Slow Progress in Afghanistan's Treacherous Arghandab

This long-time refuge for insurgents can frustrate even the most determined coalition efforts, but one battalion makes headway

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Bob Strong/Reuters.

The first time Captain Chris Gage walked into Haji Ghafor village, a small cluster of mud-walled compounds in a lush river valley west of Khandahar City, he found a house being used as an explosives factory. But counterinsurgency demands second chances, and the support of the village elder, Haji Shir Aka, was important for thwarting Taliban in the area.

"Will you walk with me?" Gage asked him on a hot May morning. "I want the people seeing you walking with me so they're not scared."

Aka and Gage, the commander of Blackhawk company, 2nd Battalion, 87nd Infantry Regiment, set off down the narrow dirt road holding hands, an Afghan sign of friendship. But Aka hesitated as they moved past the edge of the last compound and toward the fields, his face washed with worry. "I can't walk with you from here," he said.

They returned to Aka's compound. About a minute later, an explosion thundered in a field to the west, where eight soldiers were gathered at a grape hut, a large building of thick mud walls used for drying grapes into raisins. The shoulder-fired rocket had hit the wall five feet above two soldiers' heads. They ran into the fields and grape furrows, trading rifle fire with three insurgents. Another rocket exploded, throwing a soldier ten feet into a canal and spraying two more with shrapnel.

Gage's men, spread out along the road and in the nearby fields, answered with a crackling roar of rifles and machine guns. In the first, chaotic moments, as the sounds of incoming and outgoing fire blended and ricocheted off the walls, soldiers scrambled for cover and called to each other down alleyways and over radios, trying to pinpoint the source.

As the gunfire and explosions tapered, Gage turned back to Aka. "You just told me that if anything happens in this area, you are responsible," he said.

"In my compound and my group of buildings, yes," Aka said, "but out there I can't guarantee your security."

"Why do you allow the Taliban to come into your area?"

"It's not my choice," Aka said. "What do you want me to do?"

This is a familiar verbal dance, heard on patrols across Afghanistan, the questions and answers scripted: Where are the Taliban​? I don't know.

"When you allow Taliban to attack us, you're part of the problem," Gage said. "If you want security, you have to help us."

Aka faulted Gage for the attack. "If you think security is bad here," he said, "why don't you put in a checkpoint?"

Such a checkpoint is on Gage's to-do list, as he clears this band of small villages along the river where insurgents still take refuge, build bombs, and stage attacks. As he squeezes tighter, with more patrols and more Afghan national police checkpoints, insurgents will have fewer places to shelter. And their influence over the people, Gage hopes, will whither enough that men like Haji Shir Aka and his neighbors might stand up to them.

Blackhawk company has already suffered several wounded since arriving in April, and has had more near misses, with soldiers standing on large bombs that didn't detonate. But this area was far worse just last year. The company Gage's men replaced suffered 50 percent casualties, with nine killed and more than 50 wounded. This was true throughout the Arghandab river valley, a corridor of wheat and marijuana fields, pomegranate orchards and grape furrows. As troops surged into the area last summer, fighting was constant and costly.

Judging stability and progress in Afghanistan can seem a fool's task. One region improves, another backslides. Focus too closely on one area, and a skewed picture of success or failure emerges.

But the green zone of the Arghandab had been a long-time refuge for insurgents. Taliban leader Mullah Omar was born here. In the 1980s, the invading Soviet forces tried, and failed, to clear the green zone of mujahadeen fighters. Their losses from ambushes along Highway One were so devastating that they simply built a bypass road through the desert.

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