Our Humvee jolts and sways against another cold dirt track in Parwan Province, an hour north of Kabul. On the road, thin shadows from barren winter orchards lie like dark lacework and flicker across the Humvee's hood.
A landscape of adobe-walled villages, empty fields and dramatic sharp mountains slides by. Inside the armored Humvee we listen to music on an iPod and two speakers. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" rolls up on the iPod. The lyrics, though older than most of the soldiers on this patrol, capture the squad's mix of homesickness and political cynicism: "Now Watergate does not bother me/Does your conscience bother you?" No one talks much about Afghanistan.
I am riding with two Humvees from the 164th Military Police Co. to observe the U.S. effort at keeping a lid on the Afghan caldron. I also want to compare U.S. methods with those of the European troops who are taking over an ever-larger part of the military mission here.
Only 98 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan last year but the ratio of casualties to overall troop levels makes Afghanistan as dangerous as Iraq. While Iraq's violent disintegration dominates the headlines, President Bush touts Afghanistan as a success. During his recent visit, the president told Afghans their country was "inspiring others ... to demand their freedom."
But many features of the political landscape are not so inspiring -- one is the deteriorating security situation. Taliban attacks are up; their tactics have become more aggressive and nihilistic. They have detonated at least 23 suicide bombs in the past six months, killing foreign and Afghan troops, a Canadian diplomat, local police and, in some cases, crowds of civilians.
Kidnapping is on the rise. American contractors are being targeted. Some 200 schools have been burned or closed down. Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, senior American military officer here, expects the violence to get worse over the spring and summer.
The backdrop to this gathering crisis is Afghanistan's shattered economy. The country's 24 million people are still totally dependent on foreign aid, opium poppy cultivation and remittances sent home by the 5 million Afghans abroad. Afghanistan ranks fifth from the bottom on the U.N. Development Program's Human Development Index. Only a few sub-Saharan semi-failed states are more destitute.
Since late 2001 the international community -- that consortium of highly industrialized nations, international financial institutions, aid organizations and U.N. agencies that in concert manage disaster zones -- has spent $8 billion on emergency relief and reconstruction here. That's a lot of money, perhaps, but given what the World Bank has called the aid sector's "sky-high wastage" and the country's endemic poverty, it's simply not enough.
In the face of Afghanistan's deepening troubles, the U.S. government is slashing funding for reconstruction from a peak of $1 billion in 2004 to a mere $615 million this year. Thanks to military recruitment problems, the United States is drawing down its troops from 19,000 to 16,000. Despite Bush's feel-good rhetoric, the United States is giving every impression it is slowly abandoning sideshow Afghanistan.
To pick up the slack, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is increasing troop levels from about 9,000 to 15,000. An additional $10.5 billion in aid has been pledged for the next five years -- $1.1 billion of that promised by the United States; the rest from Japan, the European Union, international institutions and 70 other nations.
Many European states see America's unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as an opportunity to impress upon Uncle Sam that he must give a bit more to the interests of the other rich economies. So they are moving in to help the United States by taking over as much responsibility as they can in Afghanistan. But the Europeans look at this opportunity with tremendous trepidation.
Many observers hope a European-led counterinsurgency strategy will be more sophisticated and effective than current U.S. methods, which are rightly criticized as overly focused on military means, inflexible, culturally insensitive and badly marred by the torture and killing of prisoners at the Bagram detention facility. The next five years -- with a new round of funding and fresh European troops -- are seen as Afghanistan's last chance to stanch the growing Taliban insurgency and build a functioning state.
The MPs from the 164th have a relatively straightforward but important job: to secure the Shomali Plain and the mountains surrounding the Bagram Air Base so no one fires rockets into the base or shoots down any air traffic. To do this, the MPs use information-oriented tactics common throughout Afghanistan.
Counterinsurgency doctrine holds that military action must be guided by accurate knowledge: not just "actionable intelligence" about specific threats but also a generalized, almost ethnographic, understanding of everyday life in the area. What are the local grievances? Where are the wells?
Learn these things, and the occupying forces can map not only the physical terrain but also the social world they must control, the community power structures and local economies. With this knowledge these forces can effectively direct economic development and, when needed, military repression.
Thus, part of what these MPs do is conduct village surveys to create an overview of life on the Shomali Plain. Or at least that's the idea.
