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In Afghanistan, as another fighting season nears, the NATO campaign is entering a new phase. NATO troops are handing their responsibilities over to the Afghans.
NPR's Sean Carberry recently embedded in Kandahar with U.S. troops in the midst of this transition. He found that for all the concern over the ability of Afghan forces to fight the Taliban, long-term security could depend on something more basic: The ability of local government to deliver services.
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SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: The fertile Arghandab Valley in Kandahar Province is considered one of Afghanistan's breadbaskets. But for years, it was a valley of death for NATO troops. Security has improved dramatically since the U.S. troop surge in 2010, but there are still Taliban hotspots tucked amid the small mountains overlooking the valley.
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CARBERRY: On a misty February morning, First Lieutenant Phillip Baki leads a platoon of U.S. Cavalry troops on a patrol up a steep peak.
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1ST LIEUTENANT PHILLIP BAKI: That hill is no fun.
CARBERRY: They're visiting the Afghan Police checkpoint overlooking the Dahla Dam.
BAKI: Every time we come out here, we try and get, you know, the general kind of atmosphere of what's going on at the checkpoint. And then try to talk to the commander, see what he's got planned.
CARBERRY: This particular checkpoint has a reputation for being under-resourced, and staffed by officers who don't always show up or spend the day smoking hashish. On this day, Abdul Karim, the second in command, is at the post and awake when the troops show up.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
ABDUL KARIM: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: He says things are fine and they have everything they need, which is hard to believe given the completely ramshackle appearance of the small outpost. It doesn't exactly project a commanding security presence in an area where the Taliban continues to operate.
BAKI: The eastern side of the river has been pretty much off limits since early December.
CARBERRY: Lieutenant Baki says insurgents plant so many improvised explosive devices there that Afghan and NATO troops can't patrol safely. But he says the western side of the Arghandab River is safe.
BAKI: The district chief of police for Shah Wali Kot District, he lives on the western side of the river. And his whole area has a very high concentration of the uniform police and the local police, so they patrol that area heavily because of his presence, really.
CARBERRY: It's a typical phenomenon in Afghanistan, security can vary wildly from one side of a hill or a river, to the other.
BAKI: The Taliban is able to move just on dirt bikes basically, and they move into these villages and they're, like, hey, we're staying here tonight and if you don't like it we'll kill you. So, you know, it's obviously an easy choice for these villagers.
CARBERRY: Lieutenant Baki says that's the crux of the issue: The insurgents rush in where the Afghan government doesn't tread. Now, troops like his are doing a lot less shooting and a lot more mentoring to boost the capacity of the Afghan government, or GIRoA, as it's called in military speak.
BAKI: It really is about reestablishing the GIRoA and ANSF presence on that side of the river, in order to give them that choice again - the choice to trust that the government is looking out for their best interests.
CARBERRY: Deputy Checkpoint Commander Abdul Karim agrees, but he says thirty years of fighting hasn't brought peace and stability.
KARIM: (Through Translator) The best way to bring security is if we help and serve the people. We should have more training on how to interact with the public so we can get more support from them.
CARBERRY: Again, the persistent lack of governance and service delivery in many areas has created a gap Taliban militants have been happy to fill. As the international community is drawing down both troops and financial aid, more and more Afghan officials are realizing they have to fill the gap.
And that realization is front and center at a large gathering at the district center in Shah Wali Kot. U.S. Special Forces are on hand, as officials from five different districts in Kandahar gather to discuss security and governance issues.
A handful of U.S. troops sit along the back wall of the room and listen to one Afghan after another talk about the need to deliver services to win over the people. The question on the minds of the troops is whether the Afghans can translate the talk into action.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: One of those troops is Captain Mike Cauldwell. He's the team leader for the civil affairs unit stationed at the small base next to the district center. His job is not to patrol or train Afghan troops, but to help build the capacity of the district government. This role is much different than his first tour in Afghanistan about five years ago.
CAPTAIN MIKE CAULDWELL: It was pre-surge and we were still doing a lot of stuff, and more focused on building stuff, whereas now we're trying to let their government do a lot of those development projects, through various funding sources that they have.
CARBERRY: But that's not an easy task, as there are few competent bureaucrats in these remote parts of the country. And many district officials still haven't figured out how to manage the process of getting resources from Kabul.
CAULDWELL: It can be difficult, especially since we've been here for 11 years and a lot of times, we've been doing stuff and leading the way on a lot of things. You know, they've been used to that and we're trying to get away from that.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL PAUL WEYRAUCH: We've provided for so long, now they've got to go get it.
CARBERRY: Lieutenant Colonel Paul Weyrauch is commander of the 2-3 Field Artillery Battalion. The 2-3 deployed in this district a couple of months ago and they are focusing on the transition to Afghan-led security and governance. Weyrauch says it's difficult to now tell the Afghans that after all these years of relying on U.S. troops for money and projects, they have to do it themselves.
WEYRAUCH: It's tough on them and it's tough on us because it's hard to know you've got a resource that you can't provide because of the rules. It's not because you physically don't have it. It's because of the rules. And in the long run it's definitely going to serve them well, but it certainly isn't easy.
CARBERRY: It's essentially a case of tough love with Afghan troops and government officials.
WEYRAUCH: Some understand that and some just haven't bought into it yet. They're like: If I ask enough times, they'll eventually give it to us.
OBIDULLAH POPULZAI: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: Obidullah Populzai is the district governor of Shah Wali Kot. He has bought into the new approach. He says he now reaches out to Kabul for support, rather than U.S. troops.
POPULZAI: (Through Translator) Unfortunately, ministers and officials from Kabul have been down here multiple times and they promised they would bring several projects, but so far, we have not seen results.
CARBERRY: He's currently paying a group of schoolteachers out of his own pocket because the Ministry of Education in Kabul isn't providing the funding he needs.
POPULZAI: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: He's frustrated because he wants to do more for the people and show them that the government can be trusted to deliver.
Colonel Weyrauch says long-term security will depend on the Afghan government seizing this opportunity. He's confident that the Afghan forces can do their part, so his main concern is making sure the government of Shah Wali Kot does its part, though he says it's just one small piece of the stability puzzle. If the other districts in Kandahar don't get it right, he says, then it's all for nothing.
Sean Carberry, NPR News
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