohammed, see less a need for continued defense against a resurgent Taliban than a need for an economic offensive, led by the Americans, to rebuild their country.

After the Taliban fell, Afghans had soaring economic expectations for their country, where people typically earn barely $2 a month. More than 1.6 million refugees, mostly from Pakistan, flooded back to their homeland.

Today, however, some have begun to return to Pakistan and Iran because they have no homes or jobs, and because Afghanistan's roads, bridges and other infrastructure remain unrepaired after the destruction of 23 years of war.

The United Nations' envoy for Afghanistan said things will only worsen in the coming months. "Winter is going to be very, very difficult," Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi said last month at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Warlords still in place

Karzai's authority extends little beyond Kabul.

Provincial warlords who swept into power when the Taliban fled are still in place a year later, and are even stronger today in the judgment of the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank. Afghanistan's ethnic politics contributes to the disunity.

Formation of a multiethnic Afghan army ---- foundation for a secure Afghanistan -- has run into resistance from the Defense Ministry, which is dominated by members of the Tajik minority that led the successful ground war against the largely Pashtun Taliban.

The first several hundred Afghan soldiers trained by international officers have not been paid, armed or given responsibilities by the Defense Ministry, which relies instead on Tajik militiamen.

The government's bid to extend its authority in another way, by having the 4,500-plus soldiers of an international peacekeeping force expanded beyond Kabul, was blocked for months by U.S. opposition. Washington apparently has now eased its stand, but outside governments are not moving quickly to deploy more troops to Kandahar, Herat and elsewhere.


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