By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 27, 2005
SOLON, Afghanistan -- The soldiers arrived by helicopter, fanning out through the village of mud-walled compounds and taking up positions on nearby rooftops and hills. But this was no ordinary air assault. Among the heavily armed U.S. paratroops was the governor of Zabol province, on a mission to win hearts and minds.
"Ask the Taliban, 'Why do you want to destroy Afghanistan?' " the governor, Delbar Jan Arman, told a group of village elders and younger men a short while later, as the goat he had purchased to feed them roasted over an open fire.
"They destroy every school in Afghanistan," continued Arman, a bearded, solidly built man in a quilted green cape. "Go and ask them, 'How many ayahs ' " -- verses -- " 'are in the Koran?' They don't know."
Watching from the sidelines was Army Capt. Joshua McGary, a 30-year-old West Point graduate who along with fellow soldiers had been ambushed last month by Taliban guerrillas in a ravine less than three miles away. "I wonder how many of these guys were shooting at us," he mused during a break in the meeting.
The moment underscored the challenge confronting U.S. troops as they seek to bolster the authority of Afghanistan's shaky central government in the face of stubborn resistance from the Taliban nearly four years after American-led forces drove the fundamentalist group from power.
In the spring and summer, U.S. forces engaged the Taliban in some of the heaviest fighting of the past several years as the soldiers moved deep into mountainous areas of southeastern Afghanistan, building a network of small bases manned jointly with Afghan forces. The areas had previously served as rebel sanctuaries.
In the last few months, according to U.S. military commanders, that aggressive strategy has appeared to pay dividends, hindering the Taliban's ability to assemble large groups of fighters and, at least in some areas, permitting more of an emphasis on political and humanitarian missions such as the governor's trip to Solon.
During a recent four-day visit to the main U.S. base in Zabol, the atmosphere was almost relaxed as soldiers took advantage of the lull in combat to catch up on reading or missed episodes of the U.S. television series "Lost," make improvements to the plywood sheds in which they will pass the winter or lift weights in the well-equipped gym. In the nearby provincial capital of Qalat, members of a civil-military unit were instructing pupils in plumbing and automotive repair, among other subjects, at a newly established trade school.
But the insurgency is far from over. By many accounts, the Taliban fighters are becoming more sophisticated, eschewing direct engagements with U.S. forces -- which they invariably lose -- in favor of tactics that are harder to counter. These include the growing use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, as well as suicide attacks, including car bombings targeting convoys of U.S. or allied forces, and assassinations of government officials and police.
U.S. officers said that they would not be surprised by a surge of Taliban violence before the onset of winter and that, in any case, they expect the fighting to resume when the snow melts in the spring.
"We know we have moved the ball down the field, but to say where we are on the field is pretty difficult," said Maj. Greg Harkins, the operations officer for the paratroop battalion that constitutes the main U.S. combat force in Zabol. "I don't know if I can say how long it's going to take before this insurgency is going to be defeated."
So far this year, the fight against the insurgents has claimed the lives of 86 American soldiers -- eight from Harkins's battalion. A total of 204 have been killed since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan began in October 2001. But Harkins disputed suggestions that the Taliban was gaining strength, attributing the increased fighting in Zabol to the presence of U.S. soldiers in places they had not gone before.
"The reason there's been so much fighting and contact is because we are now amongst the enemy, and what you have is not a resurgent Taliban, but a cornered Taliban," he said.
Part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Vicenza, Italy, the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment arrived in Afghanistan in March and took up residence at the sprawling compound of hastily erected buildings and dirt-filled wire-and-cloth blast barriers of the main U.S. base in Zabol.
From there the battalion and associated units have steadily extended their reach in the province. They have set up nine smaller bases that are shared with Afghan soldiers and are intended to provide security and humanitarian aid, such as medical services, in remote tribal regions where the government has traditionally exercised little influence.
The difficulty of that task was evident during a brief visit to one of the camps, in the dusty brown pan of the Shinkay Valley, about a 90-minute drive southeast from the main base by slow-moving military convoy. A company of combat engineers stationed at the camp is building a road across the valley, a major transit area for Taliban fighters crossing into Zabol province from Pakistan.
Since the project started in June, Taliban fighters have repeatedly planted IEDs -- typically antitank mines wired to pressure-sensitive detonators made from scrap metal and wood -- along the road's path. They have also attacked construction and military vehicles with machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades, killing a number of Afghan workers and causing five contractors to quit.
The attacks have diminished in recent weeks, and Army Capt. Dan Young, who commands the engineering company, said he expected to wrap up his portion of the road project by mid-December. But the Taliban maintains a heavy presence in nearby mountains overlooking the camp and road, reporting constantly on the movements of U.S. and Afghan forces over hand-held radios that are monitored at the camp.
"They see everything we do and everywhere we go," Young said.
In their quest to buttress the central government, U.S. commanders in Zabol have forged a close relationship with Arman, the provincial governor, a former commander in the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s who retains fond memories of the Peace Corps volunteers who trained him as an electrical technician a decade earlier.
One of his closest allies is Maj. Doug Vincent, the 2nd Battalion's executive officer, the second-in-command. A South Florida native with a wry sense of humor and a weightlifter's tapered build, Vincent, 36, is well-versed in the literature of Afghanistan, including work by Rudyard Kipling and "The Kite Runner," the recent bestseller by the Afghan-born writer Khaled Hosseini. For the last several months, he has been working with the governor to persuade Pashtun tribal leaders to pledge fealty to the government, after which they would be bound by tribal code to treat Taliban fighters as outcasts.
"We are like two brothers," Arman said as he waited to board a Chinook transport helicopter for the political mission to Solon with Vincent. "He's a very good adviser to me."
Surrounded by almond groves at the base of a boulder-strewn river valley about 160 miles southwest of Kabul, the village is in an area where U.S. forces have engaged in several sharp clashes with the Taliban, including a May 3 firefight that ended with the deaths of at least 37 insurgents, according to Harkins, the operations officer.
During their recent visit, the governor and his military entourage initially received a cool reception. Villagers complained that Afghan troops had stolen food and sweets while searching houses for weapons during a recent sweep of the area with U.S. forces. "We are scared of coalition forces and also the Taliban," said Haji Mohammed, a 38-year-old farmer, tugging nervously at his beard. "We don't know what we should do."
But the governor and his escorts did their best to reassure the villagers, promising to replace the stolen food and treating them with exquisite courtesy. During the governor's speech, for example, Vincent quickly ordered his men down from the roof of one compound when he learned that the women inside had complained that the soldiers' presence was keeping them from going into the courtyard to do chores. A load of food and clothing was deposited by helicopter a short while later.
Delivering his own speech through an interpreter, Vincent reminded the villagers that the prophet Muhammad, during his journey from Mecca to Medina, had relied on many helpers along the way. In the same manner, he told them, "Americans are here to help" Afghanistan as it makes its own journey out of the bloodshed and chaos of the last quarter-century.