In Kandahar, A Battle For Hearts, Minds

  • Two members of the Afghan army's first-ever special operations team in southern Afghanistan. The team was deployed in the field just weeks ago and has been joined by teams of U.S. Army Special Forces in a collaborative security effort outside of Kandahar city.
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    Two members of the Afghan army's first-ever special operations team in southern Afghanistan. The team was deployed in the field just weeks ago and has been joined by teams of U.S. Army Special Forces in a collaborative security effort outside of Kandahar city.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Capt. Dan of the Green Berets (the U.S. Army Special Forces can only give journalists their first names) on patrol in the village of Ezabad. Together, the American and Afghan special forces are conducting what they call "village stability operations."
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    Capt. Dan of the Green Berets (the U.S. Army Special Forces can only give journalists their first names) on patrol in the village of Ezabad. Together, the American and Afghan special forces are conducting what they call "village stability operations."
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Afghan army special forces Capt. Dost is working with the Green Berets and, in most cases, taking the lead. The joint mission aims to provide security, plan development projects and encourage Afghan villagers to resist the Taliban with armed community watch groups.
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    Afghan army special forces Capt. Dost is working with the Green Berets and, in most cases, taking the lead. The joint mission aims to provide security, plan development projects and encourage Afghan villagers to resist the Taliban with armed community watch groups.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Capt. Dost (left) talks with a local resident in Ezabad in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. While American efforts may fall on deaf ears, Afghan villagers have been inclined to facilitate the efforts of the Afghan special forces.
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    Capt. Dost (left) talks with a local resident in Ezabad in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. While American efforts may fall on deaf ears, Afghan villagers have been inclined to facilitate the efforts of the Afghan special forces.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • A U.S. armored vehicle makes its way through the desert outside Ezabad. While the U.S. Army Special Forces mentor their Afghan counterparts in counterinsurgency tactics, they also benefit from the Afghans' knowledge of local culture and customs.
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    A U.S. armored vehicle makes its way through the desert outside Ezabad. While the U.S. Army Special Forces mentor their Afghan counterparts in counterinsurgency tactics, they also benefit from the Afghans' knowledge of local culture and customs.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • An Afghan family rides past a joint U.S.-Afghan patrol in Ezabad. Special forces aim to train communities to protect themselves. But they must first gain the trust of local Afghans, and overcome the mistrust caused by local police corruption.
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    An Afghan family rides past a joint U.S.-Afghan patrol in Ezabad. Special forces aim to train communities to protect themselves. But they must first gain the trust of local Afghans, and overcome the mistrust caused by local police corruption.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • American and Afghan forces stop to talk with villagers on the road outside Ezabad.
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    American and Afghan forces stop to talk with villagers on the road outside Ezabad.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • An American Special Forces officer talks with a local farmer in Ezabad, encouraging him to join a village defense force against the Taliban.
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    An American Special Forces officer talks with a local farmer in Ezabad, encouraging him to join a village defense force against the Taliban.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • A young boy in Ezabad watches as Green Berets and Afghan soldiers interview his older brother.
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    A young boy in Ezabad watches as Green Berets and Afghan soldiers interview his older brother.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • A U.S. Special Forces explosives-detection dog cools off in an irrigation ditch in Ezabad during a joint U.S.-Afghan patrol.
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    A U.S. Special Forces explosives-detection dog cools off in an irrigation ditch in Ezabad during a joint U.S.-Afghan patrol.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • American and Afghan soldiers fire side by side during a shooting exercise in the desert near Ezabad. When not on regular patrols, the Afghan and U.S. special forces are training for the next mission.
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    American and Afghan soldiers fire side by side during a shooting exercise in the desert near Ezabad. When not on regular patrols, the Afghan and U.S. special forces are training for the next mission.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • A child approaches Green Berets on patrol in Ezabad. Special Forces use ATVs (or all-terrain vehicles) for better mobility across rough terrain and narrow village roads.
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    A child approaches Green Berets on patrol in Ezabad. Special Forces use ATVs (or all-terrain vehicles) for better mobility across rough terrain and narrow village roads.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • An Afghan commando sits on a mud wall while securing a road during a patrol in the village of Ezabad. Perhaps an auspicious beginning for cooperation between Americans and Afghans, the road ahead looks long and arduous.
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    An Afghan commando sits on a mud wall while securing a road during a patrol in the village of Ezabad. Perhaps an auspicious beginning for cooperation between Americans and Afghans, the road ahead looks long and arduous.
    David Gilkey/NPR

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In Afghanistan, the battle for Kandahar may not have officially begun, but it is quietly under way.

