|In southern Afghanistan, even the small gains get noticed
ZARI, AFGHANISTAN -- Four of the Army's hulking mine-resistant armored vehicles had just been bombed into submission.
They stood immobilized off of Highway 1, southern Afghanistan's most important thoroughfare, at the point where an earlier bomb had blown out the asphalt, forcing traffic to bypass through the dirt. At the same time, Taliban fighters were reeling a wire used to detonate bombs into a mud-walled compound.
But right at the top of Lt. Col. Jeffrey French's list of concerns that perilous day, when 14 bombs either exploded or were found in the same area, was the row of Afghan cargo trucks waiting to get past this complicated mess.
"I don't want to be piling up massive amounts of coalition force vehicles," French radioed to his soldiers before leading his convoy out of the congestion.
For the Fifth Stryker Brigade Combat Team, deployed around the southern city of Kandahar, the mission is to preserve freedom of movement on the highways through southern Afghanistan. By doing so, they hope to fan to life the economic and political embers smoldering in roadside villages around Kandahar and restore credibility to the local government.
Their mission is a key part of the new strategy for southern Afghanistan, where most of President Obama's 30,000 reinforcements are to deploy. By establishing a cordon of coalition forces around Kandahar, commanders hope to protect the people and the flow of commerce, while pulling troops away from less populated areas in the south.
Not everyone is sold on Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's "protect the population" mantra. Some military officials think an expansionary push by the Marines into Taliban territory in neighboring Helmand province is more effective than hunkering down to the slow work of improving governance.
"I'm not a big fan of the population-centric approach. We can't sit still. We have to pursue and chase these guys," said Col. George Amland, deputy commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand province. "I haven't seen any evidence it's working. The only thing that's working is chasing them."
Marines in Helmand province, where thousands of new troops have already arrived, plan to start moving into Taliban strongholds such as Marja. The town is without a functioning government, and is ringed by what Marine commander Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, who has led the Marines in Helmand since last spring, described as the thickest belt of buried bombs he has seen in Afghanistan.
But some U.S. officials are worried about the value of the Marines pushing into desolate areas in pursuit of the Taliban, particularly in Nimruz province, which borders Helmand to the west. "There is nobody out there," said one senior U.S. official who works in southern Afghanistan. "The preference would be to remain focused on civilian population centers."
Pounded by bombs
The Strykers came to their new highway mission after difficult months last summer and fall in the Argandab River Valley of Kandahar province, fertile farmland where the vehicles had difficulty maneuvering through narrow lanes and were pounded by roadside bombs. Twenty-one soldiers from the battalion that fought in the Argandab were killed through December, more than any other Army battalion in Afghanistan.
"Back in the summer, it was awful. They had a bad time of it," said Brig. Gen. Frederick B. Hodges, the deputy commander in southern Afghanistan.
Since the Strykers' 2nd battalion, 1st infantry regiment began their work in mid-September in Maiwand, they have seen encouraging signs of progress. When they arrived in the district, the highway was littered with burned and abandoned vehicles. It was the same district where a female American social scientist working with the Army had been doused with gasoline and burned alive the previous November, and the villagers were wary of soldiers. Schools stood empty. Beyond the district leader, Obadallah Bawari, and a representative of the Afghan intelligence agency, no one else from the Afghan government came around much.
"We are lacking every critical part of any functioning government," said Lt. Joseph Cooper, the battalion's officer leading development and governance projects.
The Taliban, meanwhile, was a regular presence in the district, and summoned residents to its courts to resolve disputes or punish those linked to the Americans. Maiwand is the biggest producer of opium poppy in Kandahar province. The Taliban, middlemen in the drug trade, are ready buyers.
"The people are essentially caught in the middle," said Capt. Casey Thoreen, a company commander. "They weren't getting anything from the district government. . . . They're getting something from the Taliban, which is better than nothing."
Amid these problems, the soldiers used regular patrols, meetings with local leaders and persistent surveillance -- including from a hilltop vantage point to survey a long stretch of Highway 1 -- to declare their presence. They have taken heart in incremental changes: Bawari shows up to work most days, they said, and has emerged as a more confident leader. As the roadside bombs have tapered off around Hutal, more residents have come to them with information. School attendance has grown quickly.
"We've done a very good job building relationships," Thoreen said. "It's not just going out and asking what people want. It's convincing people to help you."
Platoon leader Lt. David Tyson, an honors graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, spent a recent day fighting the war as it's now defined under McChrystal's strategy. No shots were fired. No airstrikes were called in.
Instead, Tyson tried to make himself useful: Since an entrance to the government center had no gate, Tyson scavenged one from an abandoned private security firm compound. His soldiers slung a chain over the metal gate, attached it to an armored tow truck -- "let's see what 10,000 pounds of torque will do," he said -- and ripped it from its hinges.
From there the platoon headed to police headquarters, responding to complaints of a faulty radio. Tyson trudged up to the roof with Sgt. Jonathan Laguzza, to investigate the antennas. After a few minutes, they gave up.
"This could be slightly over our heads," Tyson said.
Tyson's last mission, a meeting with an Afghan police checkpoint commander, was the most sensitive. He sat cross-legged on the floor and sipped his tea.
"One thing I'm a little bit concerned about, is that, um, I think some of your men may have been taking money from trucks out on Highway 1 as they come by," Tyson said, without revealing that he had video footage of such activity.
The checkpoint commander, Sgt. Mohammad Nabi, told Tyson that this type of corruption was in the past -- though not the distant past.
"The last time I fired one of my policemen for that was one week ago," Nabi said.
In the war Tyson is fighting, this passed for a small victory. He thanked the commander for firing his subordinate.
"In the military we talk a lot about crawl, walk, run," Tyson said outside of the meeting. "They're at the crawl stage."