When I chat with the MPs' platoon leader, a lieutenant who has spent almost 11 months in this valley, I am shocked he doesn't even know its ethnic makeup. "I think they're Dari," he says.
Informed that Dari is a language, not an ethnicity, he tells me to ask one of the Afghan interpreters. "The 'terps know. These guys are smart."
After a day of meandering through the valley, we reach the village of Kham Rubah Pan, where the patrol leader, Sergeant Chesley, has decided to do a village survey. The questions range from "Who is the local leader?" to "Are there any ACM [anti-coalition militants] in the area?" The answers are pretty bleak: no good well, no school, no clinic, no work. But at least there are no ACM reported in the village.
An older man answering the survey, a returnee from the refugee camps in Pakistan, begins a long tirade. "We have seen nothing from this government. We can't get to (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai. The ministries do nothing."
As consolation, Sergeant Chesley begins an aid handout. All the GIs on this patrol have mixed feelings about aid giveaways. "There are villages where they throw themselves in front of our Humvees demanding food and blankets because we've created a welfare mentality," says Chesley. But his instructions are to occasionally give things away, especially in villages where no previous surveys have been conducted.
As the windup radios, blankets and gloves come out, the gaggle of men listening to the survey conversation swells to a boisterous crowd. Chesley and a village elder attempt to impose order but it's useless. Every object handed out is seized by several competing men.
As far as I can see, the whole pathetic spectacle of the aid handout has had no positive political or cultural impact.
Can the Europeans do better? Trying to find out, I fly to a Lithuanian base called a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team). These small military bases aim to mix peacekeeping and reconnaissance with development work and political support for fledgling local government institutions such as the police and the provincial governor's offices.
I board a Dutch-operated C-130 transport plane to fly from Kabul over the rocky peaks of the central highlands to a rolling plateau in the middle of the country. Landing at Chagcharan, Ghor Province, is like stepping out onto the moon: Not a tree or bush can be seen for miles. The largest, poorest, least-populated province in Afghanistan, Ghor is a frozen, muddy desert inaccessible by road for much of the winter.
Isolation sends local prices soaring and leaves Ghor's population in permanent debt to merchants and landlords
The Lithuanian-run PRT also includes a small Danish contingent. I am assigned to one of their squads, called a Mobile Liaison and Observation Team. These teams of six soldiers riding in two SUVs are the PRT's main means of operation. Their job is similar to that of the U.S. squad I was embedded with on the Shomali Plain. The MLOTs here comb their terrain of operations, driving for up to a week at a time, patrolling from village to village, gathering information, building links to the local population and letting people know the foreign supporters of the central government are out and about with their guns, grenade launchers and who knows what else.
The information from the MLOTs is all digested by the PRT's intelligence and civil affairs sections and plotted on large maps and computer spreadsheets. "This will create institutional memory!" says an enthusiastic Lithuanian civil affairs officer named Aleksiejus Gaizevsis. His databases track the whole province's vast array of needs, and he correlates it all on the wall-mounted maps. In the intelligence tent the walls contain a tree graph of the local power structure, illustrated with snapshots of Ghor's warlords. If violence flares, this information will help guide the military response. The accumulated knowledge is also supposed to help coordinate the efforts of non-governmental organizations and help avoid redundant efforts. Hardly any NGOs are here.
The next morning, we set out across the empty hills in the SUVs of the Danish MLOT. The Danes are out to do a village survey and distribute some newspapers.
Unlike the American patrol, with its sloppy, halfhearted, ultimately divisive handouts, the Danes and Lithuanians limit their aid work to a few well-thought-out emergency-response projects: heat for an orphanage, shoes for the children of a displaced persons' camp, few other things.
The European troops work hard to build bridges to the locals, growing beards, taking off boots for indoor meetings, learning Dari. Their sympathy seems genuine.
At points on our patrol through the moonscape dotted with villages, I interview several local people. All are brutally frank: It's been four years with no real change. They desperately want a better road so they can reach Herat to the west and Kabul to the east. Their sense of isolation borders on panic.
In four years this province of around 670,000 people has received only $6 million in U.S. AID funding. With so little money invested here, many of the NGOs that arrived in the first wave after the U.S. intervention have pulled out.
This, ultimately, is the problem: Afghanistan is very poor, and the international occupation here is not doing enough to change that. Even if the Europeans go in with a sensitive approach and deploy their best troops, limited money will mean little or no progress.