Signs Of Traction In U.S. Fight Against Afghan Taliban

  • Lt. Col. Johnny Davis, a commander in the 101st Airborne Division, puts on his hat while talking to his soldiers at a combat outpost in the Zhari district of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. The division was tasked with bringing security to a 16-mile stretch of lush orchards and fields around the city of Kandahar, a longtime Taliban stronghold. July 2010
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    Lt. Col. Johnny Davis, a commander in the 101st Airborne Division, puts on his hat while talking to his soldiers at a combat outpost in the Zhari district of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. The division was tasked with bringing security to a 16-mile stretch of lush orchards and fields around the city of Kandahar, a longtime Taliban stronghold. July 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Soldiers from Alpha Company of the 101st Airborne Division walk beneath high mud walls that make up the labyrinth of alleyways and corridors of the village of Sangeray in Zhari district. In less than a week, there were five grenade attacks, injuring more than a half-dozen U.S. forces and Afghan troops. July 2010
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    Soldiers from Alpha Company of the 101st Airborne Division walk beneath high mud walls that make up the labyrinth of alleyways and corridors of the village of Sangeray in Zhari district. In less than a week, there were five grenade attacks, injuring more than a half-dozen U.S. forces and Afghan troops. July 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Pvt. Dan Oswald is treated by medics at a combat outpost aid station after being hit by shrapnel from a hand grenade in Sangeray. He suffered only minor wounds to his leg and face. July 2010
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    Pvt. Dan Oswald is treated by medics at a combat outpost aid station after being hit by shrapnel from a hand grenade in Sangeray. He suffered only minor wounds to his leg and face. July 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Near the Arghandab River in Kandahar province's Pashmul district, a pheasant flies from soldiers with Bravo Company of the 101st Airborne Division. Top Taliban leader Mullah Omar was born in this area, and many of his recruits came from here. July 2010
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    Near the Arghandab River in Kandahar province's Pashmul district, a pheasant flies from soldiers with Bravo Company of the 101st Airborne Division. Top Taliban leader Mullah Omar was born in this area, and many of his recruits came from here. July 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Bravo Company soldiers talk with a fieldworker in Pashmul district. Many of the contract fieldworkers are not from the area, which has made it difficult for soldiers to strengthen ties with locals. July 2010
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    Bravo Company soldiers talk with a fieldworker in Pashmul district. Many of the contract fieldworkers are not from the area, which has made it difficult for soldiers to strengthen ties with locals. July 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • During a joint patrol with Bravo Company in Pashmul district, an Afghan army soldier crouches behind a rock after hearing gunfire. July 2010
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    During a joint patrol with Bravo Company in Pashmul district, an Afghan army soldier crouches behind a rock after hearing gunfire. July 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Sgt. Robert Scabilloni runs to take position while under fire from Taliban insurgents near the village of Payendi in Kandahar province. In July, soldiers from Bravo Company fought a four-hour running gun battle with insurgents. Local allied Afghan police, who live in the community and are closest to the people, say it will most likely be years before the Afghans can operate on their own. July 2010
    Hide caption
    Sgt. Robert Scabilloni runs to take position while under fire from Taliban insurgents near the village of Payendi in Kandahar province. In July, soldiers from Bravo Company fought a four-hour running gun battle with insurgents. Local allied Afghan police, who live in the community and are closest to the people, say it will most likely be years before the Afghans can operate on their own. July 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • A soldier with Bravo Company hauls machine gun ammunition while under fire. July 2010
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    A soldier with Bravo Company hauls machine gun ammunition while under fire. July 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Bravo Company's Pvt. Cody Lee Ensley walks through the safety of the gates at an American base after a daylong fierce attack by insurgents near Payendi. July 2010
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    Bravo Company's Pvt. Cody Lee Ensley walks through the safety of the gates at an American base after a daylong fierce attack by insurgents near Payendi. July 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Near the border with Pakistan, an Afghan soldier crosses a river while on patrol in eastern Kunar province. Both the Afghan and American soldiers conduct these daily patrols looking for insurgents crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan. October 2010
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    Near the border with Pakistan, an Afghan soldier crosses a river while on patrol in eastern Kunar province. Both the Afghan and American soldiers conduct these daily patrols looking for insurgents crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan. October 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • U.S. soldiers on patrol in Kunar province climb the hills and footpaths near the Pakistan border. This volatile border has been a source of constant friction as insurgents pass freely through the mountainous region. October 2010
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    U.S. soldiers on patrol in Kunar province climb the hills and footpaths near the Pakistan border. This volatile border has been a source of constant friction as insurgents pass freely through the mountainous region. October 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • An American soldier sits in a bush while on daily patrol in Asmar district of Kunar province. October 2010
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    An American soldier sits in a bush while on daily patrol in Asmar district of Kunar province. October 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Sgt. 1st Class Clifton Robinson (center) stands in the dust and debris from the rotor wash of a Black Hawk helicopter in  Kunar province. October 2010
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    Sgt. 1st Class Clifton Robinson (center) stands in the dust and debris from the rotor wash of a Black Hawk helicopter in Kunar province. October 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • A U.S. soldier walks through the dust at Combat Outpost Stout while playing a game of baseball between patrols. October 2010
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    A U.S. soldier walks through the dust at Combat Outpost Stout while playing a game of baseball between patrols. October 2010
    David Gilkey/NPR

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With autumn settling in, it's the end of another season in Afghanistan — the fighting season.

