LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The 1,500-mile-long border that Afghanistan shares with Pakistan is a wild and dangerous place. It's a region ruled more by gunmen and tribes than by the government in Kabul. The border also plays a critical role in the growing insurgency in Afghanistan. President Obama acknowledged the challenges at a press conference yesterday.
President BARACK OBAMA: The truth is, is that the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. The safe havens for al-Qaida remain in the frontier regions of Pakistan, and we are conducting currently a comprehensive review.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The president says he'll make a series of announcements next month on the direction of U.S. policy, and here's one thing he will no doubt consider: the border area gives militants a route to sanctuaries and supplies. Western and Afghan officials would like to close off those routes, as they've been trying for years. There are not enough troops to seal the area, which runs through snow-covered mountains and expanses of desert.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson spent two weeks traveling with U.S. troops to some of the more difficult spots, and here she is with the first of two reports on the struggle to secure the frontier.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The Kiawa helicopter flies overhead like a nervous mother bird, searching the rocky hillsides for any threat to the America soldiers who have just landed here. Soon the soldiers and the Afghan general they've brought along set off on foot for the village of Jaji Maiden, their guns at the ready.
It's not that they don't trust the residents. These villagers support the Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition.
The problem is some of their neighbors. Like many Afghans who live along the volatile border with Pakistan, the neighbors are linked to militants seeking to drive Western forces out of Afghanistan.
With local help, the militants often turn the road leading from here to the provincial capital into a minefield, helping isolate Jaji Maidan from the rest of Afghanistan.
(Soundbite of crowd)
NELSON: So it's little surprise that the arrival of outsiders draws a crowd. Tribal elders in turbans squeeze onto the patio of police headquarters, eager to meet with Major General Nabi Jan Molakheil, who has come here with the Americans. He heads the border police here in Khost and two neighboring provinces.
Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Kent, a National Guardsman from Laramie, Wyoming, is the Afghan general's senior U.S. adviser.
Lt. Col RAYMOND KENT (U.S. Advisor): He's the voice of Afghanistan. He's the government. I mean to these guys he is Kabul.
NELSON: The central government is one most Afghans living on the border rarely see.
AZIZULLAH (Tribal Militia Commander): (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: A tribal militia commander named Azizullah tells the general that the Afghan government should do more for them. Azizullah, like many Afghans, only uses one name.
He claims that the Taliban is in control just outside their town. He adds that frequent militant attacks in the area deprive residents of badly needed development, like schools and clinics. The violence even spills into Jaji Maidan, like a suicide attack at the market here about two months ago that left Azizullah with permanent injuries to his face and leg.
He asks the general for more money to expand his tribal militia, or arbakai, from 18 men to 100. But General Molakheil and the Americans have other ideas of how to bring security to this volatile region.
For them the answer lies with men like these at an Afghan border police headquarters in Khost.
In recent months, the U.S. military has turned its full attention to training and equipping this long-neglected Afghan force. The aim is to re-create the success with the border police that the Americans had in the past seven years with the Afghan army, which is increasingly doing its own fighting.
The U.S. military has made it a priority to fly General Molakheil all around the region to persuade Afghans to join the border police — or at least cooperate with them.
His passionate speeches and Pashtun roots, shared by most of the residents on the border, have led tribal elders and strongmen to offer nearly 700 men for recruitment into the border police in the past few months.
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Bradley's battalion, which until recently was fighting insurgents just outside Kabul, was reassigned to speed up development of the border police.
Lt. Col. CHARLES BRADLEY (Battalion Leader): You know, this is an Afghan problem and we're trying to provide an Afghan solution by increasing their capability, and so I think that's where the efforts need to be focused.
NELSON: U.S. military officials say they are also working hard to improve relations between the Afghan force and their Pakistani counterparts. There have been repeated firefights on the border in recent years — not just with insurgents, but between Pakistani frontier corps officers and Afghan and American forces.
Some of the fights were in part the results of lingering questions on where the border actually is. Few here accept the internationally recognized Durand Line drawn by the British 115 years ago.
Afghan officials, as well as a growing number of Western ones, also accuse current and former Pakistani military and intelligence officials of helping the Taliban, which the Pakistani government has repeatedly denied.
Army Major Pat Seiber, a spokesman for Task Force Currahee, which is the U.S.-led coalition in Khost and neighboring provinces, says his group has upped the number of meetings it's been hosting among Afghan, Pakistani and U.S. officers to ease the tensions.
Major PAT SEIBER (Spokesman, Task Force Currahee): And I think one of the things that really we've come to recognize now is that it's not just about coming on this side of the border. There's something going on on that side of the border and we've got to help each other out.
NELSON: But not everyone is persuaded by the new American approach.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly called for additional American troops arriving this year to be sent to secure the border. But American plans call for deploying the bulk of those troops in the southern provinces that are the stronghold of the Taliban.
And some Western experts say any military solution to the border problems — be it homegrown or foreign — is unlikely to succeed.
Christine Fair is co-author of a recent U.S. Institute of Peace report calling for a game-changing strategy to save Afghanistan.
Ms. CHRISTINE FAIR (U.S. Institute of Peace): Now I'm very dubious, given the nature of the border, that there will ever be - will you ever have enough border security forces that will actually be able to manage the security issues of that border.
NELSON: Nor can the Afghan government afford to maintain the kind of force being created once the Americans leave, she says. Instead, she and others say the problem is a political one that requires a political solution that resolves the concerns of both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, in Khost Province, Eastern Afghanistan.
INSKEEP: And Soraya's reporting continues tomorrow, when we'll hear about efforts by the U.S. and its NATO allies to build up the Afghan border police. The hope is that Afghans can take care of their borders without having to rely on outside help.
Unidentified Man: Would it be easier for the coalition to do that? Maybe. Would it be right? Heck no. This is about building capability and capacity for the Afghans.
INSKEEP: That's coming tomorrow and we have more coverage online. You can explore life in the volatile border region and see some of the challenges facing the Afghan border police in a photo gallery at npr.org.