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Successful as the Australians have been, "with Australian special forces, sometimes civilians are getting killed," says General Mohammed Sabir, commander of the Afghan Army brigade in Uruzgan. An Australian Defence spokesman refused to comment on incidents, operations or tactics, but said Australian troops take all reasonable steps to avoid endangering the lives of non-combatants. "It should be noted," the spokesman added, "that Taliban tactics routinely use human shields, intimidation and stand-over techniques which put the lives of civilians at risk." The ISAF pays compensation to the families of killed civilians; about $1,200 was paid out to survivors of the raid on the Daad house at Chenartu.
The stringent ISAF rules of engagement are sometimes given different emphases by the Dutch and the Australians. In October, the Dutch tipped off Uruzgan's new governor, Assadullah Hamdam, that a major operation, Spin Ghar, was about to be conducted in the Baluchi Valley, 16 km north of Tarin Kowt. They dropped leaflets and broadcast messages telling villagers how to protect themselves during the operation, which involved Australian, Dutch, Afghan and British forces. Rietdijk says Spin Ghar uncovered many weapons caches without a single civilian casualty. But Australian SAS sergeant Matthew Locke was shot dead on a reconnaissance mission, and Dutch soldier Ronald Groen was killed by a mine. Rietdijk concedes that giving notice of the operation might have put troops at risk, but says "the advantage of avoiding casualties among civilians was more important." An Australian Defence spokesman declined to comment, but said its operational planning always involves "assessing the risk of civilian casualties and positively identifying enemy forces before contact is initiated."
The Taliban's treatment of civilians is "ruthless," says Rietdijk. Lieutenant Colonel Groen agrees: "The Taliban use very indiscriminate and total violence," he says. "It's a way of getting support. You can buy support, you can convince people, or you can terrorize people into giving you support."
The ISAF's way is to convince people. A key part of that approach is providing infrastructure for the province, one of Afghanistan's poorest. The Australian Provincial Reconstruction Team has built a causeway over the Garmab Mandah River, and at Tarin Kowt rebuilt the provincial hospital, redeveloped a health center and refurbished schools. A trade school at Camp Holland teaches local youths carpentry and plumbing, though many prefer the easy money to be made by growing poppies and smuggling opium. A $5-million police training center is also planned. Australian Captain Mick Koen, a project engineer, says the troops are confident the job they do is worthwhile, and "the people in Tarin Kowt are pleased at the results."
Dutch Lieutenant Colonel Rietdijk says that in the long term, the ISAF's mission is "not about how many people you kill. What counts is how many areas think they are better off staying with the government." He believes local people have little allegiance to distant Kabul; far stronger are their ties to clan and tribe. "If you convince a tribal leader to cooperate with the governor," he says, "then his people will do so as well."
The ISAF and the U.N. Assistance Mission agree that the Taliban have little natural support among the people. But they do have money from the opium trade worth around $600 million a year in Uruzgan alone. And they have growing help from foreigners Muslims from Pakistan, Chechnya, and Uzbekistan. "In the beginning it was just a lot of local fighters who were forced or paid to fight," says Groen. "They would fire the odd round to show they were participating." But these days the ISAF faces "a different Taliban that is obviously better trained, better coordinated and more proficient with their weapons."
Afghan General Sabir has also noted an influx of foreigners. "It is a world-wide network," he says. Security officials in Kabul say Pakistan is a major source of fighters and funds, and name a former colonel of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency as a key figure behind the Taliban resurgence. Known as "Colonel Imam," he helped develop the Taliban in the 1990s, and the officials say he has been regularly sighted in Uruzgan. General Sabir says the Colonel made a lightning visit in October, urging the Taliban to keep up attacks through the winter and giving them "money for weapons, motorcycles, trucks whatever they need." Contacted by phone in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Colonel Imam laughs at such suggestions. "I have no contact with the [Taliban] people. What can I give them?" he says. "They are much beyond my training. I think they would teach me." As for whether he gives them advice: "What can a fellow advise a man who is right on the job?"
Whoever is fueling the insurgency, it is clear the fight against it will be long. Some ISAF commanders fear it may be 15 years before they see significant improvement, but the ISAF is committed to staying in Afghanistan only until 2010. In the meantime, more civilians are sure to be caught in crossfire. In Chenartu, Faiz Mohammed reflects on his own experience. Afghanistan has been in turmoil for decades, but he says, "There has never been so much pain brought to this village."