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Speaking in Washington DC this week US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke about the need for NATO members to contribute more troops in Afghanistan. His remarks came amid fears that an upsurge in violence and corruption in Afghanistan is threatening the viability of an already weak central government. Inter Press Services journalist Anand Gopal based in Kabul, believes that what is needed are not more boots on the ground, but a change in policy. A shift towards reconciliation and reconstruction.

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Coalition forces on the wrong track in Afghanistan

ZAA NKWETA, TRNN: Speaking in Washington, DC, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke about the need for NATO members to contribute more troops in Afghanistan.

ROBERT GATES, US SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: In the case of Afghanistan, NATO’s operations are hamstrung by national caveats, where different countries impose different rules on where their forces can go and what they can do. A number of our allies and partners have stepped forward courageously, showing a willingness to take physical risks on the battlefield and political risks at home. But many have defense budgets that are so low and coalition governments that are so precarious that they cannot provide the quantity or type of force that is needed for this kind of fight.

NKWETA: The Real News spoke to Kabul-based journalist Anand Gopal.

ANAND GOPAL, INTER PRESS SERVICE: Well, first, the implication is that putting more troops into Afghanistan or convincing other NATO members who may not have enough troops to bring more troops into Afghanistan will somehow quell the violence or solve the problem. But it’s interesting to note, actually, that in the last 15 months there’s actually been an increase of at least 20,000 soldiers here in Afghanistan, but at the same time, violence has increased by over 50 percent. If we look at why the violence is actually increasing or how the insurgency is growing, it has to do with a lot of other things, not just the number of boots on the ground. For example, the economy in Afghanistan is suffering a lot. For every dollar the US spends in Afghanistan, only five cents goes to aid. And of that five cents, 40 percent is usually lost to either corruption or waste. So very little money actually gets to ordinary Afghans. And most Afghans don’t have jobs. The official unemployment rate is around 50 percent, and the unofficial unemployment in places, they say, is up to 80 percent. At the same time, the central government, the Afghan government, is viewed as being extremely weak and corrupt, so a lot of Afghans don’t look to the Afghan government as providing their solutions. So in this sort of situation, more and more Afghans turn toward the Taliban, especially in the south of the country, where the Taliban has traditionally been strong. And so in the last couple of years we’ve seen a real growth in the insurgency. This has very little to do with, actually, the number of soldiers; it has a lot to do with the kind of options that Afghans see they have in their lives. A lot of Afghans feel that they don’t have the prospect of social mobility and they don’t have a government that they can trust. And then the third reason that the insurgency’s grown is because there’s been a large number of civilian casualties. American forces and NATO forces have been severely criticized by Afghans for their bombing campaigns, which has often killed a lot of innocent civilians, and this really fuels support for the Taliban. The mood is quite sullen. Seven years ago there was an immense amount of hope here. Unlike Iraq, in Afghanistan, people here really did welcome the US with open arms because they’d just emerged from a pretty brutal Taliban government. So there was a lot of hope, a lot of optimism for the future, and slowly over the course of seven years that’s eroded. Today in Kabul, the security situation’s as bad as it’s ever been. You know, three directions going out of Kabul is now blocked by the Taliban—you can’t go east, west, or south without undergoing, taking immense risk. So so many people in Kabul, here, feel sort of hemmed in and really feel that the situation’s not very hopeful. If there was a real, concerted effort on the part of the international forces to help rebuild this country, help build schools, and help clean up government, make the government transparent and not corrupt, I think that would go a long way towards actually changing the situation around, but that would require a pretty drastic policy change. Even though the US and the international forces like to talk about their reconstruction efforts, but still most of the efforts have been military efforts. That’s what I’d like to see happen in terms of trying to turn the situation around. What the US is actually mulling right now is a different strategy, which is to set up tribal militias to counter the Taliban. The history of Afghanistan—it’s a country that’s been rife with warlordism and has had a civil war in the past and a lot of inter-tribal conflict. However, the US thinks that by arming tribes they can sort of win over some of these tribes that are now with the Taliban, win them over to their side. A lot of people here on the ground are, I think, largely concerned about this because Afghanistan has a history of warlordism and tribal militias and civil war, and a lot of people here think the last thing that we need here in Afghanistan is more guns and more people armed. What we need is more reconciliation and reconstruction. General Petraeus is trying to do the same thing that he did in Iraq, which was win over a section of the insurgency. In Iraq they went to the Sunni tribes and gave out a lot of money and weapons and basically convince people who were fighting against the US before to join their side. And I think they’re trying this approach here in Afghanistan as well, but I think it’s a sort of a desperate act. Arming people here is a very dangerous thing to do, especially arming tribes that, yes, today they may be against the Taliban and push the Taliban out and bring a momentary peace, but tomorrow they may turn their guns on the other tribes or they may turn their guns back on the United States. It’s a very dangerous tactic to take, but it shows the extent to which General Petraeus and the US military brass are realizing that the war is not going their way.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Anand Gopal has served as an Afghanistan correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor, and has reported on the Middle East and South Asia for Harper’s, The Nation, The New Republic,Foreign Policy, and other publications.