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Afghans welcome security, wary of U.S. tactics

PUL-I-ALAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - With thousands of new U.S. troops now stationed around the Afghan capital, many Afghans welcome the improved security, but some tactics the soldiers employ could alienate the people they came to protect.

An Afghan family travel by donkey on the road out of Bamiyan province, April 22, 2009. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Some 3,000 U.S. troops began deploying in Maidan Wardak and Logar provinces on the southern outskirts of Kabul in January, an area that before had seen little military presence.

U.S. commanders and Afghans say the troops have helped reduce violence in the area, rolling back attacks by Taliban guerrillas who had reached the outskirts of the capital in large numbers for the first time since fleeing Kabul in 2001.

But out on patrol there are still signs of tension between U.S. forces and a population wary of outsiders.

“I’m happy security has arrived. The road is safe now from Kabul to Logar,” said Abdul Wakil, 35, standing by the side of the road watching soldiers search cars along the main highway through Logar.

“But we have a problem, and that problem is: the U.S. soldiers come in the evenings and search our houses. This is a problem for us. They should come during the day with Afghan soldiers and police,” Wakil said.

The soldiers carry out regular “snap” TCPs or Traffic Check Points, stopping any car that fits a profile or they think might pose a threat. Soldiers search and question the occupants and no car is allowed to pass until they are finished.

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Using an Afghan interpreter, the soldiers even listen to drivers’ cassette tapes for Taliban propaganda and inspect travellers’ mobile phones. Text messages about wanting to “kill U.S. soldiers” have been found.

The soldiers patrol in heavily armored MRAPs or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles that tower over the road, making them able to withstand most bomb or suicide attacks.

“In one of these things, you feel indestructible,” said Captain Asher Ballew, in charge of the patrol.

Across Afghanistan, incidents involving roadside bombs rose by 87 percent in the first quarter of 2009 compared to a year ago, according to NATO figures. Soldiers are taking no chances.

In new guidance made public this month, the commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan U.S. General David McKiernan, says troops should avoid “aggressive driving that Afghans may perceive as offensive, threatening, or reckless.”

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But a road patrol in an MRAP through Logar as witnessed by a Reuters crew last week, was a tense and aggressive journey.

Patrols travel down the center of the road and oncoming traffic is expected to stop. The soldiers swerved toward any cars that did not come to a complete stop.

“You’d better stop,” shouted the driver of one MRAP down the internal intercom, swearing four-letter insults as he swerved head on toward an oncoming truck.

“This guy wont stop. I don’t know who the (hell) some of these people think they are,” he shouted, as the truck veered off the road to avoid colliding with the MRAP. “I’m gonna make an example outta someone out here!”

Further on, a motorcycle approached slowly around a blind corner. The MRAP swerved, running the man off the road.

“That’ll teach him!” said the driver, as others laughed.

At the snap checkpoint, a bearded man in his fifties who did not want to be named said he was still glad the Americans were there.

“We are happy the soldiers come out on the roads. It’s more secure now,” he said. “But the problem is, that when they stop the traffic, there are queues of cars, and in these cars are sick people, women and children who face problems.”

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani