KHOWST, Eastern Afghanistan -- When I got up to leave, Shakar Khan gripped my hand and held it. My friend, he said. Do not go. Behind a trim black beard, his sun-beaten face crinkled into a broad smile. He cast an eye around the room, as if to find something to tempt me to stay. The shabby, one-room police office held a bed, a few cushions on the concrete floor, and two battered cooking pots. Outside, several of his men, Afghan National Police, bantered with American infantrymen, talking about joint training they'd be doing in the coming week.
I'd been talking with Shakar Khan for an hour. He's in his early 50s, a district police chief in this boisterous, commercial city. Security here is entirely in the hands of Shakar Khan and other police and Afghan army units, as it is in other cities in eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban are active and vicious here, but the local cops manage to keep the streets relatively safe. American troops work from small outposts well outside of town, coming into town to assist the police in tactical training and to help local officers learn how to take more responsibility for budgeting, logistics, recruiting and long-range planning.
What surprised me was the emotional bond evident between American GIs and the Afghan police. In their high-fives and hugs of greeting, they are clearly fond of each other. And having well-armed Americans around surely provides comforting reassurance that the out-manned and out-gunned Afghan police aren't facing a ruthless and better-armed enemy alone.
For six weeks, I'd been deep inside Afghanistan, trying on my fourth trip here to get a fix on this vexing conflict. What I already knew: the U.S. intervention here has been badly bungled. Many Afghans blame us for liberating their country in 2001 – and then abandoning them when the Taliban surged back two years later. The U.S. has poured billions of dollars into badly designed development projects; corruption has blossomed. Seven years were wasted.
What I learned: That Americans in Afghanistan, both military war-fighters and military and civilian development experts, finally have their act together. As a result, at least in some parts of the country, people are becoming more secure, more kids are literate, more people have jobs, and more people have a glimpse of a better, non-Taliban life.
The last thing I learned was from reading the polls showing that American support for the war has plummeted. It is hard to know whether people only oppose increasing U.S. forces here, want troops brought home, or have some other option in mind. I have not seen anyone defend the chaos, bloodshed and triumphant return of radical Islamist jihadists that would follow. Granted, this is a complex war, difficult to comprehend from the lurid headlines and bloody TV footage. But I have seen gains here that are worth preserving, and there is not much time in which to do it.
I'll show you what I mean.
The U.S. is running a full-court press across eastern Afghanistan against IEDs and suicide bombs, an effort that ranges from aerial sensors and electronic surveillance to on-the-ground police work penetrating IED cells and rolling up the organizers and financiers. GIs work with local cops to collect intelligence and encourage Afghans to report IED activity. Result: more than half of all known IEDs are discovered and disarmed before they detonate – by no means perfect, but solid progress.
Increasingly these cases are headed to Afghan criminal courts. U.S. military and civilian police experts work with Afghan cops and prosecutors on crime forensics, preserving evidence, building cases. "It's painstaking work anywhere,'' said George Clay, a police advisor with the 82nd Airborne Division in central Afghanistan. "But multiply that by the [Afghan] legal system and cultural barriers and the red tape, it's a really hard thing to do.'' In one recent case, Afghan police turned up with evidence collected with gloves, stored in plastic bags, tagged and with affidavits attesting to the chain of custody. "I was elated!'' said Clay.
But a refrain I heard over and over, from guys like Clay to the sergeants who man the police training teams and the lieutenants and staff sergeants who lead combat assaults and raids on Taliban: There simply aren't enough U.S. troops here to do the job.
"We are getting there, but not fast enough,'' Col. Michael Howard, the senior combat commander in eastern Afghanistan, told me. "The violence has to come down to a level where it doesn't affect the daily lives of people, to a point where people aren't afraid to take an active part in their government. Right now we're not at that level.'' Howard has asked for additional troops, knowing that manpower is limited. But, he argued, "if you apply an additional 100 infantry soldiers, then you will have a commensurate increase in the speed at which the violence comes down."
AGRICULTURE AND DEVELOPMENT
Don't yawn: This is important. "That's what's gonna win this thing,'' Lt. Col. Rob Campbell, a combat commander in Paktiya Province, told me. Farming means jobs; better, more effective farming means more jobs, giving people an alternative to accepting $40 to plant a Taliban IED in the roadside or to allow Taliban fighters to hide their weapons in the village mosque.
A team of agricultural experts from the Indiana National Guard is training a dozen Afghans to teach farmers to improve crop yields with better planting techniques, careful water conservation, more powerful livestock feed. They are teaching mountainside villagers to build "catch dams,'' constructed simply of local stacked stone, to slow spring runoff and soil erosion. Together with Afghan farm experts, they are experimenting with mulberry "bricks,'' high-protein animal feed made from local materials.
In a related program, soldiers are teaching village women to make high-protein baby formula from locally available produce. That's a project of the civil affairs teams led by Special Forces Maj. James N. Schafer. "I wish I had more teams,'' he told me. "We are doing better; things are better than a year ago. But we need more civilians – we don't need more guys carrying guns.''
These aren't simply feel-good projects; they are ruthlessly assessed as part of the U.S. counterinsurgency war-fighting plan. Rather than simply asking local Afghans if they'd like a new school or a baby nutrition program, soldiers ask detailed questions to understand local origins of instability: What causes the conflicts that the Taliban can exploit? It may be a lack of jobs, or corrupt officials, or high child malnutrition. Action is taken to meet those needs. Then the results are carefully measured – did the project really provide jobs? Was the corrupt official removed? If necessary, new actions are planned. Results must deliver more security, more jobs or better government.
East of Kabul, for example, the U.S. funded a new road, a project intended to provide immediate jobs, get farmers more cash by speeding their produce to market, and build support for local government. The road was proposed, designed and built by Afghans, using local Afghan asphalt and stone-crushing plants and local labor. Cab fare for the one-hour ride to Kabul has already dropped from $9.50 to $3. When the road was recently opened, the provincial governor performed the ribbon-cutting; to emphasize that this was an Afghan government operation, no American officials were present.
That kind of work has an immediate impact. "This is a poor country, lots of people need jobs to keep them busy,'' an Afghan doctor told me in halting English. "I don't think people want to be with the Taliban, but some take the money. Even though it is a high risk, they accept that.'' He asked that I use only his first name, Rasul.
As he suggested, there are risks with working with Americans. "If Afghans want to work with us, they and their families become targets,'' said Lt. Col. Cindra Chastain, an officer with the Indiana National Guard's agricultural development team. "Only the brave are going to do it.''
Even American-sponsored development is targeted, such as girls' schools. In Charikar, a town north of Kabul, about 90 girls were hospitalized after a suspected poison gas attack, part of a national wave of such violence aimed at schoolgirls. "But the reaction of the parents was telling – they pitched to help police and investigators, the minister of education came from Kabul and met with the parents and within a couple of days the girls were coming back to classes,'' said Col. Scott A. Spellmon, who recently finished a 15-month tour as a task force commander in the region.
One reason parents felt confident is that security there has improved dramatically. Why? "Last summer we had 70 U.S. riflemen in all of Kapisa Province; today, we have 700,'' said Spellmon. "Troop numbers do matter.''
Increasingly, there are Afghans, like the parents in Charikar, who are willing to stand against the Taliban. But their courage, it seemed to me, is fragile. People will take a principled stand when they know they are not alone. "They are as scared of us leaving as we are,'' said an American officer.
And we have left before. I think that was the message Shakar Khan was trying to imprint on me as he held my hand in his squalid little office in Khowst. My friend, he said. Do not go.
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