New strategy in Afghanistan aims to increase security

Posted in Broader Middle East | 22-Dec-03 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: The New York Times

KABUL - The commander of the U.S.- led coalition force here announced on Sunday an expansion of the military Provincial Reconstruction Teams across the country, a new strategy which he said would have a "dramatic effect" on the security situation over the coming months. The new approach will focus primarily on security, and will target in particular the south and southeast of the country, which has borne the brunt of a renewed Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgency this year.

It represents a major shift in policy, because the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which are units of military civil affairs posted in provincial centers and known as PRT's, have concentrated to date on humanitarian and reconstruction missions in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the population.

"Expanding the PRT's, and rapidly expanding in that part of the country, will have a dramatic effect, I think, not only on security in the area, but in accelerating development," said the commander, Lieutenant General David Barno, at a press briefing in downtown Kabul.

Combined with some new concepts being worked on, the PRT effectiveness would be "dramatically better," Barno said.

His director of public affairs, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Beevers, said it was "more a shift in emphasis than a new departure."

"We are looking to ensure security," Beevers said, "so we can accelerate and enable the international community and the central government to get some programs going." Twelve teams, which consist of 50 to 70 people, should be set up and working around the country by March, he said. They would concentrate on a range of initiatives, including patrolling and working with and training local police officers and Afghan security forces.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and international and Afghan aid agencies have for months called for a stronger international effort to improve security around the country. Some prominent agencies have criticized the PRT's for being an inadequate response to the serious security threats facing the Afghan population and those providing assistance.

Two foreign aid workers, an Italian tourist and 13 Afghan aid workers have died in Taliban-orchestrated attacks this year. At least 100 Afghan police officers and 8 Americans servicemen have also been killed in attacks.

Five Afghan border guards were killed and two wounded in the latest attack, on Saturday night at their post close to the border with Pakistan near the southern town of Spin Boldak.

After a 29-year-old woman from the UN refugee agency was shot and killed in the town of Ghazni last month, the UN special representative to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, said that the UN may have to pull staff members out of the country if security did not improve.

The security problems may jeopardize the entire political process and national elections scheduled for June next year. Elections may have to slip to September, and can only go ahead at all if there is a major improvement in security, Brahimi said in an interview Friday.

The shift in the military approach comes amid a major change of gear in the American mission in Kabul with the arrival 10 days ago of the new ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the recent approval of an extra $1.2 billion in assistance aid for Afghanistan. Khalilzad, who retains his position as special presidential envoy to Afghanistan, has brought a new intensity to the American assistance program.

He is bringing a whole new team that will run a new operational unit called the Afghan Reconstruction Group, working under his chief of staff within the embassy, to concentrate on reconstruction projects around the country. A building to house the team is to be built within four months across the road from the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy, aides said. Meanwhile a new embassy building within the main compound is going up at great speed, with construction teams working 24 hours a day to make enough space for the expanding embassy staff.

USAID, whose budget for Afghanistan increased from $400 million last year to $1 billion this year, will triple its staff in Afghanistan in the next two to three months, Andrew Natsios, head of USAID, said during a visit to Kabul last week. USAID has only 40 staff members in country now, and housing will have to be built to handle the influx. Most embassy staff members now live in white hutches crammed together on every inch of space within the embassy grounds.