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.

Many parts of the valley that were contested a year ago are quiet today. A few schools have reopened, markets are busier, the Afghan army and police are more active and more competent, and more men are attending shuras, meetings of local elders and politicians.

The 2/87 infantry battalion's area, a several-mile chunk of the valley, is Afghanistan in miniature. In the counterinsurgency strategy of clear, hold, and build, Gage is still clearing, still fighting. To the east, in Comanche company's sector, the focus is holding and building.

Captain Max Ferguson, who studied sociology at West Point, spends his days motivating and mentoring his Afghan army and national police partners, navigating complex tribal and political systems, lobbying locals to support nascent government programs, and expanding basic services.

His area has no formal schools, save for the one his men started in a compound next to the combat outpost. The Ministry of Education recently approved a site for a permanent building, a milestone, but these projects can be achingly slow. In a sister-company's sector nearby, the Pir Mohammed, built by the Canadians in 2005 but shuttered in 2007 by the Taliban, just reopened in May, after years of false starts, political squabbles, and regular attacks.

Ferguson hopes this school will be built by the time he leaves next spring. "Tactical patience is key out here," he said. "You have to take a step back to get satisfaction from your efforts because you won't see it on a given day."

Indeed, in the battle for Afghans' hearts and minds, progress often comes one heart and one mind at a time, a reality on display as Ferguson sat down with Gul Baddin, an elder in North Kalacha, a village harassed by the night government, or shadow government, Talibs who tax locals and threaten them for working with coalition and Afghan security forces.

Baddin's young teenage son stood nearby, with a cast from his left wrist to his armpit. He'd been shot by Afghan soldiers at a checkpoint a week earlier. And where was his nephew, who had been detained by coalition forces months earlier? Baddin asked.

"Nobody is helping us," he said. "I understand the shura process, but it's been ten years and I haven't even gotten a bottle of water, so I don't have much hope for it."

"Do you know that through the shura we're building a school?" Ferguson asked.

Baddin nodded. His children do need a school, he said.

"I look forward to starting a relationship with you so we can keep you safe and push away the night government," Ferguson said. "They offer nothing for your welfare, and are just here to terrorize you."

Ferguson moved on, after what had essentially been a half-hour sales pitch.

To the west, Gage swept through more farmland, hunting for insurgents and weapon caches. A week after he and his men had been shot at with guns and rockets, he led another patrol to clear a cluster of fields and compounds just west from where they'd been hit. He expected an attack, but the insurgents held off, perhaps because of the patrol's size: nearly 60 American and Afghan soldiers, with attack helicopters overhead. They detained a young man standing in a grape furrow, a spotter who didn't have time to alert the men in a nearby compound. There, the patrol found women, a dozen children, and an old man and his four sons. All of the men tested positive for having recently handled explosives, and the father was a known leader of a bomb-making cell.

The next day two rockets slammed into the wall outside Blackhawk's combat outpost, throwing plumes of dirt and smoke into the air, as bullets cracked overhead. None of Gage's soldiers was injured, and he judged the attack as a mark of progress: the detention of the old man and his sons had prompted retaliation, so their loss must have stung. In the slow march to secure his tiny corner of Afghanistan, Gage was a few houses and fields closer.