KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Sept. 29, 2009 — -- In the Helmand River Valley, where more American troops have shed their blood this year than anywhere else, the police chief has a simple message to the Obama administration as it debates whether to send more troops to Afghanistan.
Four thousand Marines arrived in Helmand in July carrying a new strategy: set up camp on the ground they capture. Today, 32 of their men dead, the Marines have brought a shaky peace to the valley and spend as much time protecting the population as hunting the Taliban.
Asadullah Sherzad, the province's police chief, praises the additional troops and thanks the United States for sending them. But that does not mean he thinks more Americans should come.
"As many foreign forces can come here as they want," he told ABC News. "But without Afghan forces, they won't be effective."
In a fractious country, that was the most widely held opinion expressed in two dozen interviews conducted by ABC News in Kabul and across the country's most volatile provinces.
Today President Obama hosts the first of five national security council meetings to debate whether to reinforce the war with as many as 40,000 additional troops, and ABC News asked officials and residents what they thought: would more U.S. troops bring peace?
There was no unanimity, although the majority of residents interviewed in southern and eastern Afghanistan said they were against sending additional troops, fearing that more foreign forces would create more violence.
But what they all seemed to agree with was that Afghan security forces should take the lead.
"Instead of more troops, it would be better to add more Afghan police and soldiers to do the job," says Gen. Saifullah Hakim, the head of the southern section of the Afghan Border Police, from his base in Kandahar.
He is responsible for 7,500 miles of Afghanistan's borders with Pakistan and Iran and says he needs 12,000 men. He has only 4,000. "We don't have enough weapons, especially heavy weapons," he says. "Given the situation in Kandahar they should supply us with more heavy weapons and more men."
That is a sentiment the U.S. strongly agrees with. Already, the one aspect of the administration's Afghan policy that receives wide backing in Washington is the desire to train more Afghan forces. U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants to accelerate training of the Afghan Army, increasing it from approximately 100,000 troops to 134,000 within two years, and eventually increasing it to 240,000. And he wants to eventually expand the Afghan police to 160,000.
McChrystal: Afghan Army Needs Foreign Help
But having an autonomous Afghan army and police force that can defend the country without foreign help is a long way off -- at least three years, according to McChrystal and his aides.
And that is where the respondents' opinions diverged: until Afghan forces are ready, would more U.S. troops help or hurt?
Those Afghans who want more U.S. troops echo McChrystal's recent strategy review, arguing that only a significant number of additional foreign troops can adequately protect the population, and only more foreign troops can clear areas held by the Taliban and hold them so that Afghans feel safe.
They perceive the ongoing debate in Washington as a sign that the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan is wavering.
"If the Afghan government and international forces do not demonstrate a level of winning this war and being on the winning side, then the population would become more reluctant to actively engage in supporting the government and the international forces because they are afraid what may happen to them after the forces leave," says Nader Nadery, a commissioner on the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Nadery and those who support the new U.S. strategy strongly object to one plan proposed by some members of the Obama administration to focus on international terrorists based in Afghanistan and Pakistan with drones and special operations missions – thereby reducing the need for a large number of traditional American troops to protect the population and help build a viable Afghan state.
"There is a clear link between the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda members and the Arabs and Chechnyans who are fighting alongside the Taliban," Nadery says. "What the Taliban would pursue is no different from what those Arabs [of al Qaeda] would pursue. They would pose a threat and they would again harbor more terrorists or more Osama bin Ladens and they would pursue the same goals as al Qaeda not only in the region but internationally... and that poses a national security threat to the United States."
Afghans See Americans as Latest Foreign Invaders
On the other side of the argument are a large number of Afghans – the majority of those interviewed by ABC News – who see the American military as the latest in a long line of foreign invaders of Afghanistan.
"By bringing more forces it will not bring security. It will bring insecurity," says Abdul Jalil, a resident of the Nara district in Kunar Province. "Because all the people -- whether they are civilians, whether they are mujahedeen [religious fighters], or whether they are Taliban -- they all are hate foreign soldiers… If they come they can't succeed in the country because of the history. Foreigners were here in the past, and more of them will create more fighting."
Jalil lives in eastern Afghanistan, along the Pakistani border, where the U.S. has fought a slow and deadly war of attrition, often in lightly populated areas. Since McChrystal arrived, commanders have begun closing some of the more remote U.S. bases in an attempt to move U.S. troops to population centers. McChrystal has admitted the U.S. did not have the proper counterinsurgency strategy in place, and alongside major deficiencies in governance, that helps explain why the Taliban were able to expand in the last few years.
Local residents tend to agree.
"People have lost confidence with foreign forces," says Naseer Roshan, who lives in Khost City, the capital of Khost, also along the Pakistani border. "Under the command of NATO, whatever has been done by international forces has resulted in the losing of hope by Afghans."
Roshan said Afghans were fed up with both sides – the Taliban for causing violence and the foreign forces for failing to stop it.
"Seven years back when NATO forces, led by America, came here, people welcomed them. But unfortunately now we can see people have lost confidence in many areas of the country. People have joined the Taliban and are fighting back against the forces and people see them as occupiers."
In many ways, that sentiment reveals a fundamental aspect of how Afghans feel about more troops: they will support them only if their presence will help. And in some cases Afghans say it is too late, the U.S. has permanently lost any good will it had in 2001.
McChrystal: Afghan Mission in Difficulty But Not Lost
McChrystal says the mission is in urgent need of help but not lost, and he admits that the mixed support the U.S. receives throughout the country comes from a failure to protect the population.
"Preoccupied with force protection, ISAF has operated in a manner that distances itself, both physically and psychologically, from the people they seek to protect," McChrystal wrote in the Aug. 30 review. "The Afghan people have paid the price, and the mission has been put at risk… Hard-earned credibility and face-to-face relationships, rather than close combat, will achieve success."
Above all else Afghans want an end to war, which has been waged here for the last three decades. If the U.S. can convince them that more troops can bring that peace, then the population could support the idea.
"If the bombing of villages and killing of civilians continue, then of course this notion and perception of being an occupier force would get more strength," says Nadery of the Afghan Human Rights Commission. "But if we change the way we need to change in terms of conducting the operation in the right way -- as Gen. McChrystal now says, making the population and their protection the center of the strategy -- then I'm confident that those perception would immediately change. People do not like the Taliban and they would not see the foreign forces as occupiers if we do things in the right way."