Near Kandahar, Key Test Of Afghan War Plan Unfolds

Col. Muhammed Rasoud Qandahari, one of the top Afghan National Army officers in the Kandahar region i i

Col. Muhammed Rasoud Qandahari, one of the top Afghan army officers in the Kandahar region, speaks with a young man outside a shura, or community meeting, in Panjwaii, west of Kandahar. U.S. troops are hoping to clear the area of Taliban and let Afghan troops take over. Greg Dixon/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Dixon/NPR
Col. Muhammed Rasoud Qandahari, one of the top Afghan National Army officers in the Kandahar region

Col. Muhammed Rasoud Qandahari, one of the top Afghan army officers in the Kandahar region, speaks with a young man outside a shura, or community meeting, in Panjwaii, west of Kandahar. U.S. troops are hoping to clear the area of Taliban and let Afghan troops take over.

Greg Dixon/NPR

Army Capt. Davitt Broderick's command post is a two-story adobe house in southern Afghanistan's Taliban country.

His company of about 100 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division swept into this area of Kandahar's Panjwaii district about two weeks ago in the dead of night, aboard massive Chinook helicopters. They are with about 200 Afghan army soldiers on a mission to sweep through the villages, fields and orchards west of the city of Kandahar.

They have rushed to set up small combat outposts and checkpoints.

It is a key test of the American war strategy for Afghanistan, being watched not only by the Taliban but by the U.S. military command up the ranks to Gen. David Petraeus.

Map of Panjwaii District in Kandahar

Flushing Out The Taliban

In Panjwaii, the goal is to break up key supply routes for the Taliban. It's here that Taliban fighters and weapons move in — across a desert from Pakistan — and then are sent to threaten Kandahar just 15 miles to the east.

Broderick, 29, is on his first tour in Afghanistan. From his combat outpost, with a roof of wooden poles and sticks, his forces are trying to take the fight to the enemy, cut their supply lines and win the support of locals.

Just a few weeks ago, the Taliban lived under this roof. Broderick says they planted explosive booby traps, called IEDs, all around as a protective shield.

When the American and Afghan troops swept in, the Taliban shot back. Broderick's company continues to receive harassing fire.

But most of the Taliban fighters left in haste, leaving behind their bomb-making materials and, says Broderick, virtually disappearing.

"We got people all around here trying to contain the area but it's too easy for them to put down their guns, look like everybody else and go about their business," Broderick says.

Luring Locals Back

About three dozen Afghan elders and villagers meet with U.S. and Afghan troops in Panjwaii i i

About three dozen Afghan elders and villagers attend a meeting with Afghan and U.S. troops at the American compound in Panjwaii, about 15 west of the city of Kandahar. Greg Dixon/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Dixon/NPR
About three dozen Afghan elders and villagers meet with U.S. and Afghan troops in Panjwaii

About three dozen Afghan elders and villagers attend a meeting with Afghan and U.S. troops at the American compound in Panjwaii, about 15 west of the city of Kandahar.

Greg Dixon/NPR

The additional problem for these American and Afghan forces is that nearly everybody else — the local Afghans — have also fled. The village is practically empty.

That poses another challenge to Broderick and his Afghan allies: Trying to convince the people it's safe to come home.

The American troops managed to get three dozen Afghan elders and villagers to come to a recent meeting at the U.S. outpost. Some of them even brought their children.

They began with a prayer, and then got down to business.

Afghan army Col. Muhammed Rasoud Qandahari, a senior officer in this part of the country, took the lead. Broderick and the rest of the Americans stood in the background.

The Afghan colonel's role in Panjwaii is yet another critical part of the U.S. strategy. If American troops are to return home from Afghanistan, it will be because Afghan troops have taken their place.

Qandahari, a squat, bearded man, was born nearby and fought the Soviets here in the 1980s.

"If the Afghan army and police are here, it won't be a problem, the Taliban won't come back," he says.

But the American troops aren't so sure. While there are twice as many Afghan troops as Americans in Panjwaii, the Afghan forces still are not yet ready to operate on their own.

Qandahari says that success here means more than just security. It's also about giving villagers a better life.

"It depends on how much work you give to the people," he explains.  "If they get busy, if the roads are fixed, if there are clinics, if there are schools. It depends on things like that."

Making Life Stable, Supplanting The Taliban

After American and Afghan forces clear Taliban fighters from an area and hold the ground, they then must build something for the Afghan people.

Later, Lt. Col. Rob Harmon, Broderick's boss, reviews with him plans for the area.

Broderick points to a satellite map of the town of Panjwaii hanging on the mud wall of the American compound. It shows a checkerboard of houses, fields and dirt roads.

He points to one spot on the map. The centerpiece of the community is the local bazaar.

Harmon wants to know whether there's progress bringing people back to the bazaar.

"You said 18 shops are open?" he asks.

"No, just one shop," Broderick explains. "The shopkeeper basically said the rest of them are afraid to open up."

It will take security and building the confidence of the locals to entice them back. And if that happens, the U.S. officers here hope, there can be schools and clinics and a way to make a life stable enough that the locals won't sign up with the Taliban.

"The couple of the guys that were shooting at us [recently] could be an active part of society next year," Broderick says. "If things go right."

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