RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
This morning, we're going to visit a combat outpost in Afghanistan. It's an American base in what has long been Taliban territory, and this one small outpost is becoming a key test of the American war strategy for Afghanistan.
For the past two months, U.S. and Afghan forces have been sweeping through the villages, fields and orchards west of the city of Kandahar. They're operating out of small, mud compounds, like one NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman visited. He is with soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division. As Tom reports, the success or failure of these troops may determine whether the overall strategy for the war in Afghanistan is working.
TOM BOWMAN: Captain Davitt Broderick's command post is a two-story adobe house in Taliban country. The roof is a thicket of a wooden poles and sticks. There's a pile of straw in the corner, right across from a computer and a radio.
(Soundbite of dispatch)
BOWMAN: It's nighttime. The command post is almost pitch black, except for the dim light of flashlights and the glow from the computer screen. There's a reason for the secrecy. Just a few weeks ago, the Taliban lived under this roof. Broderick says they planted booby traps called IED's all around as a protective shield.
Captain DAVITT BRODERICK (U.S. Army; Commander, 101st Airborne Division): All up and down this route, there's probably 20 IED's, caches, IED-making materials. They left here in haste.
BOWMAN: What was that?
Capt. BRODERICK: Probably ANA shooting at somebody.
BOWMAN: The ANA, or Afghan National Army. There are 200 Afghan soldiers here, along with about 100 Americans serving with Bravo Company. Captain Broderick is the company commander. He's just 29, and this is his first tour in Afghanistan. The soldiers all swept in just two weeks ago in the dead of night, aboard massive Chinook helicopters. They rushed to set up small combat outposts and checkpoints.
Capt. BRODERICK: Now, we cleared our way up here, have our rod(ph) site here now. We've got two ANA checkpoints.
BOWMAN: And now these few hundred soldiers are being watched, and not just by the enemy, but by their bosses all the way up to General David Petraeus. That's because here in Panjwaii, nearly every part of the military strategy is being tested. First, there's a straightforward military mission: take the fight to the enemy.
Capt. BRODERICK: You know, this is where we were receiving - probably 90 percent of our small arms engagements were coming from this exact field right in here.
BOWMAN: The goal is to break up the key supply routes for the Taliban. It's here at Panjwaii that Taliban fighters and weapons move in, across a desert from Pakistan, and then are sent to threaten Kandahar, just 15 miles east of here.
When the American and Afghan troops swept in a couple of weeks ago, the Taliban shot back at first. Then, says Capt. Broderick, almost all of them vanished.
Capt. BRODERICK: But as far as the enemy goes, they don't - they're just here trying to harass...
BOWMAN: You said there were a few Taliban shooting at you, but do you have any sense where the rest of them went? Did they just scatter?
Capt. BRODERICK: To the south. Maybe where we're not at or displaced among the other area. You know, we've got every - people all around here trying to contain the area, but, you know, it's too easy for them to put down a gun and look like everybody else and go about their business.
BOWMAN: So, the Taliban have fled. The problem for Broderick is that nearly everybody else, the local Afghans, have also fled. This village is practically empty, which complicates a second big component of the American strategy: winning over the Afghan people. To do that, Captain Broderick and the others have to convince the people it's safe to come home.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
BOWMAN: The Americans did manage to get three dozen Afghan elders and villagers to come to a meeting, or shura, at the American compound. Some of them even brought their children. They begin with a prayer...
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
BOWMAN: ...then get down to business. Captain Broderick and the rest of the Americans stand in the background.
Colonel MUHAMMED RASOUD QANDAHARI (Afghan National Army): (Foreign language spoken)
BOWMAN: The speaker is a member of the Afghan National Army, the ANA. His name is Colonel Muhammed Rasoud Qandahari, and he's one of the top Afghan officers in this part of the country.
Col. QANDAHARI: (Foreign language spoken)
BOWMAN: The Afghan colonel's role here in Panjwaii is the third critical part of the American strategy. If American troops are ever to return home from Afghanistan, it will be because Afghan troops have taken their place.
Colonel Qandahari is a squat, bearded soldier. On his left hand, he wears a thick, gold ring. He was born nearby and fought the Soviets here back in the 1980s.
Col. QANDAHARI: (Through Translator) If the Afghan Army and police are here, it won't be a problem. The Taliban won't come back.
BOWMAN: The Afghan colonel may say won't be a problem. The Americans aren't so sure. While there are twice as many Afghan troops as Americans in Panjwaii, the Afghan are still not able to operate on their own.
Qandahari goes on to say that success here means more than just security. It's also about giving villagers a better life.
Mr. QANDAHARI: (Through translator) It depends on how much work you give to the people. If they get busy, if the roads are fixed, if there are clinics, if there are schools - it depends on things like that.
BOWMAN: Things like roads and schools. This is the final piece of the strategy being tested here in Panjwaii. Americans and Afghans have cleared the Taliban and are holding the ground. Now they have to build something: the Afghan people.
Captain Broderick points to a satellite map of Panjwaii up 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, the local bazaar.
Capt. BRODERICK: That was working out pretty well, and the idea was to expand east so that we can tie into the bazaar.
BOWMAN: He's briefing his boss, Lieutenant Colonel Rob Harman, who's just flown in from a U.S. base dozens of miles away. Colonel Harman wants to know whether this progress bringing people back to the bazaar.
Lieutenant Colonel ROB HARMAN (U.S. Army; Commander, 101st Airborne Division): You said the shops, there are, like, 18 shops are open?
Capt. BRODERICK: No, no, just one.
Lt. Col. HARMAN: OK.
Capt. BRODERICK: Just one shop's open right now, and the one shopkeeper there basically said that, yeah, the rest of them are afraid to open up.
BOWMAN: If the Americans and those Afghan troops can provide security, maybe villagers won't be afraid.
It all connects. If the villagers come back, there can be schools and clinics and a way to make a life. And if that happens, the Americans hope locals won't sign up with the Taliban.
Capt. BRODERICK: The couple of guys that were shooting at us, you know, they could be an active part of the society next year, if things go right.
BOWMAN: If things go right. As we left the compound and prepared to board a helicopter, gunfire rang out nearby.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar, Afghanistan.
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