MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
I'm Melissa Block.
And we begin this hour on patrol. We're following American Green Berets through a village north of Kandahar City, Afghanistan's second largest city and the focus of a major upcoming military operation. For the next few weeks, NPR's Tom Bowman is imbedding with several different U.S. military units, trying to tell the story of Kandahar and the U.S. effort to drive out the Taliban.
On MORNING EDITION today, Tom followed a Green Beret team that had so far found mostly disappointment - villagers who are unwilling to talk with them and failed to show up for meetings. His story continues now, as special operation soldiers find some success fighting the Taliban for the hearts and minds of Kandahar.
(Soundbite of patrol)
ELI (Green Beret): We're ready to roll right there?
TOM BOWMAN: It's mid-morning and already baking hot, over 100 degrees of desert heat.
ELI: We just go up the road.
BOWMAN: A patrol of American and Afghan commandos slowly moves out of their mud-walled compound in toward Ezabad, a village just a football-field away and right in the middle of Taliban country.
Leading the patrol is Eli, he's a 32-year-old Green Beret officer from Idaho. For security reasons, we can only use his first name. Eli's a Matt Damon look-a-like. He wears a floppy camouflage hat and has six tours of Afghanistan under his belt. And during many of those tours, Eli says the Americans weren't fighting the war the right way. Too much focus on killing the Taliban, he says, and not enough on protecting the people.
ELI: Everybody else is starting to realize how to fight the war the right way, focused on the population. Because without these people here, we're no good.
BOWMAN: So that means providing security to villages like Ezabad, then following up with schools and clinics, much of it paid for with American money but funneled through the Afghans.
ELI: That way it shows that it's going through the government, not just us coming up here saying, hey, we'll repair your mosque, this, this and this.
BOWMAN: The problem is there is no Afghan government here. Without that, the Americans say, the war can't be won. The top Afghan political official in the area, district leader Obidullah Bawari, hasn't even visited the village. Eli says the top Afghan special forces officer is suspicious of him.
(Soundbite of patrol)
ELI: He didn't like him a little bit because he knows that he takes money.
BOWMAN: He's a little corrupt?
ELI: Yeah. He doesn't show his face, and that's a problem.
BOWMAN: Bawari is a portly man. During a meeting at an American military base a few miles away, he peers over his reading glasses, munching on nachos.
(Soundbite of base)
Mr. OBIDULLAH BAWARI (District Leader): (Speaking foreign language)
BOWMAN: When the meeting breaks, I ask him through an interpreter why he doesn't get out to the villages.
(Soundbite of base)
Mr. BAWARI: (Through translator) When he gets invited by people to come and talk to them in their village, he goes over there.
BOWMAN: Why do you have to be invited out to see the people that you represent? Why can't you just go on your own?
Mr. BAWARI: (Through translator) In some places he says he's not able to do that a lot because of security reasons.
BOWMAN: The district leader promises to visit sometime in the future. For now the only visitors are the American Green Berets and their Afghan special forces, and the Taliban. Because in the absence of any competent government, Ezabad is ripe fruit for the insurgents. The Taliban pay kids to keep a close eye on the Americans, maybe throw a grenade. That happened two weeks earlier, slightly wounding two Green Berets.
ELI: What they'll do with the kids, 15, 16 years old, get on the radios: Hey, they're coming, they're here, they're there, stuff like that, just simple stuff.
BOWMAN: So Eli and the Afghan soldiers are taking the first small steps to change things. For months they've patrolled here. Now they've actually moved into the village, taking over an abandoned compound. Children recognize the Afghan and American Special Forces and run up to the patrol.
(Soundbite of child laughter)
BOWMAN: Over the coming months, Eli and his team hope to create an armed community watch program in the village as another line of defense against the Taliban. Similar watch groups are up and running in the farming areas north of Kandahar city. The Green Berets are working, literally, one village at a time.
(Soundbite of patrol)
BOWMAN: How long is this going to take?
ELI: I don't know.
ELI: I think it'll take years, yeah. Years of making up for the, you know, mistakes that everybody's admitted that we made.
BOWMAN: Eli and his patrol move through the village. It's like a maze, a narrow road with 10-foot walls on either side. There's a sense of not knowing what to expect around the next corner.
(Soundbite of goats)
BOWMAN: The path opens up onto a field. There are plenty of goats nearby, but no men in sight.
ELI: This is one thing that I was afraid of was nobody being out.
BOWMAN: They pass the village water pump. There are constant reminders of dangers on this patrol. Eli sidesteps a wide patch of straw on the path.
ELI: I don't walk over hay 'cause I can't see what's buried under it.
BOWMAN: A good instinct. Just down the road, another group of American soldiers discover a roadside bomb. They get ready to destroy it.
(Soundbite of radio dispatch)
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) 30 seconds till control.
ELI: Thirty seconds.
BOWMAN: Eli pauses by the side of the road with his patrol.
(Soundbite of explosion)
ELI: Oh, there it was. It blew up.
BOWMAN: They keep moving. They're looking for a farmer who's been a good source of information on the Taliban.
ELI: Oh, there, that's him right there.
NABI: (Speaking foreign language)
BOWMAN: Do they have a few minutes?
ELI: Where can we sit that's not really hot?
BOWMAN: The farmer's name is Nabi. He's tall, thin and nervous. He squats on a mat inside his house, together with the soldiers. The Americans ask him about the Taliban. He says they slip into the village quietly. They intimidate the villagers. They'll send what's known as a night letter, a written threat to beat or kill anyone who supports the Americans.
NABI: (Through translator) They will drop night letters in the mosque and they told everybody, hey, I don't want to see anybody help out American guys and, you know, staying with them and talking to them. So, I don't want to see anybody around here doing that.
BOWMAN: Here in Ezabad, some of the villagers support the Taliban. Others are just scared and unwilling to choose sides. Eli asks Nabi to side with the Afghan government and join an armed security watch to help the village fight the Taliban. Nabi won't commit. Eli isn't about to let him off so easily.
ELI: Okay, hey, is he ever going to come have lunch with me and the men?
NABI: (Through translator) He says I'm not sure, but I'll be there.
ELI: How about tomorrow so we can plan on it? At one 1:00?
Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)
BOWMAN: Sure enough, the next day, Nabi visits the American compound and says he'll join the armed community watch. It's one small victory for the Green Berets.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar province, Afghanistan.
BLOCK: There are photographs of American Green Berets and Afghan special forces on patrol in Kandahar province. That's at our website, NPR.org.