by Kathy Gannon
GHANI KHIEL, Afghanistan - The bearded, turbaned men gather beneath a large, leafy tree in rural eastern Nangarhar province. When Malik Mohammed speaks on their behalf, his voice is soft but his words are harsh. Mohammed makes it clear that the tribal chiefs have lost all faith in both their own government and the foreign soldiers in their country.
"This is our land. We are afraid to send our sons out the door for fear the American troops will pick them up," says Mohammed, who was chosen by the others to represent them. "Daily we have headaches from the troops. We are fed up. Our government is weak and corrupt and the American soldiers have learned nothing."
A strong sense of frustration echoed through dozens of interviews by The Associated Press with Afghan villagers, police, government officials, tribal elders and Taliban who left and rejoined the religious movement. The interviews ranged from the capital, Kabul, to the rural regions near the border with Pakistan.
The overwhelming result: Ordinary Afghans are deeply bitter about American and NATO forces because of errant bombs, heavy-handed searches and seizures and a sense that the foreigners do not understand their culture. They are equally fed up with what they see as seven years of corruption and incompetence in a U.S.-backed government that has largely failed to deliver on development.
Even with more foreign troops, Afghanistan is now less secure.
"It certainly is a mess. Security is the worst that it has been for years. Corruption is out of control. It impacts every single Afghan," says Doug Wankel, a burly 62-year-old American who coordinated Washington's anti-drug policy in Afghanistan from 2004 until 2007 and is now back as a security consultant. "What people have to understand is that what ordinary Afghans think really does matter."
The fear and fury is evident among the neighbors at Akhtar Mohammed's walled home deep within Nangarhar province, reached by a dirt road along a dirty brown canal. A dozen men lie on traditional rope beds beneath a thatched roof. Some wear the full-bodied beard of the devout, with a clean-shaven upper lip. Others have dyed their gray beards a flaming orange with henna to show that they have made the pilgrimage to the holy site of Mecca.
They live barely an hour's drive from an errant bombing last month that hit a wedding party and killed about 50 people. Khiel Shah says his home was raided two months earlier, and troops killed his nephew, a high school student.
An old man sits by moaning, "No, no, they weren't Taliban. They were going to the bathroom. They weren't even carrying guns."
Villagers want to know why people who give false information are not arrested, and they say American soldiers still can't sift the good intelligence from the bad.
"But now this is seven years. I am hopeless. They haven't learned until now," says Akhtar Mohammed.
NATO's top Gen. David D. McKiernan blames civilian deaths on insurgents who hide among the population. But the problem could also be one of strategy, says Robert Oakley, a former U.S. ambassador and National Security Council staff member.
"There is a contradiction between wanting to minimize Afghan civilian casualties and minimizing U.S. military casualties," he says. "For the former, we should go on the ground. For the latter, go in from the air."
An air strike in Herat province about two weeks ago killed dozens of people. A U.S. investigation concluded that most were Taliban, but the Afghan government and the United Nations say up to 90 civilians died, including children.
Villagers say the U.S. does not understand how complex alliances, violence and even drugs play out in their culture. The eyes of elderly Malik Bakhtiar well with tears as he recalls his brother's arrest by U.S. troops for apparently running a drug laboratory in his home. In certain regions of Afghanistan, people grow opium for their livelihood.
"They don't understand us," Bakhtiar says. "Every house has a gun. Every house has opium."
Inside the walled compound of the Independent Human Rights Commission in Kabul, workers are knee-deep in statistics that measure the dissatisfaction of Afghans. An army of workers crisscrossed 33 of the country's 34 provinces and took the opinions of 15,200 people, mostly in rural areas. The survey has not been released, but Ahmad Nader Nadery, the commissioner, gave The AP a preview.
The survey, done annually for the past three years, shows a steady deterioration in the social and economic stability of Afghans, Nadery says. Average debt last year was $1,000 and is now 20 percent higher. And up to 73 percent of Afghans say they cannot go to the government for help unless they have money or power.
"Elders say when they go to government officials, they face humiliation," Nadery says in his cramped ground floor office.
Najib, a policeman who asks not to be identified beyond his first name for fear of losing his job, reflects the general anger.
Since he joined Afghanistan's police force in 2001, he has been mistakenly bombed by a U.S. airplane that killed seven of his colleagues. He has paid bribes to government officials, he says, and taken bribes to balance his books. He recalls watching a friend buy a police job for $2,000, and notes that posts with better opportunities for bribery are available for upward of $10,000.
Corruption has made it easier for the Taliban to infiltrate police ranks and carry out lethal attacks, according to Najib.
"The president is crying, but nothing has changed," says Najib, who still walks with a limp from the U.S. bombing. "People are unhappy, and more and more it will become difficult for the Americans and good for the Taliban. These people (U.S. troops) are not making one mistake, but they are making one thousand mistakes and they are killing many people."
In an exclusive interview with the AP, President Hamid Karzai said the mistakes of troops are seriously undermining his government. But he also spoke candidly about what he described as his failure and gave a frank assessment of his track record, as he prepares to run for re-election next year. He said he had achieved some but not all of his goals for Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan does not have a properly functioning government yet," he said. "With regard to corruption, it's a deeper problem, it's an Afghan problem. It's the problem of an inefficient government machinery. ... It's a problem of so much money coming into Afghanistan, it's a problem of the international presence."
It is now so dangerous outside the capital that Afghans are afraid to travel hundreds of miles of newly-paved roads, and most international aid groups have forbidden their staff to do so altogether. Truck drivers who have no choice often say thieves and thieving police are a bigger worry than the Taliban.
"An Afghan trucker put it succinctly: 'Forget the Taliban, our biggest problems are with the police,'" says Seth Jones, an analyst with the U.S.-based RAND Corporation and author of a report on the rise of Afghanistan's insurgency.
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashery puts the corruption level at barely 20 percent of the force, and says efforts are being made to tackle it. But many Afghans think otherwise.
Kidnappings in Kabul are in the double digits this year, according to the attorney general's office, and Afghans suspect police involvement. Most are for ransom rather than because of politics.
In the meantime, the Taliban is advancing.
Moiabullah, a black-bearded Taliban from the troubled province of Ghazni, fled to Iran after the Taliban collapsed in 2001 but returned several months ago.
"People are fed up with this government," he says. "No one is working honestly. If you provide a good life, factory or jobs, of course no one will follow Mullah Omar (the Taliban leader)."
Out at the heavily fortified, sprawling U.S. military base at Bagram, north of Kabul, Brig. Gen. Mark Milley says the Taliban and al-Qaida are enemy number one, and corruption is enemy number two. But he claims the troops are inching forward in bringing security to the country.
"The western forces, international forces, Americans in particular are the most disciplined in our use of deadly force," says Milley, the deputy commanding general of operations. "We think we are succeeding."
Back at the tribal council, or shura, in Nangarhar, the eldest of the elders disagrees.
"It is a shame for them," says Abdul Samad, a tall, lanky man in his seventies with a silver beard on his gaunt face. "It was a good opportunity after the Taliban. But it is gone."
© 2008 Associated Press