The mission is different for every American military unit in the country. U.S. military police patrol in Kandahar city. In rural Kandahar province, American soldiers are preparing to strike at Taliban strongholds.

But building ties with villagers may prove the most difficult job of all.

A unit of U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, working outside Kandahar city is seeking to win over villagers by building schools and clinics and providing security.

The desert village of Ezabad resembles a town from a Hollywood Western. Except in Ezabad, the bad guys are the Taliban. "We really are on the outskirts of bad-guy land," says Dan, a lanky, 28-year-old Green Beret captain with dark stubble on his face. For security reasons, only his first name can be used.

Working, Living Among The Afghans

Ezabad lies just northwest of Kandahar city. It is a jumble of walled compounds set on a vast desert plain. It looks like the ruins of an old fort, its high adobe walls cracked by the sun.

Dan gestures from his walled compound to a farming village 100 yards away. Kids ride past on bikes, kicking up plumes of dust. Other children struggle under the weight of wheelbarrows. In the distance, men work the fields. "It's a lot easier to help people when you live next door than when you are on a big base," he says.

An Afghan commando sits on a mud wall i i

hide captionAn Afghan commando sits on a mud wall while securing a road for U.S. Special Forces soldiers on patrol in the village of Ezabad, in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.

David Gilkey/NPR
An Afghan commando sits on a mud wall

An Afghan commando sits on a mud wall while securing a road for U.S. Special Forces soldiers on patrol in the village of Ezabad, in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.

David Gilkey/NPR

What the Americans hope to create by living next door to Ezabad is one more link in what's called the "village stability operation." The plan has several goals: provide needed facilities, such as schools and clinics, as well as security so that villagers are able to use those new facilities.

To that end, the Green Berets are helping form a village community watch, armed neighbors willing to protect the village against the Taliban. "I think this grass-roots, bottom-up approach is definitely a step in the right direction," Dan says.

Afghan-American Cooperation Key

That approach means the Green Berets work with Afghan troops, a unit of Afghan army special forces. Inside the compound, under a large green tarp, soldiers — both American and Afghan — sleep on cots.

"These guys are welcomed onto our team and from Day 1 treated as such," Dan says.

The Afghan army special forces are highly trained soldiers in a country where many security forces, especially the police, are corrupt. Their commander, Capt. Dost, says through his interpreter that the police were part of the problem.

"They weren't asking about people's problems. They didn't want to live with them, and they didn't want to build up relationships with the people. That's why people were complaining about them," he says.

Dost wears a scarf tied around his head; his face is toughened by the sun. He is 25 but looks twice as old.

Dost will be the one who approaches the villagers — an Afghan talking to Afghans.

Dan says that Dost takes the lead on conversations with locals. "At first I did. But the conversation fell on deaf ears," he says.

Delicate Task Of Winning Over Villagers

On a recent day, Dost leads the way as the Afghans and Americans leave their compound and head toward the village. They cross fields, covered by small green plants with sharp, narrow leaves — marijuana, and lots of it.

The Afghan commander waves to several farmers. They slowly trudge toward him. The Afghans — Dost and the farmers — sit down in the field. And Dan stands off to one side.

One farmer says he is worried that the Taliban will come and the villagers will be caught in the crossfire. Dost assures them nothing is going to happen.

Maybe the farmer believes him, maybe not. This is the critical link if the war in Afghanistan is to be won — winning the trust of the villagers. And it's no easy task.

Dost leads the American and Afghan troops to another house, in hopes of talking to Khan, the nephew of a village elder who fled after Taliban threats. Dan and the others hope Khan will help the soldiers gain a foothold among villagers.

But there's only disappointment: With no explanation, Khan had fled toward Kandahar city six days ago. The American and Afghan patrol heads out of the village, as the sun begins to dip into the desert.

Back at the soldiers' compound, Dan says he is disappointed that Khan had disappeared. "He usually is very open with us, seemed to support out cause. So tomorrow anything could happen. It's another day," Dan says.

He turns to Dost, his Afghan partner, as they head to their bunks.

"Try and get some rest, bro," he tells the Afghan. "Good job today."

Still, it's clear that reaching out to the village of Ezabad will take time.

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