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US, Allies Battle for Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan

International donors have just pledged over $15 billion in aid money to Afghanistan at a conference in Paris, vowing to stand by the country to defeat a resurgent Taliban and remnants of al Qaida, and to help rebuild the lives of Afghan civilians. Western leaders say this is the frontline in the war against terror; it is where that war began. In May 1998, Osama bin Laden held a press conference in the Afghan town of Khost, near the Pakistan border and announced his war against America. VOA returned to the region 10 years on to find American troops on the ground to root out the extremists and to win over the people there. But, there is continued resistance from an insurgency still loyal to bin Laden's message. Mandy Clark has this report from Khost.

In a convoy of Humvees, American troops patrol the streets of Khost. It may seem an unlikely place but this small Afghan town near the Pakistani border is a key battleground for the war on terror.

Coalition troops are fighting on more than one front - there is the battle against remnants of the Taliban and al Qaida and the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

It was here that Osama Bin Laden declared war with America 10 years ago. After 9/11 he fled to the mountains yet his message has remained. American forces say they want to dispel that message by helping to reconstruct the country bit by bit.

Local Afghans are given the tools they need to rebuild. This community has everyone pitching in to fix a main road into town.

Captain Diane Rutty organizes the supplies needed for such missions. She says she sees her work as an integral part of the war on terror.

"We are helping the country of Afghanistan have freedoms they have not experienced before in the history of this country," she said.

But those loyal to bin Laden see coalition troops as invaders not liberators. A convoy patrol is brought to a halt. Insurgents have attacked an American Humvee on another patrol. Soldiers are being told two members of their battalion are dead, two more seriously injured.

The United States has several thousand ground troops on anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan mainly in the south and east of the country. It also has about 16,000 troops operating within a NATO force of more than 40,000.

Over the past seven years, more than 760 coalition troops have died in Afghanistan. There is no official death toll for Afghan civilians, but Human Rights Watch estimates it to be over 3,000.

The U.N. refugee agency says safety and security are the biggest priorities for civilians. Coalition troops know that full well and are securing the peace, says NATO spokesman James Appathurai.

"When it comes to security, 70 percent of the security incidents are in less than 10 percent of the provinces of the country," he explained. "That is the same as it was the year before. This insurgency, if you want to call it that, is not spreading. It is geographically contained. There has been real improvement in what has been basically a tiny silver of time considering the challenges that Afghanistan faces and where it has come."

Yet, there have been persistent reports that security is not improving. There are warnings of dire consequences if NATO does not commit more troops to the fight. But former British foreign secretary, David Owen says security cannot come from an outside force.

"If success is military victory – no," he said. " If success is to give Afghanistan time to find amongst its own people a solution, which maybe very different from what we want them to be, then maybe that's all we can do."

Troops here in Khost say they know part of their mission is to chase down the extremists. But, the military has also put a strong emphasis on working with the local people, to try to make their lives better and so, hopefully to secure a better future for Afghanistan.