ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
U.S. and Afghan troops are in the midst of a major operation to rid Kapisa province of the Taliban and other Islamist fighters. Kapisa's near the capital, Kabul. The Afghan general in charge is calling it New Year's hale. Hale, because they are raining down hard on the insurgents, and New Year, for the fervent hope that his men will bring an era of peace to the province. But even with a combined force that vastly outnumbers the insurgents, the Afghans and the Americans are learning that victory doesn't come easy.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson spent five days with the troops and has this report.
Major BILL MEYER(ph) (Army National Guard): Any vandal element, this is dominion five, over.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: That's Army National Guard Major Bill Meyer from Alpena, Michigan, better known as Stone Cold Bill for his calm demeanor. But he is dripping sweat on this sweltering day as he tries to round up Afghan police officers for a raid.
Maj. MEYER: We're just outside of Elisay village. And this morning, the A.N.A. went on in a patrol and then they saw a guy with the weapons stashed into a house. They started searching the houses, and then they found out that one of the houses was a Taliban commander's house. So now we're going to search more of the house because we only have five police this morning.
Vandal four-six, this is dominion five, over.
NELSON: Meyer starts off. He's accompanied by a dozen Afghan police officers and American soldiers. Their destination is the Taliban house, where another batch of Afghan police officers has already gathered. Meyer and his men hurried deep into the village of mud homes that for years has harbored insurgents. Children peer curiously at the Westerners from behind locks. A woman washing clothes in a stream covers her face with her headscarf and turns away, alarmed by the male strangers. By the time the patrol reaches the Taliban leader's compound, it's too late. The other police patrol has gone. An interpreter breaks the news to Meyer.
Unidentified Man #1: They all went this way to the road.
Maj. MEYER: To the road?
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.
Maj. MEYER: They probably drove out. Oh, well. Apparently, they got done searching early. That's okay.
NELSON: Meyer says another U.S. Afghan patrol will search the compound again later. The group heads back to their Ford Rangers donated to the Afghan police by the United States. Meyer is part of an operation that is reopening the volatile Tagab Valley to the Afghan government and Western coalition. The valley - only 30 miles from Kabul - is rifed with timber and drug smugglers and insurgents. The insurgents are Taliban fighters and gunmen loyal to warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Officials say some of them appeared to be Pakistani and Uzbeki based on their accents. Most of these insurgents return to Tagab soon after U.S. Special Forces and Afghan troops drove them out last year. Some of the fighters caught in this operation were ordered release by the new governor of Kapisa province where this operation is taking place.
Virtually, every man in this valley has a gun. What the people here 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 complain that they want new roads, clinics and schools like those that are springing up in other parts of Kapisa province. They say, here, some of their schools had been taken over by the military to stage their operation.
Abdul Fatawh, an elder from Sufia village.
Mr. ABDUL FATAWH (Resident, Sufia village): (Through translator) We used to have one battalion of Afghan soldiers here, and now we have a brigade. All that brings us is violence.
NELSON: Fatawh and others believe they are being punished by the new government because their valley was loyal to the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan. Much of 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 of which there is none in the Tagab Valley.
Governor GHOLAM GHAUS (Tagab Valley, Afghanistan): (Through translator) Your complaints are valid. I've heard them for years. But you - like everybody else - are residents of this province and the responsibility for making this place safe rests with you.
NELSON: 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 tact. 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 Lieutenant Colonel Paul MacKenzie of Benicia, California, who advises the Afghan general heading this operation.
Lieutenant Colonel PAUL MacKENZIE (Army National Guard): The Taliban and the HIG have the boots on the ground. They've got the presence. That's what we need to do because 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.
NELSON: MacKenzie says that means getting the Afghan forces into villages permanently, not only for security, but as envoys of their government who bring aid. Like when Army National Guard Major Nick Fleischman, a tough-as-nails former police officer from Fresno, California, accompanied Afghan soldiers to a girls' school in a nearby village to hand out paper, pens and candy donated by his friends back home. Fleischman, who has nine children, says it makes all the difference for American and Afghan soldiers to connect with the locals this way.
Major NICK FLEISCHMAN (Army National Guard): That's really the key to the future of this country is 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 that the people know that there is a government in Kabul and that their life can be brought up from where it's at now.
NELSON: But first, the Tagab Valley has to be made safe. That's foremost on American and Afghan troops' minds as they travel on the single road here. On this morning, Afghan soldiers riding in pickups stop every few minutes. They are searching for IEDs, explosive laden shells often detonated by cell phone.
Marine Lieutenant Dwayne Simms(ph) monitors their progress from his Humvee.
Lieutenant DWAYNE SIMMS (U.S. Marine): Do you see the guy with the minesweeper? He's sweeping the areas that are most likely to have a IED, whereas this (unintelligible) over here right in front of us on the side of the road is another place they like to plug them. So the dismounts would go out, and they'll look for the telltale signs of IEDs. They'll look for the detonation cord. They'll look for stuff like this color. And they'll also double-check all the likely areas.
NELSON: Mountains alongside the road are equally dangerous. One stretch called ambush alley had this Army National Guard team on alert. Their exchange is captured inside the Humvee headphones.
Unidentified Man#2: Gunner six. Keep your eyes trained to the right hill. Just received a couple of pops right down here at the bottom of the right hill here.
Unidentified Man#3: Roger.
Unidentified Man#2: (Unintelligible).
NELSON: The guardsmen and their Afghan police escort make it through without incident. They are hauling a portable police post, 50 of which are to go up alongside the dirt road to interrupt the insurgent supply line.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, in the Tagab Valley.