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Feb 23, 2010

Afghan government-in-a-box is tough sell

WASHINGTON, Feb 23 (Reuters) – U.S. General Stanley McChrystal boasts of a "government-in-a-box" ready to roll into the southern Afghan town of Marjah once military operations are over but many experts question whether it will work.

The Afghan government’s past inability to deliver services and provide basic security in areas where the Taliban has been pushed out is seen as a key threat to the Obama administration’s new strategy being tested in Marjah.

"I have to give them credit for trying, but I am not holding my breath," said Afghanistan analyst Christine Fair of the U.S. commander’s promise of a solid plan to win over local populations through improved local governance.

"If it can be rolled out (the government-in-a-box) then it can be rolled over too,’ added Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University.

Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel agreed the biggest question hanging over Obama’s strategy was whether the Afghan government was capable of doing a good job, adding that McChrystal’s government-in-a-box term was little more than a catchy phrase.

"But I think the fact that we have the slogan underscores that General McChrystal and his team understand that it is not just about sweeping an area, it is all about what happens the day after," said Riedel, who oversaw a review of Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy for the Obama administration a year ago.

Even if the plan worked, Riedel said expectations should not be for a U.S.-style of government in Marjah or elsewhere.

"This is not going to look like Massachusetts in the Helmand River Valley. It will look like Afghanistan in the Helmand River valley," he said.

Mindful of previous mistakes, U.S. officials say there has been a much bigger focus this time on offering practical help to the Afghan government as it plans to take over in areas cleared of fighters.


The new district governor of Marjah — who had been in exile in Germany — is waiting at a military base nearby, getting training for his new role and helping assemble what he will need from office space to stationery as well as recruiting staff.

"The idea is that as soon as conditions allow they can go in," said State Department advisor in southern Afghanistan, Bay Fang, in a telephone interview.

But Georgetown University’s Fair criticized the decision to appoint someone to govern Marjah who had until now been in exile in Germany.

"How can they bring this guy back from Germany and expect him to be effective?," she asked.

Fang said it was still too early to judge whether the new approach would work and even with advance planning, conditions were often different than expected on the ground.

What might look like a good building to host a health clinic, for example, could ultimately prove to be an empty shell, she said. "But we have built flexibility into our planning."

A problem in the past has been attracting staff for poorly paid government jobs and there has been a focus on hiking civil servants’ salaries from about $80 a month to $300, she said.


The hope is that the model in Marjah will be extended to other regions but Afghanistan expert Ashley Tellis said this might be difficult because of a huge shortage of local expertise elsewhere, while the best and brightest went to Marjah to test out the Obama administration’s new model.

Also unclear, he said, was how much emphasis would be placed on law and order issues which have been sorely absent in the past.

"It is not enough to clear (an area of the Taliban), you need to keep the area sanitized and to protect the population and provide law and order," said Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based thinktank.

In the meantime, it will be a challenge managing Afghan expectations which have been raised by all the publicity surrounding plans for the Marjah offensive and promises that things will be different this time.

"If we end up in a situation where projects are not completed, or shoddily, then this becomes a problem," said Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The United States needs to reassure Afghans that it will not leave before there is stability — a fear deepened by Obama’s announcement that U.S. forces plan to withdraw gradually from mid-2011.

Just as the United States is trying to build up Afghan capacity, so too is it boosting its own numbers of civilians, hoping to have nearly 1,000 in place soon.

Feb 22, 2010

Civilian deaths complicate Afghan mission

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The latest civilian deaths in Afghanistan may threaten the new U.S. strategy, boost Taliban recruitment and complicate efforts to get public support for the war from Afghans, Europeans and Americans.

The deaths also spotlight the delicate balance of getting the job done on the battlefield in the eight-year-old war while not isolating local populations whose support is ultimately needed to win against the Taliban.

Feb 16, 2010

Taliban chief’s capture seen as start, more needed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The capture of the Taliban’s top military commander in Pakistan followed months of behind-the-scenes prodding by U.S. officials who saw inaction by Islamabad as a major threat to their Afghan war strategy.

But officials and analysts said it was too soon to tell whether Pakistan’s cooperation against Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — captured earlier this month in a joint raid in Karachi by Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies — would be extended to other top militants on the U.S. hit list.

Feb 4, 2010

Pakistan deaths underscore sensitive U.S. mission

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The bombing that killed three U.S. Special Operations troops in Pakistan on Wednesday has exposed one of the U.S. military’s most sensitive missions — training an elite paramilitary force in counterinsurgency.

The Pentagon does not generally talk publicly about the presence of U.S. troops in Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment is high and conspiracy theories abound over what the U.S. military is doing there and whether it infringes on the country’s sovereignty.

Feb 3, 2010

Afghans want to be farmers, not fighters, says U.S.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Afghans would rather be farmers than fighters, the U.S. agriculture secretary said on Wednesday, highlighting a U.S. focus on farming jobs to lure people from the battlefield and curtail the opium trade.

Separate from the Afghan-led re-integration plan announced by President Hamid Karzai at a conference in London last week, Washington sees its agriculture program as a way of impeding the Taliban, said the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.

Jan 24, 2010

Pakistan’s Gilani may be best hope for stability

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Respected by both Pakistan’s powerful military and Washington, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani may be the best chance of bringing political stability to crucial U.S. ally Pakistan.

A Supreme Court ruling last month throwing out an amnesty for unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari, several top aides and thousands of activists and government figures, triggered a political storm and expectation that Zardari was on his way out.

