In Afghanistan, Terrain Rivals Taliban as Enemy - Mountainous Region in East Especially Challenging

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 24, 2009

KHUGA KHEYL, Afghanistan -- It was near sunset when the tire on one of the armored vehicles blew out on the way back through the village of Khuga Kheyl this month. The U.S. Army convoy stopped dead in a narrow, rocky cleft between two small mountains. A gang of Afghan boys ran down a nearby slope toward the convoy as it jerked to a halt near the border with Pakistan.

That morning, Capt. Jay Bessey had warned his platoon not to waste time and to stay tight. There was word that a suicide attacker might try to infiltrate his small base in a remote district in the eastern Afghan province of Nangahar. There was also a rumor that Taliban forces may have planted more than a dozen bombs along the convoy's route near another isolated district close by.

A flat tire an hour before sunset was the last thing Bessey needed. Yet there he sat, waiting for another unit to arrive with a spare. The incident underscored what all U.S. forces operating near the 1,500-mile-long border know: that the tyranny of the terrain is almost as formidable an obstacle to their goals here as the treachery of the Taliban.

The plan had been to meet with district tribal elders, deliver food aid and drop off a few benches and tables at a new school, creating a little local goodwill for U.S. efforts to stabilize the region, then get back to base before dark. Instead, Bessey sat listening to a village elder who had scrambled down the mountain from Khuga Kheyl with cups of tea and a laundry list of demands while the sun set on the convoy.

The mission in Khuga Kheyl was textbook counterinsurgency -- the kind of approach Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, has been trying to drive home to U.S. troops since he was a field commander in Iraq. There, under Petraeus, U.S. troops reached out to Sunni tribal leaders in the western province of Anbar to form community-based militias that helped reverse the tide of violence. The so-called Anbar Awakening, combined with an increase in U.S. troops, gradually created pockets of security in areas previously dominated by insurgents.

Petraeus, who is now in charge of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has said he plans to launch a similar approach this year in Afghanistan in a bid to retake the initiative from a resurgent Taliban. For that strategy to succeed, U.S. troops will have to broaden their presence in areas of Afghanistan where development has been slow, security precarious and confidence in the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai limited.

Many of those areas lie in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan, which has become a gateway for the insurgency. With U.S. troop levels set to double to about 62,000 in Afghanistan in the coming year, American military officials here say the struggle to win tribal allegiances in remote, isolated places such as Khuga Kheyl will define the success or failure of Petraeus's plan. But in far eastern Afghanistan, where tribal loyalties often trump national interests, that is no easy task.

Rough, often impassable mountain terrain has made it tough to make inroads into border areas where thousands of Pashtun tribesmen teeter between support for Karzai and support for the Taliban. Last year, Afghanistan's eastern border provinces witnessed some of the bloodiest battles between coalition and insurgent forces. Insurgent incursions in the east increased by nearly 45 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. military. And many of the 151 U.S. troops killed last year died in combat in areas bordering Pakistan.

The conditions have made for a tense atmosphere for Bessey's men in the 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, based in Fort Hood, Tex., but he has pushed hard to counter their fears. "I try to tell our guys, 'You know, we're not going to win this thing by killing people,' " Bessey said. "We're not going to win by being the ugly Americans out there."

Bessey, a tall, athletic-looking West Point graduate from Michigan, glanced over at the stalled convoy while he settled in on a pile of rocks and waited for help to arrive. He vigorously worked a plug of tobacco in the corner of his mouth while he listened to Malik Dalawar, the Khuga Kheyl tribal elder, plead his case.

Thick-fisted and balding, with a stubbly white beard, Dalawar took Bessey's measure with a long, hard look. We need guns, he said. At night, there are few NATO forces or Afghan police or troops around to safeguard local villagers. Dalawar said he and his people needed some way to defend themselves against the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters who regularly sweep into the area from Pakistan. But Bessey was not entirely convinced.

Dalawar, a member of the Mohmand tribe, said he is no fan of the Taliban. But in places such as Khuga Kheyl, the pressure on tribal elders to join the Taliban is intense. Electricity is scarce. Paved roads are nonexistent. And insurgent hideouts are abundant on both sides of the border. Dalawar said insurgent commanders regularly try to entice him to join the fight against coalition forces.

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