The British general who commands NATO forces in Afghanistan says he has a plan for bringing security and development to the troubled southern and eastern parts of the country, as his authority expands in the coming months.
At his base in central Kabul, the driveway lined with the flags of NATO members, Lieutenant General David Richards and his staff are preparing to expand their authority into southern Afghanistan by the end of July, and into the east as soon as possible afterwards. The moves will give NATO responsibility for the security and development of the entire country, replacing the U.S. led coalition that ousted the Taleban regime in 2001.
General Richards says the larger number of troops he will command, and the development resources of the 26 NATO countries and 10 non-members that have volunteered for this project, will enable the alliance to move Afghanistan forward in a way that the coalition was not able to do.
"We're looking at the creation of what one might call Zones of Security in carefully analyzed areas where we can create a much greater and genuine feeling of security, in which the international organizations and the government can much more freely do the things they all want to do, which is to start creating those improvements that are so important for success," he said.
General Richards says the security and development efforts in Afghanistan need to be pursued "in a much more coherent way." With 50 percent more troops than the U.S.-led coalition and more countries committed to helping with reconstruction, the general believes he will have the resources to get the kind of results that have been lacking, a situation he believes has led to frustration and contributed to a resurgence of support for Taleban insurgents and drug-traffickers.
"With that comes the great psychological improvement that gives people, say down in the south, the courage to say to the Taleban when they come into their villages, 'we don't want that,'" he said.
But the general acknowledges the job will not be easy. He says it could take five years for the Security Zones he envisions to grow and join together into larger areas of safety and prosperity. Many Afghans and foreign experts believe it could take even longer.
And you don't have to go far from General Richards' heavily fortified compound to see evidence of the challenges that NATO, the Afghan government and the international aid organizations face.
Along the gravel paths, pock-marked lanes and open sewers of a nearby neighborhood, a patrol of NATO soldiers provides an occasional show of force and attempts some rapport building, while children beg for chocolate from the heavily armed and armored troops. On this day, the patrol is led by a senior commander, British Brigadier General Nick Pope, who is introduced to a community leader.
"If you could have one thing, one way of making the area better, what would it be?" asked Mr. Pope.
The neighborhood elder, Mossen Homayoun, tells General Pope this is a very poor neighborhood and it needs everything. Pressed for details, he points to the huge hole in the road, and also says he could use a school building to provide a cool place for the neighborhood children to learn during the hot days of summer. General Pope promises to try to help, but he acknowledges he can't solve all the neighborhood's problems.
"Clearly, I don't have the money, the resources or the power to do development at the macro level, build roads or whatever," he added. "But what I do have [are] an enormous amount of soldiers who are willing to put their life and soul into providing a little bit of betterment. So whether it's building a new school or getting a school furniture, a little bit of a tangible improvement like that actually goes a long way."
If providing tangible development for a neighborhood in Kabul is a challenge, doing the same in remote areas plagued by insurgents is even more daunting for the NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Richards, the man who does have the responsibility, the resources and a plan to work at the national level.