Never-Ending Story: On the Front Lines of Afghanistan's Counterinsurgency

A high-adrenaline day with NATO troops in eastern Afghanistan.

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Musa Khan, the governor of Ghazni province. / Michael Hirsh

Updated, 4:35 p.m.

ZANA KHAN, Afghanistan--Within 30 minutes after the shura--or community meeting--ended in this village in eastern Ghazni province on Wednesday, we came under mortar fire from the Taliban.

"We have contact!" shouted the Polish International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander who was escorting us to the helicopter. "Run!"

Run we did, huffing and puffing under helmets and heavy body armor, a group of over-aged pretend soldiers--actually, just reporters--trying to understand a war that barely seems to exist most of the time. Until all of a sudden it does, rocketing in from nowhere.

Zana Khan is a fault line in the decadelong conflict in Afghanistan--one of those dusty, primeval villages where all the money and U.S.-backed power of the New Afghanistan contends daily with the insidious forces of the old unreconstructed Afghanistan, a region defined by ignorance and terror.

"It's routine," explained Krzysztof Wojcik, a retired Polish special-forces major, as we sat inside an armored medevac vehicle listening to the "Whump!" of mortars from high in the mountains and the crackling of return fire from the Polish 30-mm guns and Afghan National Army machine guns. "They [the Taliban] knew about the shura. They knew when it ended," said Wojcik. "They waited for the people to leave and the helicopters to come, because they knew there would be VIPs."

The Taliban's chief VIP target appeared to be Musa Khan, the governor of Ghazni, who took off just ahead of us in a Polish Hind helicopter--an upgraded version of the Soviet choppers used against the mujahadeen in the 1980s. The shura, a traditional gathering of male elders and leading citizens, was Khan's idea. Through speeches, gifts, and new schoolbooks, Khan was trying to make the case to the barely literate people of this tiny mountain village in the Taliban-infected southeast of Afghanistan that his way, the way of the New Afghanistan--the way of the international community, America, and NATO--was vastly better and more prosperous than the way of the Taliban, who have kept a NATO-funded new school from opening for three years.

And he's very impressive, Khan is. Black-bearded and black-turbaned, he is eloquent and learned in the Koran, and he has a deep, sonorous voice that puts you in mind of, say, Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia. As some 250 townspeople, their faces a deep reddish-tan from years of exposure, sat squinting quizzically in the sun, Khan delivered "my message to the Taliban," saying he and his government were every bit as religious as the Islamist radicals, observing "all the pillars of Islam," and that he delivered justice every bit as well (Khan made a big deal of his chief judge sentencing two killers to hang the day before).

Khan also bravely countered the Taliban line that he and the national government of President Hamid Karzai were merely stooges of America and the West. "The Taliban are fond of saying that our plans are made up by foreigners, but the clothes you are wearing are also made by foreigners. The Toyotas you are driving, these are also made by foreigners," he said. "The Taliban are keeping you from the good life and the international community, from sending your children to school, from paving your roads."

It all sounded hopeful, and many villagers applauded and walked away happily down the stony path to their mud-walled homes carrying thick gray woolen blankets and donated new plastic sandals as gifts. "I think it went very well," Khan remarked to me afterward. "The first shura, we had only four people." Other villagers praised the newly strengthened Afghan police and army, saying the Taliban was less brazen and weaker than a few years ago, before President Obama's "surge" began.

But the mortar attack at the end was an abrupt reminder of what a number of Afghans attending the shura told me and a visiting group of reporters privately. "Two hours after you leave, they will be back," said Mohammad, a 32-year-old farmer. "They will burn those gifts."

Indeed, what looked like a simple village gathering on the surface was actually the product of a sophisticated ISAF-led clear-and-hold operation involving not just Polish troops but, very quietly, U.S. special forces as well, who had come into Zana Khan several days before the shura to round up any suspects. "I think when we leave it's going to fall apart," said "Moose," who described himself as a U.S. special-forces soldier and said he and his team had rounded up nine suspects with alleged bomb parts or fragments in their houses. He was referring not just to Zana Khan but to Afghanistan. "Their special forces are good, really good, but the regular army's kind of lazy. I think it's going under."

Despite the extensive presence of both U.S. and ISAF officers at the shura, ISAF officials said on Thursday the mission was designed and led by Afghan security forces and that "Moose" was not a special forces soldier but an American civilian translator. "His knowledge of Afghan and coalition military planning and operations is nearly non-existent," an ISAF official said.

It's easy to be as cynical as Moose. If U.S. and international forces can't suppress the Taliban in this part of the country now, while still operating near the height of the Obama surge--which is ending as of this September--what's going to happen when we all leave at the end of 2014? Already ISAF has written off Ghazni's southern-most district, right on the Pakistan border, as hopelessly under Taliban control.

And yet there are other strong signs that this is not going to be 1992 to '96, when the Taliban gradually and brutally took control of an abandoned Afghanistan. The new Afghan army and police are expected to get at least $4 billion a year in ISAF funds--most of it from Washington--indefinite training and help from U.S. special operations, and by most accounts the Afghans are increasingly competent. The U.S. drone strike program will continue indefinitely, albeit likely under the CIA rather than the Pentagon, ensuring that the Mullah Omars of the future will not be eager to show their faces in downtown Kabul.

Areas like the eastern section of Afghanistan are unlikely to achieve complete peace. Funded by Pakistan's intelligence agency just across the border, and possibly by sympathetic Islamists in the Arab world, the Taliban have a constant source of replenishment, like a toxic natural spring. But there is reason to think the Taliban can be contained at least to this troubled corner of Afghanistan. And that is the case the U.S. is making to its NATO allies at the forthcoming summit in Chicago--we need to be here for decades in some fashion, not just for a couple of more years.

"It's a never-ending story," said our Polish escort, as we waited out the mortar battle. Earlier in the day, in a round of interviews at the village, we had asked: Are the Taliban weaker, or just as strong? The answer was mixed. Yet it was also true that the mortar rounds missed their targets--the governor and, possibly, us--by hundreds of meters. "They are scared; they don't come close" enough to be accurate, Wojcik said.

Gen. Daoud Shah Wafadar, the Afghan army commander in Ghazni province--who also spoke at the shura--told our visiting group that the Taliban were no longer a match for his forces. "The enemy is not capable of fighting with us face to face. The only thing they can do is threaten the people."

That may be true, but at least in this recalcitrant portion of Afghanistan, it is a tactic that the Taliban still do very well--and there is little sign as yet that they can be forced to stop.