Pakistan's Border Badlands Are a Challenge for the Next President

Eliminating Pakistan's havens for al Qaeda and the Taliban is a goal for either McCain or Obama.

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In Pakistan, a truck that was carrying fuel to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

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The border situation is a source of considerable frustration for the U.S. military. Counterinsurgency campaigns place a premium on controlling borders. But U.S. Special Operations Forces "have been begging for sustained operations" in the region to no avail, says a U.S. military analyst. And so for now, U.S. forces are focusing their attention on what they can do: for instance, delving into issues of governance here. Tying the people to the government, they say, offers the best chance of decreasing support for the insurgency and encouraging confidence in provincial councils and security forces. "It's not an ideological fight," says Alison Blosser, Department of State political officer for the provincial reconstruction team, or "PRT," here. "We found they can't even identify insurgent leaders."

Instead, what they are discovering is that the dynamics driving violence along the border are often somewhat mundane. Though perhaps only 5 to 10 percent of locals actively support the Taliban, by U.S. military estimates, the vast majority who don't are nonetheless fearful of opposing the insurgents, given the Afghan government's inability to protect them.

Here in Kunar, residents of small towns have been most upset about basic economic issues, like the high price of onions and the government's crackdown on timber smuggling, a large source of local income. "When you have locals supporting the insurgency, either tacitly or explicitly, it tends to be on very parochial grounds," says Seth Jones, the Afghanistan expert who authored the Rand report.

And so the local PRT has backed roads and vocational training to pump some money and projects into the area. One new high-ceilinged center has sinks and toilets in one corner for students to learn plumbing and a wall of light bulbs for aspiring electricians. There is a partially built bridge in the middle of the school building for budding engineers.

The trick, say U.S. officials here, is to outbid insurgents for fighting-age males. "If insurgent groups are paying $5 a day, then we pay $5.50," says Navy Cmdr. Dan Dwyer, who heads the PRT here. Graduates from the vocational school are paid $8 or more by local contractors, who are required by the U.S. forces engaging them to hire at least 70 percent of their workers from within 12 miles of the job site.

That said, the government's ability to provide security remains pivotal for many locals as they decide whether or not they will support insurgencies. This is particularly true in the Pashtun belt of central Ghazni province, where insurgents coming from across the border have received sanctuary from locals who do not yet trust the Afghan national police in an area some 80 miles from Pakistan.

At the first security meeting for the new governor—the province's fourth since August—the Afghan National Army commander cited the interference of Pakistan as one of the top problems he faces in his province. Many of the fighters he encounters are coming from training camps in Pakistan, he says. "You see them there outside Quetta—buildings in camps with signs for different areas. One for Kandahar, one for Helmand, Ghazni." Some intelligence indicates that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence forces help train fighters, according to Afghan military officials.

Police chief killed. For its part, the U.S. military is doing what it can to get the Afghan police—widely judged to be incompetent and almost uniformly corrupt—working more closely with the Afghan National Army, a far more credible force throughout the country. At Ghazni's provincial coordination center, Afghan National Army and police forces that once got into occasional shootouts with each other now live and work together. "It helps them build trust and care about what happens to each other," says U.S. Army Capt. Caleb Threadcraft, who runs the center. Still, it's a brutal fight every day. The replacement for the corrupt police chief in the provincial capital was killed last week after just a few days on the job, and soldiers from the U.S. battalion responsible for the area have earned 29 Purple Hearts in just 45 days on the ground.