NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently spent five days with U.S. and Afghan troops in Afghanistan's Kapisa province.
Soraya Nelson, NPR
Curious Afghan schoolboys gather in front of a U.S. Humvee in Elisay, a village in Kapisa province, about 50 miles north of Kabul. The U.S. military is working with the Afghan national security forces to oust insurgents from this lawless region.
Curious Afghan schoolboys gather in front of a U.S. Humvee in Elisay, a village in Kapisa province, about 50 miles north of Kabul. The U.S. military is working with the Afghan national security forces to oust insurgents from this lawless region. Soraya Nelson, NPR
Soraya Nelson, NPR
Villagers in Elisay stand near a green container that will serve as a checkpoint. The checkpoint was set up by the American military and Afghan National Police moments earlier.
Villagers in Elisay stand near a green container that will serve as a checkpoint. The checkpoint was set up by the American military and Afghan National Police moments earlier. Soraya Nelson, NPR
Soraya Nelson, NPR
An Army National Guardsman sits with tribal elders and Afghan National Army soldiers at a local council meeting in Kapisa province.
An Army National Guardsman sits with tribal elders and Afghan National Army soldiers at a local council meeting in Kapisa province. Soraya Nelson, NPR
In Afghanistan, a monthlong, U.S.-Afghan military operation is under way to rid a province near Kabul of Taliban and other Islamist fighters.
But even with a combined force that vastly outnumbers the insurgents, the Afghans and the Americans are learning that winning this war is hard.
The aim of the joint operation is to reopen Kapisa province's volatile Tagab Valley to the Afghan government and Western coalition. The valley, only 30 miles from Kabul, is rife with drug and timber smugglers, as well as insurgents.
The insurgents are Taliban fighters and gunmen loyal to warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Officials say that based on their accents, some of the men appear to be Pakistani and Uzbeki.
Most of these insurgents returned to Tagab soon after U.S. Special Forces and Afghan troops drove them out last year. As well, the new governor of Kapisa province ordered the release of some of the fighters caught in last year's operation.
Bringing Peace and Prosperity
Virtually every man in the valley has a gun. What residents don't have is any of the billions of aid dollars pouring into Afghanistan from around the world.
That makes valley residents bitter, as was evident at a recent meeting of tribal elders, Afghan officials and American officers. The elders complained that they want new roads, clinics and schools, such as the ones that are springing up in other parts of Kapisa province.
Here, they say, some of their schools have been taken over by the military to stage their operation.
"We used to have one battalion of Afghan soldiers here, and now we have a brigade," Abdul Fatawh, an elder from Sufia village, says. "All that brings us is violence."
Fatawh and others believe they are being punished by the new government because residents of the Tagab Valley were loyal to the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan. The rest of the province was controlled by the Northern Alliance that fought against the Taliban.
But the new governor, Gholam Ghaus, tells the elders it's not about politics, it's about safety, which is nonexistent in the Tagab Valley.
"Your complaints are valid. I've heard them for years," Ghaus says. "But you, like everybody else, are residents of this province. And the responsibility for making this place safe rests with you."
Replacing Insurgents with Afghan Security Forces
This kind of stalemate logic has dogged U.S. troops fighting insurgents and rebuilding Afghanistan's forces since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.
The U.S. military teams training and advising the Afghan army and police say this time, they are trying a different tack. They want to create a divide between Pashtun villagers and the insurgent Taliban and "HIG," as the U.S. military calls Hekmatyar's fighters.
Army National Guard Lt. Col. Paul MacKenzie, of Benicia, Calif., is advising the Afghan general heading the current operation.
"The Taliban and the HIG have their boots on the ground. They have the presence," MacKenzie says. "That's what we need to do. We need to replace their presence with our guys. And it's just going to have to take being in the community, engaging the community."
MacKenzie says that means getting the Afghan forces into villages permanently, not only for security but as envoys of their government who bring aid.
Recently, Army National Guard Maj. Nick Fleischman, a former police officer from Fresno, Calif., accompanied Afghan soldiers to a girls' school to hand out paper, pens and candy donated by his friends back home.
Fleischman says it makes all the difference for American and Afghan soldiers to connect with the locals this way.
"The Taliban preys on people not having knowledge of what the government can and will do for them. So it's important to get out here and do those types of things, so people know that there is a government in Kabul, and that their life can be brought up from where it's at now," Fleischmann says.
But first, the Tagab Valley has to be made safe. That's foremost on American and Afghan troops' minds as they continue their often dangerous work: searching for improvised roadside bombs and sweeping for mines, strengthening relationships with villagers, and setting up portable police posts to help secure the area.