In targeting Taliban stronghold, U.S. depends on Afghans' reluctant support

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 16, 2010; A01

ZHARI DISTRICT, AFGHANISTAN -- The battle for this rural Taliban stronghold is not about killing insurgents, U.S. military officials say. It is about getting the new district governor to stop the grenades.

Soon after Karim Jan assumed the post in June, the explosives began sailing over mud walls and onto U.S. troops patrolling the labyrinth of Senjaray, the biggest town in a district that U.S. officials say is under near-complete Taliban control. Two weeks later, five soldiers had been wounded in a half-dozen strikes. The attacks amounted to a test: Would Senjaray's elders side with Jan or the Taliban?

"All I need you to do is to protect your village," Jan, 35, told 80 weathered men who gathered at his office. "I'm begging you."

As thousands of new U.S. troops push into Kandahar city and nearby villages, their focus is on propping up inexperienced local leaders such as Jan. The aim is to persuade the population to defy the Taliban and back the weak Afghan government at its lowest levels -- a mission sure to be watched closely for signs of progress during the Obama administration's war review in December.

"It's a trial, and the people are the jury," said Army Capt. Nick Stout, 27, a commander of the 101st Airborne company that has patrolled Senjaray out of a sun-scorched hilltop outpost for two months. "Whoever presents the best case . . . they're going to side with."

One new approach in prosecuting the case against the Taliban moved forward this week when the Afghan government approved a U.S.-backed plan to create local defense forces in rural areas.

But that plan and the accompanying effort to bolster local governments are hampered by villagers' conflicted loyalties, the Taliban's stranglehold on the population and Afghans' anger at the U.S. military presence. NATO officials say nowhere could it be more difficult to promote governance than in Zhari, a tribal patchwork west of Kandahar that was the birthplace of the Taliban movement. Coalition forces there have never been large enough to implement real change.

For now, Jan is the government of Zhari, a lush agricultural belt the Taliban uses as a key command and supply center. Jan's 20 or so district cabinet positions remain unfilled because the provincial government is slow to approve candidates, and most are too afraid to take the jobs anyway, U.S. officials said.

Jan, the former police chief in Senjaray, won his job after his predecessor resigned to run for parliament. A 60-man council of Zhari elders quickly appointed Jan, a member of the district's largest tribe, and he vowed to be fair to all.

For U.S., cautious hope

U.S. officials express cautious hope that Jan will stick to that pledge. Lt. Col. Johnny K. Davis, the battalion commander who oversees much of the infantry in Zhari, said he thinks Jan probably communicates with insurgents -- perhaps as a survival tactic -- but is at least "80 percent with the coalition."

Since taking the job, Jan has negotiated property disputes and a blood feud. A jovial fellow with a thick mustache, he says he wants to open a cinema showing James Bond and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies to show constituents how advanced the West is.

But given the level of Taliban activity here, that is a fantasy, as is the mere notion of Jan's traveling much beyond his office adjoined to a U.S. base.

Soldiers at small combat outposts, who for the time being serve as the government's primary ambassadors, face regular rocket attacks and ambushes. The elders of villages in the district's western reaches, where Taliban rule is unquestioned and government representatives have not stepped foot for years, live full time in Kandahar.

On a recent day in Khadakalay, a town off the main highway, farmer Rozi Khan said he knew Jan's name but had no intention of turning to him.

"If we had any connection with the district government, it would be so bad for us," said Khan, a man with a salt-and-pepper beard. "If we even talked with the police at the checkpoint on the highway, the Taliban would cut off our heads."

Jan's counterpart in neighboring Arghandab district was assassinated last month, and Jan's armored convoy has already been ambushed and bombed. In an interview in his blue-curtained office, he said he has "accepted that I will die at the point of the gun of the enemy."

If Jan holds sway anywhere in Zhari, it is in Senjaray, a town of 10,000 people that is the district's main population center. But even though he insisted people there are weary of the Taliban, U.S. soldiers say Senjaray leaders sit squarely on the fence.

From their expanding perch on the hill, the troops have a view of their narrow cat-and-mouse game. On one patch of town sits an inert, American-built school that has been repeatedly attacked and is now a "strong point" for U.S. and Afghan forces. Not far away is a large mosque that is a Taliban hub.

In between are the mud-brick compounds that U.S. soldiers visit in hopes of making inroads with influential elders. Recently, though, the structures became launching pads for grenades, some tossed by children. It is a new tactic that sows fear, Stout said.

"You throw a grenade in there, it's going to hit something," he said, peering down on the town.

After the fifth attack, Jan accompanied the patrol and threatened to burn down collaborators' houses, U.S. soldiers said. Days later, another patrol pursuing a suspect in the previous attack was targeted by a grenade.

Meeting the elders

It did not detonate, but Stout was outraged. Jan quickly organized the meeting, or shura, of Senjaray elders, at which he counseled that only by helping coalition forces secure the town would they get hospitals and schools and fertilizer. Davis, the battalion commander, praised Islam, then condemned the Taliban for endangering children.

"My unit has come here to support the district governor. To help strengthen and train your army. To help train the Afghan police," Davis said. "And I ask you to help."

Elders fingering prayer beads shouted comments, most of which revolved around one theme: U.S. forces should leave.

"I'm not going to let the enemy or you in my village. I'm going to take care of security myself," said Haji Jalat, the most vocal of the elders.

"I'm sure they had a little shura with the Taliban before coming here," Davis whispered as he watched Jan work the room.

Finally, the elders came up with a solution that made the U.S. soldiers' eyes light up. They would nominate a group among them to join the patrols.

Three days later, however, Jan said he had heard nothing more about that idea. "They could have been intimidated by the Taliban," he surmised.

The next day, there was another grenade attack. Two days later, another. As of Thursday, nine U.S. soldiers had been wounded in the strikes, four seriously enough to be sent to the United States to recover. The elders never presented nominees for patrol duty.

"When it came time to decide, everyone stepped back," Stout, the company commander, said in an e-mail on Thursday. "Karim Jan is continuing to pressure the elders of Senjaray to take action, but we have yet to witness this in the town."

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