Jan 24, 2010

Pakistan says reaches out to Afghan Taliban

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. ally Pakistan is reaching out to “all levels” of the Afghan Taliban in a bid to encourage reconciliation in its war-torn neighbor, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday.

President Barack Obama has said a political solution was needed to stabilize Afghanistan and has emphasized that success would not be possible without the support of Pakistan.

Jan 22, 2010

More about the sugar than politics in Lahore

LAHORE, Pakistan, Jan 22 (Reuters) – A porter at Lahore’s railway station for three decades, Iftikhar Shah worries about suicide bombers and political instability but his biggest concern is the price of sugar.

Like many of Pakistan’s poor, he struggles to make ends meet as the price of basic staples rockets and power cuts cripple many industries, further worrying investors already scared away by the Taliban insurgency.

"Thieves are in government," said Shah, 50, standing outside the imposing British colonial-style station in Lahore, capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s most politically important province and home to many of the military and political elite.

The price of sugar, he said, had doubled since President Asif Ali Zardari came to power 16 months ago, and other kitchen staples such as cooking oil and flour were prohibitive.

Sugar prices have soared in recent weeks as millers say farmers are charging higher prices for sugarcane after a low 2009/10 crop estimated at 3 million tonnes of refined sugar against demand of 4.3 million.

The government has in the past blamed hoarders for rising sugar prices.

Speculation has recently swirled over President Zardari’s future amid corruption allegations and pressure from the powerful military, but there is also popular anger over his handling of the economy.

He was in Lahore last week and posters are still pasted across the city welcoming him. Shah seemed disinterested in the visit, saying the government had done nothing for him.


A few miles away from the railway station, poorly paid security guards gathered firewood in a dusty ditch, preparing for a cold night in a tent.

"We don’t care about Zardari. We have no shelter, it is very difficult to survive. We pray to God to do something for us," said Hamid Latif.

The military has been cracking down hard on the al Qaeda-linked Taliban, wiping out bases in their South Waziristan stronghold. But long-term stability also depends on the state’s ability to improve living standards and create jobs to keep impressionable young men from embracing extremism.

"This is a nuclear power country which is so badly managed that we risk a popular swing to the extremists," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences.

"His team has no handle on the structural issues of the economy," he said, referring to Zardari.


The International Monetary Fund bailed out Pakistan in November 2008 to avert a balance of payments crisis and in July last year increased the loan to $11.3 billion from an initial $7.6 billion.

The United States also plans to pump in $7.5 billion in non-military aid over the next five years, with a focus on energy, water and infrastructure projects, all areas analysts say must be improved for long-term stability.

But in a country where anti-American feeling runs high, critics saw certain conditions attached to the aid as a violation of sovereignty and the military expressed rare public opposition to the package the government championed. [ID:nSGE60J0FU]

How the aid is handled is crucial for both sides, with the U.S. Congress demanding accountability for taxpayer funds amid concerns money will be funneled directly to the government, accused of widespread corruption.

"Don’t give any money to the government, it is a bottomless pit," said a former foreign secretary, Shamshad Ahmed Khan, who is frustrated by the lack of attention to civilian needs.

"Support the people, not the corrupt rulers. They will loot and run," he said.

While Zardari is under fire from many sides, few Pakistanis want the military to be in full control as it has been for more than half of Pakistan’s 63-year history. No civilian government in Pakistan has ever served out its term.

"We want a democracy in Pakistan and the army should remain in their barracks," said Imran Butt, a student who said he planned soon to leave for Germany and better opportunities.

But the population is looking to the military to crush the Taliban.

That could take time. After the army launched an offensive in October, the Taliban hit back with bombings that killed hundreds of people.

The United States also wants Pakistan’s army to eliminate Afghan Taliban militants who cross over into Afghanistan to attack U.S. and NATO troops. [ID:nSGE60L0E5]

That pressure has deepened anti-American sentiment and generated endless rumours and conspiracy theories, from the lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border to Lahore, where the poor transport families on rickety motorcycles and the wealthy flock to designer label stores.

"We have only one growth industry in Pakistan and that is conspiracy theories," said Rashed Rahman, editor of the liberal Daily Times newspaper. (Editing by Robert Birsel and Jerry Norton) (For more Reuters coverage of Pakistan, see: here)

Jan 17, 2010

CIA bomber video shows militant links: Holbrooke

KABUL (Reuters) – A video of a Pakistani Taliban leader with the bomber who killed CIA agents in Afghanistan could indicate cross-border links between Afghan, Pakistani and al Qaeda militants, the U.S. regional envoy said on Sunday.

Special Representative Richard Holbrooke told Reuters in an interview in Kabul that “shadowy but unmistakable” links between groups exposed by the video helped explain why the United States and its allies were fighting in Afghanistan.

Jan 16, 2010

U.S. optimistic over new Taliban reintegration plan

KABUL (Reuters) – The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan said on Saturday a new Afghan plan to reintegrate thousands of Taliban fighters could not be worse than past efforts and Washington supported the program.

Afghanistan’s government is expected this month to announce details of the plan, which diplomats said would include job training and money to lure fighters from the hills.

    • About Sue

      "Sue Pleming covers foreign policy, with a focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. She joined Reuters in London in 1990 and was based in Brussels before moving to Washington, where her most recent post was covering the State Department. She started her journalism career in southern Africa and has also done reporting stints in Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi."
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