January 20, 2009 / 11:47 AM / in 10 years

Afghans subdued but hopeful as Obama takes office

KABUL, Jan 20 (Reuters ) - On the day president-elect Barack Obama is to be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, opinion on the streets of the Afghan capital is hopeful but restrained, while the Taliban vowed to step up their fight.

The war in Afghanistan is set to be one of Obama’s first and toughest challenges as president. He has pledged a new focus on the war-torn country, telling Afghan president Hamid Karzai he will make bringing security to the entire region a priority.

Obama is expected to send up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year to help in the fight against a resurgent Taliban.

Following the overthrow of the hardline Islamist Taliban in late 2001 by U.S.-led and Afghan forces, many Afghan hoped their country, ravaged by decades of war, would finally see peace.

But with security worsening and a slow pace of development, ordinary Afghans have become disappointed and frustrated.

“We want better ideas from Obama, so we can have peace in Afghanistan,” said Ahmad Khalid, 25, a tailor. “Bush took the Taliban from power. We know this. But since then, nothing has happened. We have no roads, no electricity.”

Asked whether sending more U.S. troops would help, Khalid said: “One honest U.S. soldier in Afghanistan is better than thousands of soldiers who are not working for the Afghan people.”

MORE TROOPS, MORE TARGETS?

Fifty-four-year-old Juma Khan used to be a colonel in the Afghan army until he lost his job. He now sells cigarettes by the side of the road.

“Obama is young. He has good ideas for Afghanistan. We hope Obama will be better for Afghanistan than Bush was,” Khan said. While he supports the presence of foreign troops in the country, Khan thinks more troops is not the answer.

“I don’t want 30,000 soldiers to come to Afghanistan as this will cost a lot of money. This money would be better spent on strengthening our own defense force and army,” he said.

Around 65,000 international troops, including 33,000 U.S. soldiers, are based in Afghanistan and are locked in daily battles with militants. But Afghanistan’s long-term security lies in building up its own army and police force, experts say.

But a senior Taliban commander told Reuters the militants would continue their fight and welcomed the increase in troops, saying they would only provide more targets for the militants.

“Taliban will continue their guerrilla war and suicide and bomb attacks in Afghanistan,” said Hayatullah Khan by telephone from an undisclosed location.

“The increase of U.S. forces by Obama will provide us fresh and easy targets. Mujahideen are preparing, and as soon as winter goes, an intensity will be seen in our attacks in Afghanistan,” Khan said.

Violence has surged in Afghanistan over the last three years, with 5,000 people, including 2,000 civilians, killed as a result of the conflict last year alone.

Farzad, 16, tells Reuters neither Bush nor Obama have the interests of the Afghan people in mind.

“Neither of them are good for Afghanistan,” he said as he shopped for fruit on a Kabul street. Neither of them act in the interests of the Afghan people. The whole time Bush was in power he did not manage to bring peace to Afghanistan.”

“I would like Obama to change his policy toward Afghanistan. He should close the border and stop terrorists coming over from Pakistan,” Farzad said.

Additional reporting by Saeed Ali Achakzai; Editing by Bill Tarrant

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