Everybody’s taking their time in Afghanistan

Anti-war politicians in the US have failed to force the quick withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan as the House of Representatives rejected the move.

The majority who denounced the plan believe the removal of troops, especially with a new military strategy underway, would allow a quick return to power for the Taliban. This is because the task of building trust and cooperation with the local population and authorities is far from complete.

Afghan prisons are crammed with inmates allegedly linked to the Taliban. People spend months awaiting judgment and, if found guilty, could spend many more years there.

“The government has no evidence that I have a connection with the Taliban. I do not, but even if someone is a Talib, they won’t admit it because they’re afraid,” says 22-year-old Saed Karim, for whom one such prison was home for four months. Karim was charged with commanding a Taliban unit. He thinks that “maybe the government doesn’t mind it so much, and the local people think the Taliban is okay, but the police have to put them in prison to make the foreigners happy.”

But the foreigners do not feel essentially happy. Despite working with the local Afghan security structures, in the last six years the Taliban has grown in many parts of the country.

Operation Mostarak, which was launched last month, is far from defeating the Taliban, simply making it go underground to resurface elsewhere.

Sergeant Bertrand Fitzpatrick of the US Air Force spends his days co-ordinating missions with the Afghan army, border patrol and policemen. It is his job to watch every step his foot soldiers make and, if needed, to bring in the Air Force, which sometimes gets tricky.

“We have to make sure that they are also not amongst the enemy. Sometimes that is hard to do because the insurgents will wear the same kind of clothing and communication can be difficult at times,” Fitzpatrick said. “They have their own radio systems and they’ll talk to personnel we have embedded with them and they’ll relay that information to us.”

But sometimes that information can be wrong. Corruption within the Afghan police is rampant and many civilians still support the Taliban. They are more than happy to tip them off about what the foreigners are up to.

“The countryside, the people are not co-operating,” explained Daoud Sultanzoy from the Afghan national Assembly. “A police and an army can only be successful if the people of that nation are behind it, and if the people of that nation are not behind its own military and its own police, it’s very difficult to create an effective police or military.”

Brigadier General Ben Hodges, who heads up the foreign forces’ operations in southern Afghanistan, does not dispute this. But he says the only way to change the reality on the ground is to keep the Afghans involved and try to build a better army and police force.

“First of all we need to help train the Afghan security forces,” the general said. “The more troops that would come here, either as partners or as actual trainers, because what we really want to do is help increase the Afghan security force’s capabilities so that they can protect their own population.”

But sometimes that co-operation seems futile, especially when President Barack Obama announced he would begin withdrawing his troops by July 2011.

General Stanley McChrystal later said a withdrawal would not be feasible until 2013. But, says Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his security forces will need another five years on top of that to be up to scratch. As the deadlines keep shifting and the relationship between both sides remains strained, America, it seems, has all the watches but the Taliban has all the time.