MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
To start this hour of the program, we're going to take you on a ride with the Green Berets. This team of specially trained Army soldiers has been operating in western Afghanistan for five months. And the way they're working tells a lot about the new military strategy for Afghanistan. These troops spend more time helping rebuild villages than they do battling enemy fighters.
BLOCK: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman traveled recently with the Green Berets. In the course of one day they visited two villages, cut across a desert, eavesdropped on the Taliban and learned a lot about what will determine American success or failure in Afghanistan. Tom's day started at a small Army outpost called Firebase Thomas.
TOM BOWMAN: The Green Berets pull on their body armor. Picture lumberjacks in uniform - all beards and bulk. They're armed with machine guns, grenade launchers, assault weapons.
U: All right, we're moving.
BOWMAN: Most of the team climbs aboard huge armored trucks. A few others hop on all-terrain vehicles. They rumble out of Firebase Thomas - it's named for another Green Beret killed in action near here. On this day, they'll be touring Zerkoh Valley, a 30-mile-long stretch of green, once a Taliban stronghold. It's not a combat mission. Instead, they're working their way down the valley to check on projects to help local villagers. One of them is a clinic they're expanding.
U: So this is actually the clinic that's being built.
BOWMAN: That's the Green Berets' captain. He's a West Point graduate. For security reasons, we can't use his name. This is our first stop. The village of Azizabad, just off the only asphalt highway, Route One. The captain points to a pair of low concrete buildings just off the highway. Other Special Forces soldiers joke that he prefers building clinics to what they call kinetic operations - killing insurgents.
U: We do the kinetic thing when we have to, but I'm not super worried about what other teams think of us. I think our performance speaks for itself and what we've done out here. And I definitely think that we're going in the right direction.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)
BOWMAN: The new clinic will have a small lab for blood tests. And it will have a new birthing room.
U: (Through Translator) He said that it's really important for the people, because this is only one clinic around, and as soon as we get done with this clinic, there will be a large staff and more doctors to help the people.
BOWMAN: The Green Berets say they've had good success reaching out to the locals. But this mission raises a first big question. Does winning hearts and minds help win the war?
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)
BOWMAN: We drive a short distance, pulling off Route One and bouncing down a dirt road toward another construction project.
U: Now, this right up here is actually the mosque.
BOWMAN: A new minaret rises above fields. The mosque is 150 years old. Workers haul bricks and boards, part of a project to expand the mosque, paid for with money from American taxpayers. An elder stops to talk with us and gestures toward a soldier with the Green Berets who is overseeing building projects here.
U: (Through Translator) He helped me a lot. He did surgery for me.
BOWMAN: It was a shrapnel wound, he says, from fighting the Russians. Wheat fields stretch out on both sides of the mosque. And these fields of wheat raise a second question critical to the American war effort. Who exactly is the enemy? Right here in Azizabad, the Green Beret captain tells us there's a temporary truce between the local elders and the Taliban fighters. They fear that the wheat crop could suffer from the fighting.
U: If something happens during a firefight, an insurgent shoots an RPG, I mean, everything is so dry out here that these farmers will lose everything.
BOWMAN: So the insurgents stop the shooting while the villagers harvest their crops. Perhaps that's the Taliban's plan for winning hearts and minds. We leave Azizabad and head further south. To avoid roadside bombs, the Green Berets abandon the roads and cut across the desert.
U: We're getting some chatter on the radio.
BOWMAN: It's the Taliban. They're watching the Americans.
U: They're asking each other about how many vehicles we have got and which direction we are going in. That's the questions they're asking each other.
BOWMAN: The ATVs speed across the desert and disappear in a cloud of dust. The armored vehicles lumber behind like elephants as we make our way to the next stop.
U: We're at a school that obviously needs some work (unintelligible) to our west here is Kuhak - it's on the southern end of Zerkoh Valley. And if you didn't notice, we skirted the valley coming down. There's always somebody talking about getting us.
BOWMAN: A group of elders crosses an open field - a long, bobbing line of turbans and robes. Their leader lashes out in a 20-minute tirade about the Afghan government.
U: (Through Translator) If the government keep these people disappointed, I'm 100 percent sure that the people will turn back and they won't be helping the government anymore.
BOWMAN: This is the third big question we confronted during our day with the Green Berets. Can Afghanistan govern itself? Green Beret captain assures the elder that help is on the way.
U: One of the things that he needs to understand is that the government does care about you. The government realizes that you have a security situation out here, and that is one of the reasons why we come down here.
BOWMAN: But the Afghan government is nowhere to be seen this day. A few Afghan commandos stand watch, a few lounge in their truck, another throws rocks at a plastic bottle while American medics tend to a long line of children and old men. The captain knows that Afghan soldiers must do more for the Americans to be able to leave. That's the mantra of the U.S. military: Put an Afghan face on this counterinsurgency. One of the Green Berets scans the village looking for that Afghan face - in this case, the Afghan National Police or ANP.
U: That's just the way it is. I mean, have you guys seen one ANP truck down in Zerkoh? Nothing. There is no lawful entity that's constantly around.
(SOUNDBITE OF ATV)
BOWMAN: While all this is happening, one of the Green Berets, known as Chief, speeds across an open plain on his ATV. He's playing with the village kids. He has three of his own back in the States.
CHIEF: I'm trying to distract all the kids from messing with the crowds over there. So I figure I'd get out in the distance to try to give them pens to help shoo them away, but ran out of pens. So many kids, so little time.
BOWMAN: Off duty, Chief favors loud shirts and cigars. He's been assigned here, on and off, for the past seven years. Just two nights before, he was riding this same ATV on a very different mission. The Americans were out to capture a top Taliban leader, a bomb-maker named Mullah Faizullah. The Taliban operative tried to escape on a motorcycle. Chief went after him, but rolled his ATV. When Faizullah reached for his weapon, Chief jumped up and shot him dead.
NORRIS: After the Green Beret killed the Taliban bomb-maker, the U.S. military command in Kabul put out a press release saying he was, quote, "killed by Afghan soldiers." The incident highlights the bigger problem. Afghan forces aren't taking the lead.
U: Hopefully, one time or another, in a few years, maybe more, they'll be at a point where they can actually take care of this themselves, but we'll see, we'll see.
BOWMAN: The Green Berets get in their vehicles and head north, back across the desert and on to Firebase Thomas. These soldiers know it's not enough to put an Afghan face on things. In the words of one U.S. commander, it's about the Afghans getting their asses in there.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kuhak, Afghanistan.
NORRIS: And you can see a photo gallery of the Green Berets from Tom's story at npr.org.
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