U.S. Military Carefully Keeping Score In Afghanistan

Gen. David Petraeus, if confirmed by the Senate, will soon take over as the new military commander in Afghanistan. He inherits a war few think is going well and faces a tight deadline for turning things around. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. He has been evaluating the "metrics" the military will use to judge whether its strategy is working, and speaks to host Scott Simon about what he's learned.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

General David Petraeus goes before the Senate next week for confirmation hearings to approve his nomination by President Obama to take over the war in Afghanistan. If confirmed, the general will inherit a difficult mission and a tight deadline for showing progress.

He has a long to-do list, from getting the fight right against the Taliban to building up the Afghan police force and getting local governments to take care of their people.

NPR's Tom Bowman is in Afghanistan. He's been looking at what's been working and what has not. He joins us now. Tom, thanks for being with us.

TOM BOWMAN: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And describe for us what General Petraeus is about to inherit.

BOWMAN: Well, he's about to inherit something very, very difficult, and I think far difficult than what he inherited in Iraq back in 2007 when he, of course, took over the so-called surge in troops. I think the military mission isn't as far along as it was in Iraq back at that time.

And the real center of interest right now for the American military is Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. We've been running around Kandahar for the past three weeks. We've been in the city with American MPs, training Afghan police. In a couple of days we're going to be heading north of Kandahar to an area called Zhari, and that's sort of a Taliban stronghold.

The 101st Airborne, the brigade of the 101st, about 4,000 soldiers, they're up there now. And over time, in the coming weeks and months, they'll be sweeping the area of the Taliban. So really, depending where you go around here, there's a range of missions to this operation.

It's really different depending where you go. We were also with Green Berets, setting up essentially neighborhood watches, armed neighborhood watches, in some of the villages north of Kandahar.

SIMON: What's a neighborhood operation - neighborhood watch operation like, say, in Kandahar right now?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, it's very similar to what we know in the United States when they created neighborhood watches in tough areas of American cities. They would encourage neighbors to go out there - sometimes they wore the same T-shirt - and go around and if they saw anything bad happen they would notify the police.

Here what they're trying to do is get some of the villagers to take up arms and patrol their own village and alert the officials - who could be Afghan officials or Americans - if they see something that looks pretty bad, if they see Taliban coming into their village. Of course, they would also defend their villages by arms. So it's not, you know, a strict neighborhood watch that we would know back in the United States.

SIMON: And what's your impression? Does it seem to be working?

BOWMAN: Well, it's really just starting. They only have a handful of villages taking part in this neighborhood watch program. They're all to the north of Kandahar, out in these farm areas. And when we were with the Green Berets, they were just trying to get one started in this particular village.

They only had one villager who was actually willing to sign up, so they have a ways to go with this program.

SIMON: It sounds like a very daunting list to try and show any progress by the end of the year.

BOWMAN: It's a very, very daunting list. And you know, the hard part of this is really creating good government and creating a government that doesn't have corrupt officials. That's the difficult part. You almost know what's going to happen if you flood the zone with thousands of Marines or soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division. They will take that land from the Taliban.

But it's those other issues that are really out of the military's hands - good government in particular - that really is going to make a difference here. You have insurgencies because you have lousy governments or nonexistent governments. And that's something the military can't create.

SIMON: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman in Kandahar. Thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Scott.

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