U.S. officials regularly caution that it's too early to measure the effect of 32,000 extra American troops that arrived over the summer. But in recent days, voices from Kabul have begun to push the message that Afghan and coalition forces have started turning back the Taliban's momentum.

At the same time, many Afghans complain they have never felt less secure.

The governor of Kandahar did something Thursday that was unthinkable a few weeks ago: He took the road west out of town and held a meeting in Zhari district without getting blown up.

It's the first time in six years that Afghan officials dared to try driving that road.

The road is 100 percent safe, says the governor's spokesman, Zalmay Ayubi. He adds that they are clearing insurgents out of the rest of the area in southern Afghanistan.

The much publicized trip follows a recent spate of press statements by unnamed sources in Kabul and Washington suggesting that U.S. forces have killed and captured so many Taliban fighters that the insurgents may be suing for peace. Taliban official spokesmen deny it.

Lt. Col. Joel Vowell i i

Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division were summoned to help a U.S. Chinook transport helicopter after it was disabled Oct. 12 by a grenade near the Afghan-Pakistan border. Lt. Col. Joel Vowell talks to the members of Alpha Company about their rescue mission. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Lt. Col. Joel Vowell

Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division were summoned to help a U.S. Chinook transport helicopter after it was disabled Oct. 12 by a grenade near the Afghan-Pakistan border. Lt. Col. Joel Vowell talks to the members of Alpha Company about their rescue mission.

David Gilkey/NPR

Uptick In Violence A Sign Of Success?

As for the success in Kandahar's Arghandab and Zhari districts, that is also difficult to verify, since most all of the journalists scheduled to embed there had their embeds canceled early this month.

NPR's David Gilkey embedded with the U.S. Army in Arghandab last month. He witnessed a relentless toll taken by IEDs — improvised explosive devices.

"You literally step, step for step, where the soldier in front of you has stepped," Gilkey says. "It's a stress that just weighs them down, knowing that they're walking around and their next step could kill them, kill their buddy or take both their legs off. It's terrifying."

This summer's fighting season was the deadliest on record for U.S. and Afghan forces. That was expected, says Col. Andy Pullan, at the headquarters of the International Security and Assistance Force, or ISAF, in Afghanistan.

"You could draw the conclusion that things are getting worse. I would draw the conclusion that actually we've now got the ability to get on with the business at hand. Take the initiative from the enemy, and the enemy is inevitably going to fight back," he says.

Pullan says that if the plan works, sometime in the future the wave of violence will crest.

But some observers see the uptick in violence as a bad sign — especially because the bombs and assassinations have flared in areas of the north where the Taliban never held sway in the past, in places where there is little international presence.

Making Sure Areas Cleared Of Taliban Remain That Way

Map Of Kandahar and Kunar Provinces In Afghanistan

The eastern border with Pakistan also saw heavy fighting this summer, says Army Lt. Col. Joel Vowell of the 101st Airborne Division in the province of Kunar.

"It is their surge, their surge to counter the ISAF, NATO surge. We saw that in Kunar — between 200 to 300 percent increase in attacks this year compared to last year. They're here; they need to fight here because lastly ISAF are focused elsewhere. What better place to open up a second front?" Vowell says.

As with operations in the south, Vowell says U.S. forces in the east have killed hundreds of suspected insurgents during this fighting season, and his goal now is to help Afghan civilian authorities push into areas cleared by the fighting.

U.S. officials say that after nearly nine years, they finally have enough troops and the right strategy to fight effectively in Afghanistan. The question is how long the effort will last, says Manan Farahi, an adviser to Afghanistan's Interior Ministry.

"In my opinion, the timeline for the war — especially to defeat the terrorist network in Afghanistan or in the region — we couldn't defeat them in one day, two days or 10 days. It takes time. It's war," he says.

Farahi says Afghanistan needs an international effort to fight what he says is a regional war, but time is the key. He is aware that President Obama is going to reassess policy toward Afghanistan in less than two months and has announced his intention to start bringing home some troops in nine months.

It will also take time to measure just how much the American troop surge has won this fighting season. After the winter's lull, U.S. soldiers will look to see how strong the Taliban are when they return to fight in the spring.

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