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Afghans Find Little to Praise in New US-Led Offensive

Habib Zohori and Shashank Bengali

US soldiers patrol Afghanistan's Khost province in June 2011. A new push into this area reveals the unwinnable nature of the conflict that has dragged on now for a decade. Among the locals, there is a deep-rooted fear of being caught between two armed groups. The lack of a strong government presence for years has allowed insurgents to establish themselves, and residents now acknowledge their reluctance to cooperate with coalition forces for fear of retribution by the insurgents.

KABUL, Afghanistan — As U.S.-led coalition forces intensify their battle against insurgents in rugged eastern Afghanistan, many residents there remain skeptical of the chances for military success and worry about the fallout from increased fighting.

NATO and Afghan forces announced Monday that two recent operations had captured or killed approximately 200 insurgents — including 20 directly tied to the Haqqani network, the Taliban-allied insurgent group blamed for some of the most devastating attacks this year in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

A separate six-day operation against the Haqqanis in Musa Khail, along the border of insurgent-plagued Khost and Paktiya provinces, resulted in the capture of 11 insurgents and six weapons caches and was "one of the greatest successes to date," according to a coalition press release.

But residents of Musa Khail said they feared that the military gains would be fleeting and that the operations could result in the closure of the Pakistani border, the lifeline for the region. NATO officials believe that the Haqqanis and other insurgent groups enjoy safe havens in Pakistan and that fighters move back and forth freely across the porous border. But Pakistani leaders have been unwilling to crack down on the groups despite repeated urgings by U.S. officials.

"People started worrying when the Americans announced that they would shift the war from the south to the southeast of Afghanistan," Haji Gulab Mangal, a tribal leader in Musa Khail, said by telephone.

If it continues, the military campaign "can cause a lot of problems for the local population," he said. "Instead of launching military operations on this side of the border, the Americans should put pressure on Pakistan and the Taliban on the other side of the border."

In its first official acknowledgment of the operation in Musa Khail, NATO said that Afghan forces had rarely had a presence in the area until recently. The U.S.-led coalition is shifting more energy to eastern Afghanistan even as international forces begin drawing down their troops and prepare to announce the transfer of security responsibilities in several more districts nationwide to Afghan forces.

Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, said Monday that the operations had driven insurgents and their leaders into hiding and significantly disrupted their ability to manufacture and deploy roadside bombs, which have become a favorite tactic.

The offensives "significantly disrupted insurgent operations and degraded the Haqqani network's ability to coordinate and execute future attacks against combined forces and the people of Afghanistan," Jacobson said.

Residents in Musa Khail were less certain. They said that Afghan and NATO forces had set up outposts in the area, and they were bracing for the fallout from further clashes.

Gulab Khan, a resident of Musa Khail, said by telephone that Afghan and NATO forces had searched the homes of suspected insurgents and made several arrests but were not stopping civilian vehicles along the roads.

"They had some success in this operation, but the real question that remains is whether or not they will be able keep it when the new fighting season starts in the summer," he said, a reference to the fact that fighting in Afghanistan typically wanes as winter approaches.

Among the locals, there was a deep-rooted fear of being caught between two armed groups. The lack of a strong government presence for years has allowed insurgents to establish themselves, and residents now acknowledge their reluctance to cooperate with coalition forces for fear of retribution by the insurgents — who they say hack off the noses and ears of anyone suspected of talking with coalition forces.

"Let's not blame the local population for not supporting government and foreign efforts here," Mohammed Ali Zadran, a tribal leader in Khost province, said by telephone. "They are afraid of the Taliban. If they cooperate with the government the Taliban will kill them.

"Normally the government forces launch an operation and clear the area from the Taliban for a week," he said. "And then they leave and the Taliban come back."

Some residents said that they expected increased nighttime raids and arrests by coalition forces, practices that have stirred resentment of government forces.

"I don't know about the rest of the tribes, but my tribesmen will not support any side's efforts because we don't want to antagonize any of them," said Mangal, the Musa Khail tribal leader.

Others said that the operations stood a limited chance of success because many Afghans believe that international forces are preparing to leave the country after the planned handover of security to Afghan forces in 2014.

"Military gains are not permanent," Mohammed Ali Zadran, a tribal leader, said by telephone. "You will achieve some success by launching a military operation, but you won't be able to keep those gains for a long time."

(Bengali reported from Forward Operating Base Ghazni, Afghanistan. Zohori is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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