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US faces pivotal juncture as Afghan war begins 10th year

New doubts rise despite boosted military push

By Deb Riechmann
Associated Press / October 7, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan— The Afghan war enters its 10th year today, and this is no ordinary anniversary.

With extra American troops now in place, this is the critical juncture to determine if President Obama’s revised war strategy will work and reverse Taliban momentum.

Key players are hedging their bets, uncertain whether the Obama administration is prepared to stay for the long haul, move quickly to exit an increasingly unpopular conflict, or something in between.

Fearing that his Western allies may yet abandon him, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has started to prepare his nation for a withdrawal of international forces by shoring up relations with neighboring Pakistan and reaching out to insurgents interested in reconciliation.

Pakistan, America’s nominal ally, says it is fighting insurgents. But it still tolerates Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban militants hiding out on its soil — out of reach of US-led NATO ground forces.

Public support for the war is slipping in the United States and Western Europe. Already, the Netherlands has pulled out its troops, the first NATO country to do so. The Canadians leave next.

Patience is fraying here as well. Afghans are tired of the violence and increasingly resentful of foreign forces. Many wonder why their quality of life has not markedly improved when their nation has been awash in billions of dollars of foreign aid.

“NATO is here, and they say they are fighting terrorism, and this is the 10th year and there is no result yet,’’ Karzai said in an emotional speech last week. “Our sons cannot go to school because of bombs and suicide attacks.’’

All this is very different from the near universal international support the Bush administration enjoyed when it launched attacks on Oct. 7, 2001. The war was aimed at toppling the Taliban from power because they harbored Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders responsible for the stunning strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon less than a month earlier.

The hard-line Islamic regime, which repressed women, banned music, and held public executions for disloyal actions, collapsed within two months.

Looking back at the first years of the war, the effort was underfunded from the start. When the Bush administration’s attention shifted to Iraq in 2003, the Taliban began to regroup. After several years of relative calm and safety, the situation in Afghanistan began to deteriorate around 2006. The Taliban have steadily gained strength since then. And bin Laden remains alive.

Obama ramped up the war this year, sending tens of thousands more troops. Casualties are running at their highest levels since 2001, when the Taliban were overthrown without a single American combat death. The US death toll in July was 66, setting a monthly record; to date, about 2,000 NATO troops have died in the conflict, including more than 1,220 American service men and women.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in June that the United States and its NATO partners have to show progress before the end of this year or face a decline in public support for the war.

There is plenty of frustration at the White House and in the Congress. In August, when Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Kabul, he bluntly stated that if the Karzai government did not clean up corruption, it was going to be hard “to look American families in the eye and say, ‘Hey, that’s something worth dying for.’ ’’

On the battlefield, General David Petraeus, NATO’s top commander, is banking on his plan to protect heavily populated areas, rout the Taliban from their strongholds, and rush in better governance and development aid to win the Afghans’ loyalty away from the Taliban.

In February, NATO launched an offensive in Helmand Province, the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. Nearly eight months after US forces mounted a high-profile assault that ended Taliban control of the rural town of Marjah, Marines there are still clearing it.

There are signs governance is improving, though troops still face daily gun battles and an entrenched insurgency shows no signs of easing soon.

Afghan and international forces now are boosting security in neighboring Kandahar Province, where the Taliban insurgency was born. Fighting in and around the nation’s largest city in the south has been intense as coalition forces push into areas long held by insurgents.

Failure in Kandahar would be a major setback for the NATO force.

“We’re still fighting the fight,’’ said US Army Captain Nick Stout, with the 101st Airborne Division’s First Battalion, 502d Infantry Regiment.

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