Despite rising doubts at home, troops in one corner of Afghanistan see signs of progress

Criticism is rising in Washington about the coherence of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. But troops on the ground have different measures of success.
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 12:01 AM

SARKARI BAGH, AFGHANISTAN - One recent night, a buried bomb sliced through a hulking military vehicle near here, killing two U.S. soldiers. Last month, the Taliban murdered an Afghan man, stuffed his nose with cash, placed a Koran in his hands and hung his body from a tree. Almost every day, insurgents fire on American troops stationed in this rural village.

Even so, their company commander, Capt. Mikel Resnick, says: "We're winning the war up here."

As a major new offensive gets underway here in the Arghandab River valley and elsewhere in Kandahar province, criticism is rising in Washington about the coherence of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. President Obama is said to be troubled by mounting casualties, many in this southern Taliban stronghold. Skeptics in Congress and the White House are demanding more data on the progress of the war.

But the Delta Company soldiers in this one corner of one district have a different view. They arrived two months ago in what was clearly Taliban land. Today it is contested land. To them, violence is a sign of progress: Now the Taliban has someone to fight.

Theirs is, by necessity, a narrow perspective. Mere miles away, the battle is more pitched and the ground more treacherous. Yet, although he does not have charts or graphs to prove it, Resnick, 27, insists that he also sees what the military calls changed "atmospherics": busy stores and streets, tea served to U.S. soldiers. These are glimmers of what commanders say could amount to longer-term success.

"They don't want the Taliban," the battalion commander of troops in the region, Lt. Col. Rodger Lemons, said of Afghans in the valley. "But I think they're still waiting to see what happens."

That assessment highlights the awkward arithmetic behind the influx of U.S. forces into southern Afghanistan, where troops carry the hefty assignment of ejecting the Taliban and linking isolated villagers to local governments. The clock is ticking in Washington midway between Obama's December 2009 troop surge announcement and his July 2011 troop drawdown pledge. But many soldiers have only recently carved bases into remote mountainsides and begun chipping away at a mission they say is difficult but doable.

Encouraging signs

Influential landowners and elders fled as the Taliban presence grew over the last five years in Arghandab, a fertile valley abutting Kandahar city, and many of the few remaining are scared to associate with American troops. Afghan police are widely disliked. Tribal dynamics are opaque, and though Resnick and other commanders took crash courses in Afghan culture, they acknowledge they are not experts.

The part they are experts in - war - is also daunting. The valley's pomegranate orchards and muddy canals make for treacherous terrain that favors insurgents, not U.S. spy planes and tanks. Across the river from the Sarkari Bagh patrol base is a green swath where there is no coalition presence - a perfect escape route for the Taliban that Resnick calls the "wild, wild West."

Still, Resnick and his second-in-command, Capt. Clayton Hendon, 26 - both garrulous former West Point football players - confidently tick off the headway they believe their company has made toward improving security. Soldiers have killed at least a dozen insurgents and suffered zero casualties. Open stores in Sarkari Bagh have quadrupled, and in towns that emptied at the sight of a U.S. soldier two months ago, children swarm and troops sit for tea, they said.

On the day of parliamentary elections in mid-September, a daisy-chain bomb planted in an alley regularly patrolled by soldiers seriously injured a child. But overall there was less violence than Resnick expected.

"We thought our area . . . was going to explode on election day," Resnick said. "And it didn't."

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