From Afghanistan: Many Challenges As U.S. Forces Go After Taliban

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in Afghanistan with producer Graham Smith and photographer David Gilkey. They've been there a week and will be in the country, much of the time "embedded" with U.S. troops, for another month. Tom sends this report about his recent interview with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the challenges facing U.S. and coalition forces in the country's Helmand Province, where Taliban forces have been on the rise.

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School children pile into the back of pick-up truck after classes at their school house which sits in the middle of the future site of a local police training center in Lashkar Gah in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

By Tom Bowman

KABUL — The U.S. Embassy reminded me of the Super Max Prison in Baltimore. It all but cried out secure, with its long thin windows and squat look. A kind of orange color not found in nature, almost as if it were fashioned out of clay.

It's there we met the new ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, a former three star Army general who was a foreign areas officer and an expert in a particular part of the world. For Eikenberry, though, it was China. He's a fluent Mandarin speaker. He did two tours in Afghanistan, though. His last tour was an 18-month one that ended in 2007.

Eikenberry might not be fluent in Pashto, but he is highly regarded. He was among the first to push for beefing up the Afghan Security Forces a few years back, and warned of a growing Taliban presence. But back then, Iraq was the focus. As Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, acknowledged last year, "In Iraq we do what we must, in Afghanistan we do what we can."

So Eikenberry never got troops or money or even attention. That appears to be changing as thousands more U.S. troops, civilian rebuilding experts and billions of tax dollars are heading this way.

He's only been on the job about two weeks.

As we waited with one of his aides in an outer room, he rushed past and apologized for being late. "I'm trying to figure out what day it is," Eikenberry said, as he strolled into his office.

Eikenberry has a difficult role, trying to walk that fine line between military needs and an Afghan government widely seen as ineffective and corrupt. And in the middle of it all, he's already been faced with a civilian casualty nightmare after U.S.. aircraft dropped as many as a dozen bombs, some weighing a ton, as they went after militants.

He visited the scene out in Farah Province with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and promised the U.S. would do more to avoid civilian casualties. But Eikenberry never got too specific — he talked about getting more intelligence to pinpoint exactly where the enemy is before dropping bombs, and making sure the Afghan forces are in the lead.

There is rising anger here about the civilian losses, from both the average Afghan citizen and senior Afghan officials, like Karzai. The Afghan leader wants an end to all bombing, and an end to night operations. American military officials say there are times when bombing might be necessary to protect U.S. and Afghan forces, and that the U.S. military "owns the night" having an edge with night vision goggles and other equipment that give them an edge over the Taliban. They say they will never end night ops.

In the midst of this debate, we met an Afghan police officer in Helmand Province. He's a 45-year-old wheat farmer, with a thin face, sunglasses and a long black beard. He told us his farm was bombed by U.S. forces. Is he angry with America?

No, he said calmly, he was upset with the Taliban that were in the area, pointing the finger at them instead.

Eikenberry was hopeful that with more troops, more American trainers, and money, the country could continue to recruit and train Afghans —- like that farmer turned cop —to take over all security operations. It's only then that things will start turning around.

Foreign forces can never end an insurgency, Eikenberry and others know from studying insurgenices over the past century. It can only come to an end with more and better trained local forces — along with a political solution. That means eventually coaxing the Taliban fighters to lay down their arms or peeling off Taliban foot soldiers with the promise of jobs and security.

But one of the most serious issues besides the Taliban, is corruption: Afghan officials skimming money from customs agents or taking an active part in the drug trade. There is strong suspicion, and some say evidence, that Karzai's own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai is among those in the latter category. He is a top official in Khandahar Province, next door to Helmand. He strongly denies the corruption charges, as does the president.

But throughout Afghanistan, U.S. and British officials complain about high-level corruption and drug bosses who live out in the open. We flew over an estate that looked like the Taj Mahal, with a helicopter in the back yard.

"Drug dealer," said one officer.

Wny not go after the man? "Probably has connections to the government."

The officers we met at the British base in Helmand, at Lashkar Gah, also say the local police chief is corrupt, accused of keeping and selling the drugs he captures in raids. But they must work with him in building the police force. These are appointed officials, and the U.S. and British military can't just brush them aside.

What they hope is they can build a professional police force, a job they say will take years.

We arrived at the British base in BlackHawk helicopters, flying over a flat and endless desert landscape, all different shades of brown with scrub bushes, like stubble on an old man's face. Every once in a while, you'd see a small patch of green with a mud-brick house, maybe some sheep. Or the palatial home of a suspected drug dealer.

Otherwise it was almost like another planet, a vast plain stretching into the hazy distance.

The base at Lashkar Gah has all the charm of a dusty industrial site, mostly tents and plywood buildings, rimmed by razor wire and massive sand bags. Helicopters thump in and out, bringing clouds of dust. Row upon row of Cougars and MRAPs, the massive armored vehicles (picture a Brinks truck on steroids) that the military hopes will make them even more secure from roadside bombs.

The problem is there are few paved roads here, and many small bridges. So these behemoths have trouble getting through villages. Troops have to pile out and walk over the small bridge created for a donkey cart.

The British have some 200 soldiers here, and the Americans just a handful of police trainers. Although the city of "Lash" is pretty secure, they say, just to the west is Taliban country. Only a few days ago, American Green Berets swept in to the town of Mahjer, killed several dozen Taliban and seized about 40,000 pounds of Black Tar Heroin and bomb-making equipment.

They exploded the bomb-making equipment and the explosion could be heard at this British base, some fourteen miles away.

Major Jim Contreras is the top American police trainer here, in charge of a few teams that head out and "mentor" the police. He's a squat National Guard officer from Virginia who sells surgical equipment back home.

He says he could use more mentors and is happy that more are coming. Some 8,000 Marines are expected in the coming weeks. Privately he hopes they will be more aggressive than the British in going after the Taliban and drug dealers, like that guy in the Taj Mahal.

And he is over all optimistic that the next few years will be better than the last when resources were liminited and the insurgency was growing.

Contreras takes us into town in an MRAP. We bounce along as kids wave and older residents turn and gaze with suspicious looks. We watch it all from inside this armored cocoon.

Contreras talks about the 9/11 attacks and how his work here will hopefully prevent another one. The Afghans need jobs, he says, so they won't turn to a revolutionary jihadist bend on destruction.

He has a teenage son who hopes to sign up for the Guard. And Contreras says he is here, doing a tough job, so his son won't have to.

(Graham Smith's latest report, about the helicopter ride to Lashkar Gah and the scene there, is posted here.)

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