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Support For Afghan Government Erodes

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Fighting in Afghanistan is at its worst since the fall of the Taliban almost seven years ago. A recent Pentagon report said the Taliban is growing in strength. Last month about four dozen Western troops were killed in Afghanistan. That exceeds the monthly toll in Iraq, and yesterday Britain's defense secretary predicted Afghanistan will take a generation to fix. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports on the challenges Western forces are facing in that country.

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SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: This grainy Taliban video claims to show a recent attack on an American convoy in northeastern Kunar Province. Suddenly, the music stops.

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NELSON: The Humvees are attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. Militants scream God is greater as they fire their weapons. This propaganda video is one of many making the rounds in Kabul these days aimed at planting doubt in Afghans' minds that their government and the international coalition here can protect them.

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But even without such videos, experts agree that Afghan support for the government in the West is eroding amid the escalating violence. Many Afghans say they feel trapped in their own country. They point to suicide attacks in major cities, like the one that killed 41 people outside the Indian embassy in Kabul this week.

Nor do they feel safe in the south, the birthplace of the Taliban. Battles are also raging in the east, between American soldiers and a variety of militant groups whose fighters, many of them Arabs, Chechnyans and other foreigners, are pouring across the border from neighboring Pakistan.

Instability is also growing in the north and west, thanks to criminals and drug-traffickers who are in league with the insurgent groups, all of which suggests there is no end in sight to the war here.

Mark Laity is NATO's civilian spokesman.

Mr. MARK LAITY (NATO): The issue we have is that there is a growing level of disillusionment, a growing belief that we are not doing enough. We still are on the right side, but we have to work to keep it on the right side.

NELSON: He and Western military commanders say it isn't easy. Militants often refuse to face the soldiers head-on. They use roadside bombs and suicide attacks that kill civilians more often than troops. Afghans also complain many civilians are killed in Western attacks as well.

Another factor is the increase in insurgents coming from the Pakistani side of the border, since that country's new government has tried to broker a peace deal with militants there. Again, NATO's Mark Laity.

Mr. LAITY: There seems to be far, far less Pakistan military activity, and that obviously concerns us. It's their country, but we are entitled to express our concern if the end result is trouble in Afghanistan and more risk for our troops.

NELSON: In the south, thousands of U.S. Marines are pushing deep in Taliban strongholds, where they've reportedly killed some 400 militants since April. U.S. Army General David McKiernan is the new commander of the NATO-led coalition. He says what the Marines are doing in Helmand Province is working and that they are paving the way for the Afghan government to take control.

General DAVID McKIERNAN (United States Army): The question is how do we reinforce their success?

NELSON: One answer, McKiernan says, is to expand the military coalition on the ground. He wants to add Afghan troops and bring in more foreign forces, including more Americans in addition to the thousands of Marines who arrived in the spring. But Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst here with the International Crisis Group, doesn't believe more troops will bring stability.

Ms. JOANNA NATHAN (International Crisis Group): This is not going to be won militarily. We're not going to shoot the last Taliban (unintelligible). This has got to be about tackling those very, very root causes.

NELSON: Among those causes, she says: the insurgents were allowed to regroup in Pakistan; corrupt and inept Afghan leaders were allowed to take power in Kabul; and tribal and land disputes were left unsettled. All of which has provided fertile ground for recruitment by various militant groups, including the Taliban, says Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef. He was the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan who was held in Guantanamo for several years.

Mullah ABDUL SALAAM ZAEEF (Former Ambassador): (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: Zaeef, who is now a free man in Kabul, says that Western troops here, especially Americans, are perceived as arrogant and backing an Afghan government that is corrupt. Zaeef says adding foreign troops will only bolster Taliban claims that they are holy warriors trying to oust foreign invaders, like they did the Russians in the 1980s and the British in the previous century.

General McKiernan rejects that comparison.

Gen. McKIERNAN: I'm convinced that the insurgency can't win, but it's a question of the will of the international community, the development of Afghan governance and the ability of resolving these sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan.

NELSON: McKiernan says he doesn't know how long it will take. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.